Méliès The Magician (DVD)
Turn-of-the-century French filmmaker Georges Méliès was not unlike art designers of the present, who often start their careers by experimenting with every effect that Photoshop has to offer. The difference is that Méliès invented his effects. According to legend, a jammed camera and a busy Paris street led Méliès to discover time-lapse photography. Later, he played with multiple exposures, fade-ins and fade-outs, and the deceptive stage tricks that he learned in his years as a touring magician. Méliès made hundreds of short films for exhibition at fairs and his own vaudeville theater, but an extended bout of poverty and itinerancy led him to destroy his stock, leaving only a handful of existing prints of his most popular pieces, like the landmark science-fiction mini-epic A Trip To The Moon. Looking at these beat-to-hell, gimmicky, crudely realized strips of film now, what's striking is how much fun Méliès seemed to have with his effects. He not only reproduced himself seven times over to create an orchestra of Mélièses, but he also engaged his selves in spirited dancing and horseplay, always with broadly joyous expressions and a showman's flair. The 15 shorts on the DVD Méliès The Magician run in a sequence, with introductions and occasional comments by the late auteur's granddaughter, Madeline Malthête-Méliès. The shorts represent an actual program, Méliès' Magic Show, which was shown to a live audience with piano accompaniment. Though Malthête-Méliès' comments are periodically intrusive, the films themselves remain boisterous and funny, and still clever 100 years after their creation. In addition to the hour of shorts, Méliès The Magician includes 1997's two-hour documentary The Magic Of Méliès, directed by French film historian Jacques Meny. The documentary is overly dry at times, and it's been ordered with a confusing disregard for chronology: Meny addresses nearly all of Méliès' cinematic career before doubling back to relate anecdotes from his youth. The most effective scenes show how Méliès had certain films hand-tinted, or how he learned to cut his time-lapse tricks in mid-motion so as to better fool the eye, or how his elaborate studio (recreated in miniature for The Magic Of Méliès) was designed to house the meticulous stage-dressing which aided his illusions. Méliès went a long way for his modest effects, but his giddy experimentation and blatant theatricality are what make his trifling amusements so infectious, even today. His visionary movies show all the enthusiasm of a 13-year-old playing with a new camcorder.