“Come and Dream With Me”: Magic Science With George Méliès

*Author’s Note:
There’s very little verified documentation of George Méliès’ own words. All quotes listed, with one noted exception, are from Martin Scorsese’ 2011 Hugo, a loose biopic on Méliès.

Planetariums make for awkward movie theatres. I used to be terrified of them, but I was terrified of a lot, so that was on brand. Something about sitting reclined and having the entire universe suddenly surround you creates a special kind of existential crisis though. These spaces are usually reserved for a specific type of film, one designed for that theatre. The film may not even play on a different planetarium projector, because it’s created with certain measurements and laser capacities in mind. Your typical movie theatre doesn’t come with any laser capacities, unfortunately, which is what makes planetariums so conceptually appealing. It’s why many of these special space amphitheatres reopen for adult audiences after their respective museum has closed, putting on special light shows for famous albums like “Dark Side of the Moon”. It’s also worth noting that a film shown in a regular movie theatre cannot be shown on a planetarium screen, and vice versa, because these venues come with different formats and intentions. One is often branded as an educational tool, or the museum’s highlight exhibition that is there to distract, overwhelm, and ultimately teach children about space and planets. Amplify the excitement a Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993-1999) episode gets in your average class by about three and that’s a planetarium. The differences between these spaces, the planetarium and a typical movie theatre, incidentally parallels a broad discussion which began with the invention of the camera; what is the purpose of film?

Initially, the complex debate was broken into two parties, those who argue that the camera is a tool, a scientific method to measure and record the world, and those who argue that it is an art form, capable of storytelling and artistic merit. The first party was largely composed of scientists and artists, mainly people who felt that pointing a camera at something didn’t constitute ‘art’ because there was no ‘skill’ involved. One doesn’t need decades of training to take a picture or record something, unlike sculpting or painting, the schools of which have existed for hundreds of years. The camera is comparatively new, and so its emergence in the early 19th century, then the later the motion picture camera, created equal wonder and terror. Whereas one group argued it was a supplementary tool to prove or illustrate something, others argued it was something unto itself, like art. No one quite understood what to do with the camera, some even viewed it as a transgression against God, who they believed should be the only one capable of such an eye. Movies and photographs are a bit like time travel, as it’s being able to see in exact detail what was in front of the camera, from how people looked and moved to eventually how they spoke.

“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around; this is where they’re made.”

There was also overlap within this discussion, of filmmakers and photographers who measured but either viewed those measurements in artistic ways, or posthumous became known as artists. Take someone like Eadweard Muybridge, who along with his own insane personal life, which I highly recommend reading about in Kevin Kerr’s play Studies in Motion (2008), believed that the camera could measure and slow down movement beyond human perception, making the camera almost God-like. He argued that a horse’s legs would at one point be fully suspended above the ground while running, making this run move like a leap or prance. By setting up a row of cameras and later running the photos in succession in a device called the zoopraxiscope, similar to stop-motion, Muybridge was able to prove this was true, as in one picture you can clearly see that the horse is suspended. Fun fact, Jordan Peele’s upcoming film, Nope (2022), focuses on the ancestors of this horse rider, the unnamed black man who is in these photos, drawing attention to the history of film, the need to measure life (possibly relating to the film’s aliens), and to the unnamed man who viewers have ignored, which becomes a broader commentary about why he was unnamed and how that might relate to blackness and race in film as a whole. The film is not released yet, but it’s interesting to see this clip open the film’s trailer, and I am curious to see how the rest of the film continues to develop this reference.

Another strange overlap in this conversation arose when religion entered, as while some authorities viewed film as blasphemous, others viewed it as a sacred rendering. I have already written about Victorian post-mortem photography, but it is worth mentioning here. It occurred around the same time certain investigators were trying to take pictures of victim’s pupils to see if the eye also worked like a camera and had somehow recorded the victim’s last moment. It didn’t, but how cool would it have been if it had? Like that enhance scene in Blade Runner (1982), but with a picture of dead person’s pupil. Again, this treats photography, and by extension film, as a tool but also as an otherworldly storyteller that holds some power or information that one has to find rather than be told. It also proves that the lines between science/tool and story/art have always been a bit blurred, causing further discussion, as there is an inherent fantastic quality to recording science but likewise an inherent science to movie magic and storytelling. All of this to say that my favourite overlap took on a literal form when my local planetarium did a screening of Georges Méliès’ work, the famous French illusionist and film director. A place typically reserved for science and learning became a place of spectacular cinema magic, the very overlap that Méliès enjoyed.

“Leave the profit to the capitalist buyer and merchants, but leave the glory to the director, if it’s not too much to ask.” – Méliès

You may be familiar with Méliès, he is one of the most renowned directors of the late 19th to early 20th century. Martin Scorsese even made a film about his work and legacy, called Hugo (2011), which was my first exposure to Méliès’ incredible collection. Hugo is a fictional biopic, where Méliès is a character and the film explains who he is and why his work is so influential, but does so by focusing on fictional characters to frame Méliès’ backstory. Many of the events in the film happened, but rather than telling these events from Méliès’ perspective, the film follows a young boy named Hugo, who becomes the audience’s surrogate, which is the only proper way to deal with the immense impact Méliès’ work left. There is always this necessary outsider perspective to it, because Méliès’ films are a magic show, and Scorsese never wants to fully reveal all his tricks, instead wanting to capture how magic Méliès’ films feel for audiences, sort of continuing the magic rather than dissecting it, which is what I aim to do here as well. I could close read Méliès’ films, and perhaps I will at some point, but it’s not something I am particularly interested in doing right now, as I worry that might change the way I view them. There are certain figures where this feels necessary, I know some of my favourite biopics, including Velvet Goldmine (1998), operate from this standpoint. They acknowledge that it is impossible to truly represent a figure who means something different and personal to every individual. Rather than trying to please everyone, they take one outsider perspective, and hope that the audience will find themselves in that instead of this celebrated and immense figure, one who is ultimately impossible to truly capture in an ‘accurate’ light because that ‘accurate’ is far too varied.

Some background is necessary with Méliès, and if you are looking for a fantastic introduction, I highly recommend Hugo. On that note, Méliès began as a magician, who was well celebrated along with his second wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, who acted as his assistant and later starred in plenty of his roughly 500 films, 200 of which still exist. Méliès became obsessed with the camera after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere Brother’s Cinematograph, although the invention’s capabilities were at the time being largely dismissed, even by its inventors. They refused to sell one to Méliès, and advised him it was a tool for science, while maintaining that they wanted to oversee the device and its productions. He ignored this and instead built his own camera, combining it with techniques he had learned as a magician to create some of the most wonderous and strange films ever made. On camera, these tricks and special effects were seamless, not necessarily to modern audiences, but still. Méliès proved that film was an artistic and powerful storyteller, just as he was, but off camera, he proved it was equally scientific. Méliès was an engineer, he built the sets, he designed the tricks with great attention, and was meticulous with every element of his films. He even built automatons, like the one which allegedly appeared in the now lost Gugusse and the Automaton (1897) film, which incidentally was one of the first robots ever shown in film and is where Hugo draws its plot from. Simply put, Méliès was both magician and scientist, as are his films. The technical wizardry of it all is astonishing, and even though he is not the most referenced director of all time, he revolutionized the way people viewed the camera and this broad debate, thus making an immeasurable impact on modern cinema, showing that it could occupy both science and art simultaneously. We wouldn’t have directors like Scorsese without him, and Hugo is an intentional demonstration of that, it’s essentially a standing ovation to Méliès.

“Happy endings only happen in the movies.”

It’s unfortunate that Méliès only learned of his impact in his final years, as the advent of WWI changed everything, and suddenly people didn’t want to go to movies, let alone have the luxury of going to one. Life became so dark and violent in the lead up and aftermath that Méliès’ spectacles felt too out of place. After the French government had confiscated and then liquified the film used for his work for rubber shoes, rather ironic given that Méliès came from a shoemaker background, Méliès destroyed his studio and burned many of his remaining props. He and his wife eventually bought a tiny toy store in Gare Montparnasse train station, where he lived and assumed that the world had forgotten about him. By the time the war had ended, movies and narratives had changed. The world of cinema had shifted, and yet some began reflecting on old films, the ones where men went to Mars, walked underwater, stalked ancient castles, and blew missiles into the moon’s eye. See, Méliès’ films might have been fantastic, but they were never just straightforward naive or childish. They drew from science, or rather, the questions scientist examine. Rather than measuring what is there, they suppose what could be there, what places like the moon could be. They are not realistic, but they arrive from this mix of imagination and a basic question.

Journalists like George-Michel Coissac began searching for Méliès and tracked down every Méliès project they could find and save, and people had held onto quite of few, even stowing them away in their attics and barns. Méliès was eventually given some appropriate recognition, and the French Cinema Society aided him in his final years, he even became the first conservator in the Cinémathèque Française, which still operates today, before dying in 1937. It’s a moving story, far more complex than what I have described here, and I have been drawn to Méliès’ films ever since I heard it. They are now public domain, which if you have read my blog before, you’ll know is one of my favourite things. Much like the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, people on YouTube have long edited scores onto Méliès’ work, which are entirely silent, and so you can see several different versions of the same film. I have even incorporated Méliès’ work into a few online concerts I sang and edited, most notably for a Halloween concert I did. Méliès’ work is wonderfully versatile in several genres because of that accessibility, as he is known in sci-fi and fantasy, but also in horror for projects like Blue Beard (1901), as the silent nature in that one amplifies its eeriness, especially the shot where we see the severed heads of Bluebeard’s past wives.

“He told me it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.”

I was extremely curious when I heard that my planetarium was doing a Méliès screening, showing I believe five or so of his films in succession. I had no idea what to expect, whether they had somehow edited his film for the screen or if the planetarium could change its screen, so it was more like a regular theatre. I couldn’t convince any of my friends to attend, so I went on my own, which just added to the night’s strangeness. Rather than projecting once, the planetarium screened the same film in four or so different places on the ceiling, so you could choose one spot or alternate between. It was rather dizzying, and hard to keep your eyes in one place because stuff was happening in your peripherals. I began remembering why I had been so afraid of the planetarium as a kid, because Méliès’ films took on this overwhelming quality, something previously reserved for planet study. I watched Méliès’ work just as I had watched the big bang years prior on a school trip.

Something about the screening felt right, however, as though it related back to the strangeness of early cinema, its uncertain and occasionally scary role, as science and art, not just one or the other. The films’ subjects are often equally comedic and frightening, as people get eaten by the moon and impossible things take on this massive scale, and for someone in the late 19th century, all of this was new. For example, I remember this one short story from the late 1890s, although I unfortunately cannot remember the name or author, and so my google search history is now just “short story giant Victorian bug attacks cinema”. Regardless, it’s about a man who, while attending a new cinematic invention, suddenly realizes that the bugs being shown on screen are real and stepping out to attack the audience, devouring them in this terrifying display of science gone wrong. The short story argues that cinema is a threat, that it can magnify something which should never be magnified, because the projection looms over the audience, creating this stark power disparity. While the story focuses on giant praying mantises and such, it suggests that whatever appears on screen is just a hairsbreadth from attacking the viewer and breaking the barrier between reality and filmed reality. Watching movies felt unprecedented, as suggested by this text, like anything could happen, and the subjects could jump out from the screen, moving around and surrounding you like a planetarium, and Méliès’ films arrived from that standpoint.

There is a reason people remembered Méliès’ movies, to the extent where they would organize a investigation to find and save as many as they could. These stories left impressions that are in some ways unparalleled, as today, movies are common, their existence isn’t as uncertain. While this debate between science and art continues, people at least acknowledge the overlap more consistently. Méliès’ films were like visiting a planetarium, that same wonder and fear I felt as a kid, and so it’s only fitting that his films occupy this space today, as both science/education and cinema. It signals that he was actively operating within this conversation, and in doing so, revolutionizing and paving the way for later filmmakers.