The films of Georges Méliès are testosterone for surrealists. In 2008 Flicker Alley and the esteemed Blackhawk films released The First Wizard of Cinema, a mammoth 5 disc, thirteen hour collection of Méliès’ surviving films. It was the DVD event release of several years. In 2010, the same forces have released a supplemental collection of 26 newly discovered shorts, aptly entitled “Encore”.
Understandably, this is not the event from two years ago, but it is an essential, released addition in the appreciation of Méliès’ unique art. Contemporary viewers with preconceived notions of the term “film” may be thrown off by the aesthetic mindset from a turn of the century experimental filmmaker. Get over it and don’t look for narrative in the post-Edwin S. Porter sense of the word. There is much to savor here when transported into Méliès’ very different world.
First, there are two films here that were at one time mistakenly attributed to Méliès, but were in fact directed by the Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon in the Méliès style (he was often compared to Méliès). Chomon, who worked for the smae company as Méliès (Pathe), specialized in color tinting and “The Rose Magician” (1906), with its washy blues, yellows, streams of flowers and painted backdrops, including a giant seashell, exudes a heady, exotic nouveau flavor. “Excursion to the Moon” (1908) is clearly a homage to Méliès’ famous “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). Sublime golds, oranges, pinks, greens and blues permeate “Excursion”. Chomon beautifully utilizes snowy imagery, sleep, mushrooms, space rockets, explosions and a snow covered face in the moon, which has to be seen to be believed. Taking nothing from Méliès, the two Chomon shorts may be the most significant discoveries in this collection.
As for the actual Méliès pictures, “The Haunted Castle” (1896), which is not related to Poe, begins in a castle set with a bat (on strings, of course) that transforms into the Devil himself (complete with horns and costume which looks like it was bough from L.S. Ayres). Old Nick waves his hand and a giant cauldron appears. He follows this with some black magic business, summoning forth a servant and a maiden, who emerges form the cauldron, then quickly disappears. The servant, then the cauldron, then the Devil himself all disappear. Two talking gentlemen come into the castle. The servant and the devil briefly reappear for a second and the two men begin quarreling. One man flees the castle. The remaining gentleman gets startled by a skeleton which appears from nowhere, transforms back into the bat, then into the Devil. Three ghosts appear to torment the man. These ghosts then transform into the maiden, then into five ghosts who do a ritualistic dance with brooms. Finally the gentleman grabs a giant crucifix from nowhere and chases off the devil. The end. And this gives a good indication of what to expect from a Méliès film.
“An Hallucinated Alchemist” (1897) is surreal and hand tinted. It features a very tired wizard, a giant slinky snake puppet which transforms into a jester, and then into a weird, orange ghost face with the body of a spider in a web, then into a pink ballerina. The wizard’s lab starts exploding and a ghost appears as the fatigued, fed up wizard flees.
“On the Roof” (1897) has a beautifully painted Paris rooftop set and involves some slapstick, while “Sea Fighting in Greece” (1897) has an equally beautifully painted set of a boat and a cannon.
“Off to Bloomingdale Asylum” (1901) features a carriage with a skeletal horse and black face painted minstrels occupants who become clowns for a quick second, then turn back into black faced minstrels again, back into clowns, back into minstrels, etc. They dance, kick each other, morph into one fat minstrel and explode!
Méliès himself appears in “The Prolific, Magical Egg” (1901) and, to no surprise, performs some magic acts with an egg. The egg becomes a face, then a woman’s head, then three female heads and then back to the egg. Méliès becomes a skeleton.
“The Eruption of Mt. Pele” (1902) has an erupting volcano and a city scape that look like they might have been painted by El Greco. The cardboard sets of an island and a fort highlight “Robinson Caruso” (1902). A fragment of the overly familiar story is sort of there. “Every Man Has His Own Cigar” (1904) is about two seconds longs and shows an amusing looking bearded old man lighting a cigar.
Despite what we would understandably view as a blatantly anti-Semitic tone, “The Wandering Jew” (1904) is aesthetically, a stand-out and has narration added by Méliès later. The expressionistic cardboard shore of the Dead Sea is vividly juxtaposed against the stereotypical, cursed Jew, forced to wander throughout eternity for having refused water to the suffering Christ. The ghostly image of Christ, followed by nuns as he carries his cross on the way to Calvary, fills the painted sky, tormenting the forever wandering Jew. The forest set is even more vivid. Satan appears in the forest and beats the Jew with his own staff when the wanderer stops for a rest. An angle appears and points the way onward, ever onward. The last expressionist set of a hillside is filled with lightning as the Wanderer presses forward in his never ending journey.
“The Christmas Angel” (1904) also features narration added later and feels like a filmed, reverential Hallmark card. “A Mesmerian Experiment” (1904) is another hand-painted experiment, in washy colors, and features a bevy of dancing girls who look like they might be auditioning for the Ziegfeld follies (even though that was not to come for another three years).
“The Mysterious Island” (1905) has superbly painted sets of jagged rocks, narration, and resembles something slightly akin to the story of Ulysses and Calypso.
“The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship” (1905) is tinted and is as charming as the title suggests. A Jules Verne-like flying airship soars the skies with floating mermaids before out of control fireworks put an end to the crazy inventor’s dreams.
“Robert Macaire and Bertrand” (1906) is a very French chase melodrama that follows the misadventures of two charmed thieves. The film has a great train set and an earthquake in the village square. Collapsing buildings propel our heroes into an extremely surreal flight in the air over Paris rooftops. With an escape in a hot air balloon, one might wonder, what more could 1906 audiences want?
“The Spider and the Butterfly” (1908) exudes more nouveau flavor with costumes, props, sets, tints and 1908 effects, which include a woman turning into an erotic spider while swaying in a giant web. “The Diabolical Church Window” (1911) is memorable with its monochromatic yellow tints and a plethora of strange window patterns.
The original First Wizard collection of Méliès (buy) is an absolute must. This collection is an equally essential encore. Bravo.