As George Eastman House celebrates “Oscars® week” – culminating with the annual party this Sunday eve – we also celebrate our motion-picture collections and shine a spotlight on the ones that relate to this year’s nominees.
We have two close ties to the film Hugo, as its Oscar®-nominated director, Martin Scorsese, preserves his personal film collection of several thousand titles at Eastman House. And alongside those films are those of Georges Méliès (1861-1938), the filmmaker at the center of the Hugo storyline.
Eastman House holds one of the largest Méliès collections in the world, with 60 different Méliès titles across 129 elements, including production stills created under Méliès’ direction. The films includes Voyage dans la lune, the title that plays such an important role in Hugo, as well as preservations of titles, such as La Danse du feu (The Dance of Fire), Les Fromages automobiles (The Skipping Cheeses), Tom Tight et Dum-Dum, and Voyage à travers l’impossible (An Impossible Voyage).
Scene from ‘Voyage dans la lune’
And, further, the Eastman House’s senior curator of motion pictures, Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, is an expert on the work of Méliès, producing a book and exhibition on his work in the 1990s.
In the book A Trip to the Movies (George Eastman House, 1991), Cherchi Usai noted Méliès has a reputation among film specialists as an “author” in the strongest sense of the word, as well as the “creator of the motion picture performance,” according to Louis Lumière’s definition.
Georges Méliès was a professional magician trained in classic 18th-century theater. He first saw the new “moving pictures” in 1895, as presented by the Lumière Brothers. Soon after Méliès was filming and projecting his own creations, using stop-motion photography to incorporate visual effects and using techniques such as the fade-in, the fade-out plus the dissolve to create the first real narrative films. For this he has been regarded “the father of special effects.”
It is believed Méliès made more than 500 films and, when he put film production behind him, reportedly destroyed many of the originals. Yet, his films were monumental stepping stones for future filmmakers, such as D.W. Griffith, who said of Méliès, “I owe him everything.”
“Méliès constitutes an unprecedented case in film historiography with relevance going far beyond the chronological boundaries of the so called ‘silent period,” Cherchi Usai wrote. “Méliès indeed discovered a new vehicle for aesthetic expression, long before cinema realized it, but he was also the standard-bearer for an individualistic conception of filmmaking.”
A rediscovery of Méliès’ “lost” films was cause for celebration in recent decades.
The Pordenone Silent Film Festival, of which Cherchi Usai was a founder, presented in 1989 the world premiere of the restored Méliès film Le Chevalier Mystère (1899), which had been found in the vaults of George Eastman House.
“The screening was met with a standing ovation and newspaper reports used words such as ‘genius,’ ‘tiny jewel,’ and ‘one-minute masterpiece’ to describe 80-feet of film that had been saved under mediocre conditions and, given the state of the nitrate print, reprinted in the best manner allowed by current technology,” wrote Cherchi Usai.
Scene from ‘Le Chevalier Mystère’
Within a few years of the invention of film, Méliès “was coping with its possibilities and limitations, evidencing an attitude that will later become typical of artists like Cecil B. DeMille, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick: striving for absolute control of the moving image, for demiurgic power over the photographic reproduction of the visible world,” Cherchi Usai said. “Even today, it is hard to understand how Méliès, with the relatively fundamental technical resources at his disposal, could produce narrative mechanisms and optical illusions of such complexity: six or seven multiple exposures on a single strip of film; characters that multiply themselves and then ‘talk’ to their double with perfectly timed labial movements, pauses, changes of backdrops, and substitutions of objects.
“… The mind perceives the spectacle as an explosion of fireworks, with stories, digressions, and implied references, instead of sparkles. Instinctively, these images, previously labeled ‘primitive,’ become ‘up-to-date.’ Having been painstakingly saved by film archivists and slowly absorbed into the logic of the cultural ‘condition,’ early cinema has now become an indicator of modernity.”