21 January 2011

The Inventions of George Méliès

I trekked out to Queens last weekend for a screening of George Méliès shorts at the newly reopened Museum of the Moving Image. The French filmmaking pioneer—a former magician and toymaker—created some of the earliest "special effects" in film. His most famous film is probably A Trip to the Moon (1902) in which a space shuttle lands smack dab in the eye of the man in the moon. What was surprising in rewatching the film was how some of Méliès' concepts seemed to foresee modern space travel, from the shape of the capsule to the landing in the ocean on the return to Earth (but the insect-like creatures they encounter on the moon, not so much). 

Of the four films shown that afternoon, my favourite was The Conjurer (1899). Running just shy of a minute, the film presents a magician performing some tricks with the help of his assistant. It's wonderfully whimsical and fun. It also shows a keen understanding by Méliès of how to manipulate film in order to present illusion. The films were accompanied by Sxip Shirey who provided live music.

A wall of stars. Photo: Michele.

This was my first visit to the museum, which has been closed for the past two years for renovations. The older part of the museum is housed in what was originally a Paramount studio. I stopped for a moment to think about the fact that Valentino had made movies where I stood and then got on with viewing the permanent exhibit "Behind the Screen." While not particularly large, it does a decent job of explaining basic aspects of film making to the lay person as well as showing off articles from film history, including costumes, wigs, and fake noses. I especially liked the wall of stars that greets you as you enter (Louise Brooks' portrait is near the bottom) and the collection of silent film memorabilia on display (of course). 

The museum has some great film screenings planned for the coming months so if you're in the area you should check their calendar. In the meantime, if you haven't watched any of Méliès' films, many can be found online or on DVD. 

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