September 1, 1902
directed by Georges Méliès
Our first film finds its history already in progress. Let us tell then, our story so far. This story begins in Paris, France after the Revolution. This Revolution was an entirely unprecedented event in that it was an attempt to destroy and recreate an entire society, relying on neither of the providence of the One Most High nor any more concrete idolatry. It also took place in Paris, capital of the dominant nation of Europe. The Industrial Revolution, a separate revolution entirely, brought with it strange new substances and processes, the materials for which were available to anyone who could afford them.
The medium of photography first proliferated in the 1840s, and made the traditional visual art of painting, which aimed at lifelike representation of nature, totally ridiculous. Painting remained ridiculous until a wealthy man named Gustave Courbet started painting huge canvasses of obscene and mundane phenomena. He and his band of realists depicted everyday life in Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, developing more and more complex works. The newly-revived art of painting came to a climax when Édouard Manet unveiled Le Bain to the stunned (pleasantly) audience of the Salon des Refusés in 1863. Modernism was born.
The Second French Empire flourished artistically, but geopolitically, its position was dire. Paris was besieged and humiliated by the German Empire in 1870. Germany was now the Dominant Nation of Europe. The French Third Republic that was formed afterward soon became dominated by progressive politics. Republicans won the 1876 elections and eliminated the chance of a return to monarchy and paved the way for further radicalization, in what was now becoming a French tradition of revolutionary politics. Émile Zola led a campaign in 1898 to free Alfred Dreyfus, leading to his complete exoneration and a public triumph for the new left coalition.
Radical Left politics, in Paris as well as in America, Germany, and Britain, reformed society by creating a middle class, with mandatory secular education and vast swaths of leisure time. Left with blank time but still surrounded by the unceasing repetitive activity of mechanization, all of the classes were looking for new, cheaper, or more intense diversions of pleasure. Photography became better, meaning the necessary exposure time became shorter, and it created a high quality, reproducible, picture of reality. In the 1870s it became possible to shoot photographs in quick succession and use a device to look at them in that same quick succession. Thomas Edison, using the perspiration of his laboratory, the shrewd and merciless enforcements of his patent law, and the genius of W.K.L. Dickson, brought forth the Kinetoscope, but there were many others working on the same idea. The elements were all there, waiting to be fused into moving pictures.
Developments were kept secret, but small viewings were granted to well-connected people. In 1894 the Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York with peep show machines that offered ten films, a few seconds each, charging fifty cents to see them all. Of these films, I heartily recommend the boxing matches, Leonard-Cushing Fight and Corbett and Courtney before the Kinetograph. Gentleman Jim Corbett looks wonderful, asscheeks bare, playfully torturing the underdog Courtney with a mocking smile for the entirety of the extant footage. You must also watch Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s), which is exactly as it sounds, but not nearly enough of it.
Three days after Christmas 1895, the Lumière brothers projected ten movies for an audience. Admission was one franc (on the gold standard, this pegged to twenty-one cents) for the entire program. In the first film, La sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon, the film company leaves work for the day, everyone walks in their own direction, dogs wander in and out of the frame, tails wagging. There are three versions of this film extant, successive takes of a single rehearsed scene. They are all undoubtedly real workers at the Lumière factory. Is this fakery? There’s certainly much truth to the film. These people do work at this factory, and are going to go home, once the shoot has finished. La Pêche aux poissons rouges features a bourgeois child, who, supported by an adult, plays with a fishbowl. Our attention is captured by the water, which when disturbed by the child sparkles with light. Subtle movements of nature are captured in a way impossible with still photography or primitive motion picture devices like the zoetrope. In Les forgerons, the blacksmiths’ hammering generates clouds of vapor which trail in wisps as they evaporate, their shadows visible on the wall behind them. We see a depiction of the already classic slapstick gag where an timpish child steps on a hose and tricks a gardener into spraying his own face with cold water. They chase each other on and off set, and the gardener eventually administers a spanking. The trickster is punished. This is the only time that we approach something we could consider a narrative event in this program – a single strand of a story. In the final film of the program, La mer, we are left with the silver shades of the sea, dominating the entire frame. Boys take turns leaping into the water and running out. Magickal.
There were thirty people in the audience that night, and one of them was Georges Méliès, a magician who owned a theater in Paris. Méliès, along with two associates, engineered their own film projector, and by June 1896 they were making their own films. Right from the start, Méliès’ productions are utterly different. That year he made Une nuit terrible, Le manoir de diable, and Le cauchemar, the first horror films. His repetoire expanded in 1897 with Les Dernières Cartouches, La prise de Tournavos, and Combat naval en Grèce. These movies depicted contemporary events for those who wanted to experience the lives of others. They were the first political films. With these two methods, the horror and the political, Méliès confronts the fundamental questions of the new electric power of cinema.
Lumière’s movies, though technically innovative and visually lovely, never depict any event that could not be depicted by a modern painter. Indeed, many of the Impressionist methods of painting are meant expressly to evoke the subtle movements of nature’s continuous display. Méliès, in his fantastic mode, uses the motion picture camera to display impossible and unsettling acts. Crawling insects, poltergeists, and a smiling full moon terrorize the pantomiming actors who run around the immobile frame. 1898’s Le Reve D’un Astonome begins with a scene of the astronomer pacing his room, frustrated with his telescope, but cuts immediately to show the moon suddenly giant, in the room, devouring everything in sight. Its eyes, brows, and mouth move wildly, and it is legitimately frightening. As suddenly as it appeared it retreats, continuing to occupy the center of the frame, and the astronomer resumes his frustrated pacing. A fairy appears but then vanishes. The moon consumes the astronomer and vomits a dark material, before the poor man finally wakes up to his observatory, just as it was in the first shot. The abrupt editing of sequences of filmed material ruptures the continuity of time and space and allows any kind of demons or magick to rush in and fill the world. This is the editing of the dream, projected neatly onto the eyes of a mass audience. It’s not mere horror but rather a fantasy that delights in the suffering of the onscreen victim, while simultaneously being frightened by the experience.
In his political mode, Méliès re-enacts current events and shows us important happenings in foreign lands. In 1898 Méliès released his most ambitiously political work, the eleven-part L’affaire Dreyfus. In a series of single-shot, minute-long films, we see the arrest, degradation, and court martial of Dreyfus. These films, which depict current events taking place little more than 300 kilometers away, could surely claim to be realistic representations, but how do these movies change our thoughts about the entire affair, as it stands as a historical event?
Méliès combines the two modes in Jeanne D’Arc. Our political event is now half a millennium old, and the image’s claim to authenticity is more questionable. The special effects are everywhere. Puffs of smoke, ghostly visions, endlessly circling troops marching to war. Our end is a grand climax. Joan is tied to the stake and disappears in an enveloping cloud of smoke. The final shot shows Méliès’ vision of heaven, where Joan arrives in saintly splendor.
The film that primarily concerns us here, Le voyages dans la lune, is a decisive move toward the fantastic. This film, which should be watched with the original color-painted frames and Air soundtrack, is pure science fiction. Despite this classification, our first shot is three minutes of a professor and his classroom. All of them are armed with telescopes that become stools, and Persian cone magician hats. They gesticulate wildly, and one magician disagrees especially violently with the teacher. This is clearly a political event, and the single continuous, slowly-changing shot shows us politics on the ground, important men in the act of deciding something. Should we go to the moon? The answer is yes. The moon, which has taunted Méliès on screen for six years, shall be conquered. The astronomers go to the roof, where in blazes of steam they cheer the progress of science, and fire at the moon, now a tiny globe in the upper right of the screen. We see the moon gradually approach, until the rocket lands in Luna’s right eye, with a giant splash of red. They watch the earthrise from the craggy surface, and promptly fall asleep to have the most disorienting sleep possible for a man.
In the dream shared by our moonmen, the divinities are seen in their celestial bodies, and they wake up to a shower of lunar dust. The next day they encounter the Selenites. They vaporize one, but are captured by the others. Led into an the royal court, whose temple is emblazoned with crescents and other occult symbols, they attack the sovereign, and manage to kill a few more in the chase back to the rocket. They splashdown and are received as heroes in a parade. Spiraling circles hang as street side decorations. The film ends with a dance number. The colony has been won.
Méliès continued his career with more intersections of the political and fantastic, but was unable to profit from pirated editions of his films. By the time of the war, he was finished. Later portions of his life are reimagined in Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2007. He is our first artist, and the next 999 movies on this blog all operate in the artistic sphere that Méliès invented.