A Modernist Inversion of a Traditional Theme

In Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête”, Venus bears the fate of a poor house slave. Her wicked sisters have all the fun and she cleans up after them. Like some bird in a cage, Belle is too tame and domesticated, refusing to marry Avenant so she can stay behind and care for her father.

La Bête, on the other hand, represents our uncivilized self, having overwhelming temptations that we somehow just barely manage to contain and, in so doing, over time, manage to temper with the refinements of beauty and love. The fable reassures us that beauty melts even the most overpowering brutality and the tamed beast can be counted on to supply ample potency and instinct to make all of Beauty’s romantic dreams come true.

All this is made possible when La Bête submits to Belle. Even though he is holding her against her will, she manages to befriend him. Belle developes compassion for La Bête restless longing and then, in a final twist, the secret is revealed. A dashing Prince was trapped, by an evil spell, inside the body of la Bête. Suddenly a handsome young man, chins forward to claim Belle’s hand. By the grace of some wondrous power, they are joined in sacred bonds and swept up into the sky to fly to the Prince’s kingdom.

Like Bertolucci did in “Stealing Beauty,” the 1991 film “La Belle Noiseuse” by Jacques Rivette also uses the artist/model relationship to pay homage to Venus, reworking the “La Belle et la Bête” fable through a very different lens.

“La Belle Noiseuse” is another film that dispenses dear old, eternally young Venus into new human skin, this time by way of some ingenious thematic inversions. Here, in this version, not unlike the sculptor in “Stealing Beauty,” that lived in a villa in Tuscany, the virtuoso of our next version is a renowned painter who lives a quiet life in the French countryside. The investigation into which this artist plunges with his model is quite different than the father/daughter blueprint we were submitted to in “Stealing Beauty.” As a quintessential modernist would, Fernhoffer, the maistro of “La Belle Noiseusse,” has given himself the daunting task of de-idealizing Venus.

In the opening scene, we immediately find an inversion worth noting. Instead of Beauty being spied on by the Beast in the beginning of the affair, this time we eavesdrop on the beautiful Marianne as she is stalking a second floor balcony snapping candid pictures of a handsome young man in the courtyard below whom, it turns out, is actually her boyfriend. Note how prevalently the act of spying on Venus is positioned in the first acts of all these movies.

The entire opening sequence, it is soon revealed, is a game Marianne and Nicolas play for two tourists in the courtyard, who are supposedly the real eavesdroppers. So, for the astute film watcher this turns into a kind of running “who’s on first” joke, but the punch line is not trying to tell us that Europe is Beauty and tourists are the Beast. I doubt that, anyway.

In the transitional sequence between the previously described eavesdropping game and the first meeting with Fernhoeffer, at least a couple of important details should be mentioned. Marianne, the model-to-be, takes off her shoes on her way to the artist’s villa, unselfconsciously marking herself as a pilgrim. What kind of pilgrim? An art pilgrim? A truth pilgrim? If so, not a religious one, but in no way a tourist on holiday either.

A second precocious detail in this film comes when Liz, the artist’s devoted former model and presumed wife, remarks on a room in their villa that houses two chimeras. “You’ve found the Chimera Room, which is my favorite because it is completely unnecessary”–no doubt a comment on the way a model feels when she gets replaced by a younger one but also on what a fleeting creature she supposes to represent whenever she poses. In the end, the model herself is left behind. Only the artist’s portrait of her is considered.

As I’ve eluded to, the most prominent inversion in “La Belle Noiseusse” comes when Fernhoeffer tries to exorcize all the idealism out of beauty and expose the raw, unglamorous organism of his exceptionally lovely, intelligent and game accomplice. This requires, from both artist and model, three essential qualities; absolute trust, ruthless will, and physical stamina.

The scenes of artist and model working together start off like a master class in studio technique. There seems to be an emphasis on the scratchiness of the drawing instruments on the paper and canvas. The incessant noise, on the otherwise almost vacant soundtrack, can be off-putting at times, but this sound assists the image by emphasizing the mesmerizing intensity of the creative act. However, for this story to hold the attention of anyone but an art lover or aspiring painter, gradually, the model must become a fully participating collaborator, and then, in the end, after total surrender, be shocked at the outcome.

Their respective tasks look pretty overwhelming for them both at first. Her challenge is to devote herself completely to the expressed goal of the master. His has to do with seizing a lightening bolt that first struck him when he was in his prime–about which, now, he thinks himself long past.

There is much well conceived, well-defined character detail in “La Belle Noiseusse”. The masterpiece that is born at the climax manages to surprise everyone differently than everyone else including the audience. All of this requires brilliant storytelling, which is also what this movie is a master class in.

The model breaks through earlier on, but the master surprises himself only in the final brushstrokes and we can even sense that he’s exceeded his goal just as he steps back from the finished work. This is all made more significant when fulfillment turns out to be for him alone as his model appears distressingly shocked, exposed in some way with which she does not feel comfortable.

The master is detached enough from his ego that he can happily deny himself for her sake. The satisfaction of turning out a late career tour de force comes from the act of creation itself. We alone are allowed to revel in this old dog’s new trick with hiim while he sequesters away his magnum opus behind mortar and brick.

That, indeed, would seem like the ultimate surprise. Surely it is the masterstroke of storytelling in this story, but no, the ultimate transcendence is reserved for what the model saw when she took her first look at the work. Only once it is finished and she’s put her clothes back on, does it become clear what she laid on the line. We’ll never see the actual painting, but her reaction strikes the most raw, emotional chord in the film.

That canvas must have revealed something about hers that Marianne least expected. In the process it takes the blinders off her eyes about life, her future and lover Nicolas who is supposed to be some up-and-coming young stud on the modern painting scene.

In the end, having only seen a substitute for the masterpiece, Nicholas passes arrogant judgment on the maestro. Fernhoeffer, in rebuttal, says to Nicholas, “I hope you never change.” Nicholas must feel some sense of being bested or busted by that remark, but he’s perhaps too self-focused to get it before we do.

Marianne appears quietly philosophical about the experience of posing for a living legend. Her satisfaction consists in being a peer to the master, in how she overcame her own self-imposed limits to occasionally even surpassed the master’s commitment as she applied her body and soul to his intention.

Fundamental symmetry would be disturbed if the master’s neurosis were not on full display in these proceedings as well. This was never reflected with more unflattering candor than in the performance of model-turned-wife Liz played by Jane Birkin and how she seems to be almost entirely consumed in the master’s shadow.

The surprises, at the end, certainly resonates different ways with different viewers, but it is far from ambiguous to me that something positive has taken place. In fact, satisfaction ripples out in direct relation to the importance each character plays in the birth of the new work. Ferhoeffer gets his edge back. Marianne is shown some mysterious truth about herself. Liz receives her hero from a successful conquest. Nicolas leaves with a deluded notion of his superiority.

Even the art dealer, Balthazar, though hardly in possession of a masterpiece, wanders proudly away with what he was after, and we, the audience have indulged another couple hours in the company of Venus.

Being Venus in a Venus Crazed World

This is part 2 of a continuing investigation into a Cult of Venus that thrives today in modern movies.

I recommend, if you haven’t recently, or perhaps ever, take a look at “Stealing Beauty”(1996) and “La Belle et la Bête” (1946)–a double feature in which we compare a movie that is often ignored with one that is beloved by all.

We might as well resume with a film made by someone from the culture that gave Venus her name. Bernardo Bertolucci has been probing, adoring and obsessing over modern versions of her for over five decades. Take his movie, in which Liv Tyler plays a cosmopolitan virgin on the verge.

“Stealing Beauty” has been trivialized by some critics who fail to find real nourishment beneath its confectionary facade. To be sure, the picture looks like something a food writer might describe as pastel farmhouse over a bed of grapevine on terra cotta crust. Why the visual excess? Because “Stealing Beauty” is a fable. If you do not subscribe to this, you may be dismissed.

Anyone who paid keen attention would be able to guess, with the backdrop of idealized nature, archetypal sculpture and the way director and crew pump the painterly schema, “Stealing Beauty” automatically adopts an atmosphere of mythic escapades.

Young love never looked so yummy. It smacks sugar sweet indeed, but there is blood at the center of a good allegory and a hyper touch of it’s color is found in almost any composition in this film. Take Lucy’s last act skirt, or her father’s first act shirt–a photographic rapport that suggests their bond. The attention-getting hue calls to mind menstrual flow, birth blood and wedding night scarlet too, but especially the precious, stirring succulence that circulates the limbs of holy youth which fine art and the movies entice us to adore.

While we’re delving in to Bertolucci’s eye candy, let me point out that silk-draped portal off the barn that billows like some feverishly stoked kiln, which is echoed later by that campfire that permits just enough exposure in the obligatory scene.

Before the days of color cinematography there worked, in motion pictures, a fanatical servant of Orpheus. He too, like Bertolucci, was a poet before he became a filmmaker. He was born before cinema, but then perhaps we are speaking of the first poet of cinema too. They became one in the same in Msr. Jean Cocteau.

I cannot contain my suspicion that Bertolucci installed his curtain in the farmhouse to connect it with a fabulous opus on celluloid that the first poet took upon himself to frame. With his stolen one, Bertolucci often cheers Beauty on from the sidelines of that French master’s enchanted tale. He is also, coincidentally, restating for everyone or at least everyone paying attention, that this film is a fable like Cocteau’s inimitable “Beauty and the Beast,” better known as “La Belle et la Bête”.

If you’ve watched Cocteau’s masterpiece, you’ll never forget the sequence in which the character of Belle, played by the luminous Josette Day, arrives and enters Bête’s magic castle. Watch as she pushes in those massive doors and is snagged by the magnetism of her terrifying host. The halls are lit both-sides with regiments of disembodied arms, sprouted from walls instead of human ribs and each supports a glowing candelabra. One room is followed by another even more mysterious. The inner sanctum is decorated with a row of moonlit, floor-to-ceiling-draped windows.

The magnetism of La Bête grows so strong, by then, that something between the floor and Beauty’s feet conveys her to Him. The possessed castle inhales and sucks the diaphanous shades toward the swooning Belle. She comprehends only later that this is Bête in magic drapery drag, privately pawing her as she passes.

This brief passage is one of the most sumptuous in film history. It reveals not only the perverse pleasure that Bête takes in observing Belle without reserve, but takes in the ravishment of the senses that she experiences inside his enchanted in-breath before fear sets in.

First hints of dread come from a dressing room laid out for Belle. Objects in there whisper aloud, offering their service to her. With such animation in the world of things she is unfamiliar, or perhaps she comprehends, finally, that this castle has eyes to which she does not wish to be further exposed. So she runs but, naturally, all roads lead to La Bête. Suddenly, there he towers, with dashing, full-face beard, ivory fangs and diamond spangles. “Ue Allez Vous,” he bellows, blocking her way, and the trembling, exquisite, adorable and defenseless Belle instantly faints…

…meanwhile, back in our movie seats, ten bucks makes the goddess appear overhead, flick, flick, flick. Once more, radiant Venus descends to the world of men, flicka, flicka, flick…

The opening credits of “Stealing Beauty” play over a home made video. Here again we have a voyeur stalking a beautiful maiden from behind a magic glass. In his prying lens, Lucy is unsuspecting captive. Ironically, it is Bertolucci voice issuing from the secret admirer as he drops the tape of Lucy in the sky down to Lucy on the tracks. The video was recorded on the plane from America and then by train to Siena. It’s all we’ve had to look at so far. We’ve watched a lot of claustrophobic angles of Lucy sleeping, thinking, looking out the window, moving freely about the cabin, listening to music, sleeping some more. We get a cool glimpse of some drool dripping down her chin.

Why cool? Because this is Venus, adorable, immortal, woman-child, sex diva, war goddess. Though it should not be true of the audience, all of this is lost, of course, on luminous Lucy who embodies a ravishing ideal of lady luck with, delectably, zero awareness of our prying eyes.

Now would you just look at how that hand of hers sleeps so close to her blue jean-ed crotch. Is it meant to recall that infatuating pose painted by another celebrated high-priest of Her sect? He who is nearly five hundred or so years Bertolucci’s senior, and is known as Titian, a northerner like him, but from Venice instead of Parma. That Titian was a titan of Venus.

In case you never have, allow your gaze sufficient contact with the “Venus d’Urbino” to observe how gratified she is to lay naked in your presence. It is enough to make one doubt her virginity no? Edward Manet recaste that archetype a few centuries later, transforming Venus into Olympia, a haughty, prosperous, young whore (1864). Next up, Signore Bertolucci rigs his photo reel to ritually restore Venus’ virginity so he can steal it once more.

What is it about this little rite in which movie going mortals regularly love to partake? It is far from the first time that Venus has been around this block. That hottie and her posse are preserved in stone hewn from cultures that reach back to earth’s earliest inhabited zones.

Meanwhile, back to the future, Lucy’s awake again and looking out the window, descending to the land of men. She never acknowledges being watched by them though. You, I and the filmmakers are as graced as La Bete to peek into this pure maiden’s personal space.

Getting back to Bertolucci’s “Beauty”, is Venus really listening to those headphones? No, she’s asleep again. So we begin probing even closer, with the insistence of this mystery lens–much closer than we should. The filmmaker has gradually imposed on his audience a hip, ethical predicament, but it’s not our camera, so we can’t be blamed. Right? We are only watching.

Is that right, or wrong? We’ve just been going along. Now, we begin to ask ourselves if we should continue on when, suddenly, Venus is awakened by the mystery documentarian, advising her to un-dock now, having arrived at her destination.

Lucy grabs her grips and flits onto the platform stopping quick to fix a lace. “What are you doing?” she asks, staring down the lens for very the first time? “I was on the plane.” He whispers, just like Beauty’s dressing mirror in “La Belle et La Bête”. “This is for you.” The tape drops out the window. “Shit!” Lucy exclaims as fright breaks over her fetching forehead. Bingo, Bernardo, you just scored! That furled brow shows how it feels to be Venus in a Venus crazed world.

Because the maidenhead of a virgin is referred to as “her secret,” it makes sense that there is a secret at the core of this story. Is it the same mist that shrouds the sculptor when he wonders why Lucy’s stepfather wants him to sculpt her? “Why did he send her to me?” he confides to his fellow Irish ex-pat wife. “He’s never liked my work?”

I prefer to think the sculptor and Lucy’s step-father both understand why the step-father sent her from New York. I prefer to think that the sculptor’s wife, with whom he is speaking at this moment, does not know the reason and the sculptor is probing just to be certain.

There is also, most definitely, a beast at the core of this Beauty tale. It amounts to almost everyone else in the script. The whole world seems to be chasing this fox. The character of Richard presses most aggressively but, ever since the man with the video camera, each new character from the sculptor to the dying playwright is poaching after her. Every female in the script is getting off on Lucy in some way or other as well. Beastly nature–what can you do?

If I had a daughter, I’d encourage her to see this film as she approached adulthood, with the hope that it could provide a pertinent preview of the pleasures and pressures of becoming sexually active.

After the close call with a young seducer, it is a relief that the boy Lucy eventually connects with is not a slave to the sexual mores of his peers. Lucy’s salvation materializes in the form of the rake’s gentler cousin, a boy of the same age. Osvaldo is the only character in the story that hasn’t attempted to steal her beauty. His head of bucolic locks spells out “nature boy”, cinematically, and foreshadows the spherical canopy of a great tree suspended over Beauty’s sexual setting free.

This iconoclastic heist flick argues that all larcenies perpetrated on Venus are not equal. The sculptor has permission and his wife’s offense, for instance, is petty and meant to amuse when she outs the 19 year-old’s maidenhood. She and her family and friends all indulge in good-natured gossip out of sheer boredom.

Other predators in the upper age limit commit benign infractions as well, filling out this randy romance with spicy minor roles like a sleepwalking art dealer, played, most charmingly, by none other than our most beloved Beast player of all, the French matinee idol Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau’s erotic muse until death. Does anyone out there still dismiss the notion that this film is Bertolluci’s “La Belle et La Bête”?

Embracing a bountiful bouquet of wildflowers that she’s gathered from a classic Monet meadow nearby, Lucy finally asks the sculptor point-blank for the last piece of her puzzle. Where were you in August of 1975?” He takes a while to answer, “That must have been when I did your mother’s portrait.” With this line, the sculptor admits to Lucy her paternal claim. “That’s what I thought,” she replies to accept it. The sculptor levels his next line so that it’s meaning cannot be misunderstood. “It was one of the few times we (he and his wife) have ever been apart.” “Oh, I wouldn’t ask her,” she says, to assure she’s understood. “These are for you.” Lucy hands her father the bouquet, then dabs a tear. Whether it comes from a sense of profound connection or the lack thereof is only next made clear.

The master shows the finished work for which she modeled. It is pure essence. A massive tree trunk yields to sensuous curves in smooth, even grain, articulating immaculate skin on cheeks, forehead and chin. All this is presided over by inquisitive eyes of a curious, absorbent youth in soft, yellow pine. The sculptor confesses, in an earlier scene, his works are about himself. In this case it rings true at least a couple of ways.

Rather than dwell on his accomplishment, the sculpture praises Lucy for how lovely she turned out and she, in turn, looks proud as any branch could ever be for being immortalized by her secret trunk in the trunk of a real tree. To prevent hurt feelings with the sculptor’s wife, it is framed as cool to keep their truth concealed. On this she does agree, then father and daughter embrace, finally. Ironically then, the camera tracks away, in a wide radial around that great chunk of tree, finally showing some respect for Venus’s privacy.

This surprise plot detail attempts to define the unique bond of the artist and model. It points to a shared ambiguity, the secret to which each of them holds a key. I haven’t time to go into this subject here carefully but I will, in the next installment of this series on Venus, so stay tuned, please, if you will. Now, with Lucy’s daddy I.D.’d, we can get on with her inaugural foray.

Sweet surrender in the Siena hills under the verdant ball of an enormous tree. Earth pauses on the head of a pin for Venus and the Chosen One to get it on. Come spy with me on the pretty pilgrims perched above a vine-rowed rise, with the Tuscan sunset reflected in their eyes. Dappled cloudheads cradle rising stars. Campfire illuminates breeze-blown branch sighs, while down slip virgin panties from virgin buns and thighs. Nature Boy avails and proceeds to make love instead of screw. The coolest thing, besides the obvious, is next morning when Osvaldo confesses, “It was my first time too.

The Cult of Venus in Motion Pictures

For the duration of Spring and throughout the Summer we will focus our lens on what I have identified to be an ancient cult of Venus thriving in our culture and how its system of belief is spread and practiced through motion pictures. Venus and her predecessors are the most idolized archetypes in history.

Venus is archetypal, that is to say, built up over the ages in our grey-matter through progression of intelligence, meaning she is much older than the early Roman Emperor that named her. Venus embodies a Latin version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was, even earlier, appropriated from Mesopotamia. Time has washed away all but the outlines, but a vast majority of humans still revere and serve Venus.

Few of her modern adherents still connect with her illustrious lineage. Present day folk are less superstitious and more literal. She’s morphed from The Morning Star into The Ideal Babe, blown up twenty feet tall at the local movie theater. Like a projector with a screen, we superimpose Venus on the attractive female in the movies. Our imagination makes her into an actual person. In our mind, she’s perfect.

The camera worships her and this gratifies us. Can she actually ever really become flesh? Or will her ideal live on only as a biological driver in our brain?

If you were born in Rome six thousand years ago, Venus comes from the realm of the gods, but she does consent, on occasion, to consort with humans. Venus is a Diva–the reverse of the archetype of the Catholic Madonna (who came to Rome much later). That Mary starts out human, then turns into a demigod, an immaculate female who disdains sex with mortals and in return for that distinction, her womb is seeded by the Almighty.  She is turned to by her devotees for divine guidance, spiritual favors and all manner of indulgences.

In her peculiarly nature-driven way Venus motivates the development of the highest potential in humanity, as well, inspiring us to accomplish great deeds worthy of her favor. The history of humankind is loaded with heroic stories in which we sacrifice our brute nature in order to serve that ideal of beauty which Venus represents.

The first humans identified the proto-Venus with springtime, as a tribute to the awe-inspiring pageant of life and death in her fertility cycles. Her maidenhood has been closely associated with the butterfly for its subtlety and fleeting nature. Her fertility arouses unbridled passion and aggression.  While her nature may be fleeting, filmmakers work tirelessly to promote and preserve her image for the ages. Fates of the actually lived lives of sex-symbols and their adorers have flamed out endlessly like sparks in a bonfire, while a luminous starlet’s face that was lens-ed a hundred years ago is still capable of illuminating an audience with her charm and grace in the present day.

Through the movies, we pay our respects to her exquisite face and features. Each and every one of us spurted up through her crack when she was called The Fountain of Youth. We all sprung from the Goddess of Sex in our primal brain. Through her we seek initiation into, and then later feed our nostalgia for that first bold flush of youth that we all experienced when we came of age.

Behind every boy/girl mating ritual Venus is the Mystery Date, first fruit of the creative matrix we call Mother Nature and the personification of good luck. Mars is her male counterpart. Men and women alike are hard-wired like a magnet to Venus. Soldiers comfort themselves with her image while at war. Suitors fall head over heels when at court. Women strive daily to imitate her in all her voluptuous venality. We all pay homage to her in the movies, engaging not in idolatry, but idealism.

A heavy metal projector spins out a fantasy of her ethereal charms so that we can encounter The Cosmic Babe in all her gorgiosity. Why do we go back again and again for a fleeting illusion?  Because she works wonders.

Now hear all ye’ worshippers of Venus, collect the seed from tasselled ears of tallest grain. Have them roasted on low fire in heaps and drizzle them with butter from the fatted cow. Now make a salt offering. Take this feast and gather all different kinds of people in caves and eat of her harvest while watching your goddess recline there, front and center. Enjoy her beaming down on you right now, your desire joined with hers, intimately. Somewhere up in the blue sky of love chemistry in your brain, she’s giving you heady suggestions of sex, with plenty close-ups on the incomparable premise of ideal love and beauty. Now frequently consume this feast and while away the hours in her presence and you will feel blessed.

Shamanism in Cinema

Immediately upon their introduction, motion pictures were associated with magic and played along side traditional, theatrical magic performances. An early movie projector prototype was called the “magic lantern.” Now that we’ve been exposed to the technology for a hundred years, the supernatural sheen has worn off, but does that mean that magic has vanished from the movies? I don’t think so.

The invention of motion pictures had nothing to do with conjuring, sorcery or hocus-pocus. Its pioneers were grounded in mechanical engineering, chemistry, the physics of light, etc., but as soon as their ingenious inventions reached the masses magicians began to pump fog into their shadows and investors eagerly backed them.

Let us search for differences later and look at the similarities between magic acts and movies now. Both seem to control time and space, both depend on a strategy or script, both manipulate the attention of crowds. Movies achieve illusions with props, sets and actors. Magic utilizes fetish, ritual space and disembodied spirits. Both are offshoots of the much older art form storytelling.

Cinema is a culture of the lens. It frames for us our deepest fears, highest hopes and most far-flung dreams. Magic is a culture of illusion but juggles the same subjects. Socially speaking, any good story leaps cultural and political divides. Because movies can reach any human who possesses at least one good eye, they provide a virtual common experience for the entire human race.

The origin of the word “blockbuster” in show business parlance describes financial success, the status awarded to a motion picture that breaks box office records, but let us acknowledge how those movies serve to bust through perceptual blocks of the audience at large. When blockbusters like ”Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Avatar” seep through global cultural boundaries, they penetrate social, geographical, religious and cultural strongholds, uniting the entire planet through a single story. If that’s not magic, what is?

Hold that thought and now let’s look at how pre-cinema cultures performed works of magic as a form of social medicine. Dr. Dennis Tedlock, renowned writer, teacher and anthropologist, in his essay “The Shaman as Magician,” discusses magic with a Zuni Indian guide. The natives of that remote southwest Indian Pueblo in New Mexico give a name to magic that corresponds to the seeping of something through one surface to another such as when rain oozes through a mud roof.

Notice how the Zuni word for magic describes ordinary process in the ordinary world. The term leaves no room for the uncanny, however, “all of these Zuni tricks, unlike those of stage magicians, have a purpose, a meaning that goes beyond trickery as such,” says Tedlock. He goes on to explain how the Zuni embrace folk magic for the ability to restore curiosity and wonderment in the community and for occasionally triggering spontaneous healing for its members. How could such a human contrivance as “magic” be responsible for physical healing?

Psychologists have proven not all illnesses originate in the physical body. Physical symptoms can be a result of clogged emotions and distorted perceptions. In such cases, health can often be restored through a mix of emotional catharsis, identifying, releasing and changing limiting beliefs. The challenge that shamans and faith healers face, in assisting with cures, is to interrupt the self-imposed limitations of their patients by presenting evidence of unlimited possibilities. I’m inclined to think modern stage and movie tricks soak down through the surface of our imaginations in a similar way to folk magic, and can compel positive changes in our bodies, minds, and spirits as well.

Like most modern film audiences, the Zuni are hip to the illusion and slight of hand of its shamans, but neither do they deny their healing value. Illnesses may not always curable with drugs and surgery, sometimes they’re just controlled with them. Real cures require total responsibility from the patient. A good shaman seeks to inspire total involvement, just as a good filmmaker does.

A movie camera is simply a clock with a lens.

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.

Cooking Up a Surprise

In his 1958 dark comedy, “The Magician” Ingmar Bergman makes comparisons between his experiences as a movie maker, and the adventures of an itinerant magic troupe from the 1840’s headed by Dr. Albert Emmanuel Vogler.  An interesting side note: from about the middle of the 19th century to the turn of the 20th, my family trekked across America’s heartland with their big top show called The Eells Family Circus, replete with snake charmer, contortionist and disappearing act, so Bergman’s movie hits close to home.

Traveling entertainment became popular a few thousand years before the printing press and was an early form of mass media. Storytellers, from acting troupes and solo troubadours to freaks and medicine shows, were prime sources of information and culture for the common folk. In Bergman’s film, Vogler and a handful of collaborators are on a tour of neighboring lands. As the story opens, we encounter magician and crew, down on their luck, working their way home.

On well-worn tracks wanders the enigmatic Vogler and his ragamuffin regiment, calling themselves the “Magnetic Health Theater”. Our magician arrives by carriage to the latest village. His reputation has preceded him. Disturbing reports from the south suggest the stranger may exert an unsavory influence.

A bewigged police chief and monocle-ed coroner interrogate Bergman’s hero on suspicion of skullduggery. Vogler pretends to be mute, while his wife presents herself cross-dressed as his manservant. Vogler provokes a good deal of suspicion by playing games but also avoids having to answer their awkward questions. Bergman, the filmmaker, is demonstrating the importance of silence and obfuscation in spinning a good yarn.

Through their own projections, conscious and unconscious, it seems that everyone becomes part of Vogler’s web.  That includes us, the audience, but only for awhile. In act one we are left in the dark. By the time Vogler starts his manipulation in earnest we are allowed to watch behind the screen. In the third act, by showing the audience more than all the other characters but not as much as the magician himself, Bergman manages to bamboozle us once more.

The most magical moment for me is when an itinerant actor, whom Vogler regards with great tenderness and respect, dies in the opening scene and appears quite alive again in the third act, only to die for real this time in Vogler’s arms. The magician manages to fulfill the dead fool’s dying wish by weaving him into his web of illusion.

Bergman, the storyteller, displays a knack for cooking up surprise, so that in this moment, we cannot tell that we are observing a secret. From the outset, the story keeps us off balance making sure our expectations are continuously upended as we watch the game played out. Things only add up after the spell is broken.

Of course the magician’s luck has improved by the end. This is a comedy after all. By the time Bergman’s film is over, his magician is summoned to the court to entertain the King and Queen–an obvious promotion, but we’ll never know the fate of the magician after that. Perhaps he went on to become a movie director in the dawn of cinema.  One of Dr.Vogler’s contemporaries was motion pictures’ first great pioneer. I mentioned his name in the last post. He will be the subject up next.