Many vaudeville and cabaret illusionists were among the first to nurture film in its infancy, but let a professional trickster from France named Georges Jean Méliés be named first magician of motion pictures. He delivered audiences into the modern age mastering motion photography as his modus operandi. Anyone who wishes to travel back in time can meet the master.
He never claimed to be anything but a showman and frowned on any practitioner peddling the paranormal, but that is not to say that Méliés wasn’t serious about casting a spell. He was practiced at the art of shape shifting, among other things, where, in “The Conjurer” (1899), for example, we see a ballerina transform into a cascade of confetti. Then the conjurer himself turns into the ballerina and back again. Finally, he disappears in a cloud of smoke. Poof! Go ahead, try that at home.
Since motion pictures and magic tricks both blend the past, present and future, I’m going to propose that a movie camera is simply a clock with a lens for capturing time on celluloid. The thought first occurred when I learned Méliés was a clockmaker. It makes sense that a man well versed in its measurements would discover how to exploit it. Ironically, Méliés had the time trade in common with two other prominent magicians. Robert Houdin (from whom The Great Houdini took his name) and Houdin’s top rival, John Nevil Maskelyne.
Another interesting intersection took place when Méliés purchased Houdin’s theater in Paris. It was the dawn of the last century. Let that date and address mark the precise coordinate point where live magic performances morphed into motion picture presentations. Here, a clockmaker turned himself into a ghost and, with the advent of a new kind of mass hypnosis, generated the first special effects blockbuster grosses.
Méliés could have lost them entirely when he closed his popular live act and swapped it with a fake, but unprecedented crowds craved the new counterfeit variety and endowed the celluloid master with even greater notoriety.
Global distribution networks grew up exclusively to accommodate Méliés’ fame. His status went viral long before the web, before television or even radio. I’m not overstating when I say, the stalk that morphed into the information age, which links our globe today, sprouted partly from Msr. George Jean Méliés.
Let us examine this feat from the viewpoint of a practitioner of the magic arts. Vanishing into motion pictures, Méliés literally made his body disappear from the stage, leaving behind an immortal double with striking charisma and prodigious powers.
Like those clocks before, Méliés toyed with his audience now. Instead of springs, gears and trip mechanisms, he tinkered with human reasoning, response and reaction. An overflowing auditorium enabled the master to develop considerable finesse. Science and art became partners to help make Méliés a grand success.
The fraction of Méliés films that survive today are a treasure of early motion picture tricks. Effects of Méliés’ devising can be found in films that come afterword, from the early years all the way up to today. “The Wizard of Oz” throws a farmhouse up inside a tornado’s eye. The optical printing technique used for that sequence, can be observed 37 years earlier in Méliés 1902 film “L’homme à la tête de Caoutchouc.”
But it is not only his trickery that is imitated. His elaborate set designs from “Le Voyage Dans la Lune” was lifted for some of the of Hogwarts set in the “Harry Potter” series as well, so Méliés magnetism remains undisputed to this day.
While Méliés the man faded into semi-obscurity even before his life was over, his work has been digested and assimilated by succeeding generations, turning up in films made by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, George Lucas and Peter Jackson to name a few.
A disembodied entity, based upon Méliés life, is played by Ben Kingsley in the 2011 3D masterwork “Hugo.” This is an unparalleled achievement in the history of the magic arts. The master managed to have himself resurrected in 3D, in the present day, with the assistance of modern movie wizard Martin Scorcese. Thank you Marty. Long live Msr. George Jean Méliés.
By now, movies have documented the work of magician, wizard, sorcerer, jongleur, Jedi, witch, warlock, and conjurer. We’ve observed them practice with strange mystical attraction in supernatural settings beyond the far horizon.
These all represent literal examples of magic in the movies, but what about the role of the movie maker as modern shaman in the present day? A shaman is a healer, teacher and keeper of medicine in any society with which they identify. Filmmaker as shaman is the next subject examined as the magic in movies series continues in April on openchannelcontent.com.