Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Melies: Macabre Magician
Of the 500 or so films produced in stage magician and pioneering film-maker Georges Melies' career, only 90 survive, and only a quarter are fit for exhibition.
Melies, third son of a shoe manufacturer, is best known for his famous early science fiction film, "A Trip to the Moon," the style and sensibilities of which were most recently resurrected by the Smashing Pumpkins in their video for "Tonight, Tonight."
But watching a collection of his movies acquired through Netflix, I'm amazed at how many of Melies' movies touch on elements of the diabolical, the supernatural and the ghostly.
According to Adherents.com's "The Religious Affiliation of Director Georges Melies," "phantasmagoria, fantasy and the macabre were major thematic elements" of his work -- a fact that shows clearly in the shorts I watched, and apparently in many more of his films.
His worlds are filled time and time again with devils, spirits, monsters and even the Archfiend himself, most often played by Melies as a gleeful, capering force of mayhem, mischief and (at times) erotic temptation.
The fantastic abounds. In an adaptation of the story of "Bluebeard," the shades of the famous wife-killer's conquests stand in diaphanous accusation. Mephistopheles parades through an inordinate number of the pictures, Melies' frentic, grinning mug displaying a look of utter joy at his diablerie. The world is turned topsy-turvey as a mysterious boarder unpacks -- and later, re-packs -- a seemingly bottomless trunk with everything from furnishings to his perfect little family. A mad scientist interacts with a disembodied head, inflating it until it explodes. Considering his pioneering status in the world of film, some of these exercises in cinematic experimentation continue to amaze.
In addition to his own recurring role as the devil, Melies was apparently obsessed with depictions of women as bastions of goodness or tempestuous icons.
Adherents.com, quoting page 106 of "Marvelous Melies," written by Hammond, calls his overall philosophy "Manichean," his works filled with two types of women - angels and temptresses:
"Women are everything to Melies; they are objects of contemplation and externalisations of desire. They can appear from nowhere to change places with flowers, caterpillars, skeletons, coins, bits of paper, ghosts, marble, soap bubbles, their doubles, playing cards, clocks, veils, Jesus Christ, Satan, and being privileged beings, with Geoges Melies himself."
Seductive women appear as "ghosts and succubi, the seven deadly sins, as the devil's agents, and as Satan," Hammond says. Further horrific elements grace some of his other works, from prancing skeletons to what some regard as early visions of the latter-day vampire film.
Melies draws freely on folklore, history and legend, from 1906's "The Merry Frolics of Satan," which Hammond says is a variation on the Faust legend, to stories of the Wandering Jew, Joan of Arc, and the Temptation of St. Anthony.
A variety of classic horror tropes appear in his works, such as in "The Bewitched Inn," featuring a traveler frightened when his own clothing comes to life. M.R. James' seminal ghost story, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" deals with a similar spook in a similar setting.
His film "Le Manoir du Diable" is apparently regarded by many as one of the first vampire films. In it, the devil enters a creepy castle in the form of a bat and is later dispatched by a cross-wielding crusader. I haven't seen that one, unfortunately, and I can't find it online. But here are a few enjoyable shorts via YouTube for your viewing pleasure:
The Infernal Cauldron
The Infernal Cake-Walk
The Black Imp
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