While I was in Barcelona a couple of months ago, I happened across a gallery called the Caixa Forum, which inhabits the buildings of a former factory down the hill from the massive Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The Caixa Forum’s main exhibition at the time was dedicated to George Méliès, the legendary French illusionist, theatre-owner, artist and filmmaker. As a filmmaker, he is now revered for being a pioneering special-effects wizard and the father of the science fiction movie genre.
To Méliès’ CV, I reluctantly have to add the professions of candy and toy salesman – because that was what he was reduced to doing at Montparnasse Station in Paris in the 1920s after a combination of bankruptcy, family tragedy and World War I had ended his movie-making days. Happily, though, Méliès lived until 1938, by which time his achievements had been recognised by a younger generation of filmmakers and he’d been awarded France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur.
Before reaching the stuff in the Caixa Forum exhibition that was actually about Méliès, I had to pass a lot of preliminary displays detailing how modern cinema evolved out of the technology of late 19th century parlour trickery, magic shows and fairground arcades. Arranged along several galleries were cameras obscura, magic lanterns, phantasmagorias, zoetropes, praxinoscopes and kinetoscopes. I’m fascinated by such antique optical gizmos, but I would’ve been happier if the galleries hadn’t been inundated with babbling crowds of children, desperate to set their eyeballs against the various eyepieces that protruded from the devices’ brass casings.
Yes, I should’ve found it heartening that, in 2013, a collection of charming and ingenious machines from a century-and-a-half earlier still proved captivating for the kids of the smartphone and Nintendo Wii era. However, I couldn’t help wishing that those noisy juveniles would bugger off and leave the magic lanterns, phantasmagorias and so on to people who could properly appreciate them, i.e. old farts like myself.
At last I reached the section about Méliès, which was stocked with film clips, stills and posters, with pre-production sketches and with re-constructed props from his most famous works – including a strikingly remodelled Selenite from his 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune, all claws, spikes, beak and crustacean-red body armour. Inevitably, in the final room, clips were being shown from the Martin Scorsese’s 2011 children’s movie Hugo, which featured Méliès as a character, played by Ben Kingsley.
There was at least one error among the movie posters displayed. According to Méliès filmography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_M%C3%A9li%C3%A8s_filmography) on Wikipedia, which attributes to him an astounding 500 films — the number seems more astounding still when you consider that his film career lasted only 17 years and was over by 1913 — the 1908 movie Excursion to the Moon was actually directed by Segundo de Chomon and not by Méliès at all.
Of all the inventors, showmen and entrepreneurs who were present at the birth of cinema, Méliès was surely the most influential technically and culturally. Not only did he write the whole special-effects manual – developing the stop trick, the dissolve, the multiple exposure, the time lapse – but when you view films like Le Voyage dan la Lune today it’s clear that he was a founder of the steampunk genre more than eight decades before the term was coined. His influence can even be glimpsed in modern music and the attendant medium of the music video, as the work of Air (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0q19axCIxs) and the Smashing Pumpkins (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOG3eus4ZSo) testifies.
The surreal images that Méliès is remembered for – giant lunar mushrooms, somersaulting Selenites that explode in puffs of stage-smoke at a blow from an umbrella, celestial skies that are a weird mixture of astronomical charts and mythological figures, and of course, the moon’s girning visage when a space capsule embeds itself in its eye-socket – must’ve seemed astonishing to dawn-of-the-20th-century audiences. Even today, they retain their magic.