Thursday, October 09, 2014

Films in Colour by Georges Méliès (2013 La Cinémathèque française restorations in 4K)

Le merveilleux éventail vivant (1904). Photo: La Cinémathèque française. Click to enlarge.

Film a colori di Georges Méliès
Films in Colour by Georges Méliès
A programme of rare hand-painted films digitally restored in 4K from original hand-painted prints by the Cinémathèque française in 2013.
    Bonimenteur: David Robinson (reading the original boniments for Rip Van Winkle and Jeanne d'Arc), e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 9 Oct 2014
    The total duration of the 4 Georges Méliès films was 43 min
    The order of the show was changed from the printed programme 1-4-3-2. Below the films are in the screening order.

Laurent Mannoni (GCM Catalogue and website): "Why does the marvellous, strange universe created by Méliès still deserve to be visited and revisited? Why does Méliès still fascinate us as much as ever, in this era of digital special effects, CGI monsters and robots, and other creatures in performance capture?"

"Méliès discovered the cinematograph in 1895-96, just like the intrepid adventurers of A Trip to the Moon, who did not hesitate to brave the army of Selenites to invade a highly agitated terra incognita. Almost immediately he used the camera of Marey and Lumière as a machine for phantoms, an animist fantascope from which, for several years, burst an unceasing ballet of burlesques and diabolical visions worthy of Bosch, the magic lantern, and féerie stage extravaganzas."

"What makes Méliès so fascinating, in the eyes of today’s spectator as well as the historian, is that he is, in himself, a veritable encyclopaedia of the archaeology of cinema and the performing arts. Tracing Méliès’ iconography back to its origins, we quickly understand that this brilliant artist, the most inventive director and illusionist working at the dawn of cinema, was the heir to several centuries of magic traditions, phantasmagorical practices, and technical, optical, theatrical, and féerie extravaganza secrets, handed down from miracle workers to necromancers, from set designers to magic lantern operators, from technicians to conjurors."

"So it is that, when you see a Georges Méliès film projected on a screen today, you have the good fortune of making a fantastic, unique journey back to the France of Napoleon III and the end of the 19th century. Méliès was decidedly not a man of this so-called “modern” 20th century. He was the heir to Robert-Houdin, the greatest magician of the Second Empire; he was the living reflection of the extraordinary féerie extravaganzas at the Théâtre du Châtelet; he was the disciple of Robertson’s phantasmagoria; and finally, he was the one who would best manage to use the illusionistic possibilities of the chronophotographic camera, to the great displeasure of the rigorist Marey."

"Nothing remains of the incredible féerie extravaganzas staged throughout the era of the Second Empire, apart from a few rare photographs and booklets, which cannot hope to restore to us the beauty of this type of spectacle, and the virtuosity of the directors, set designers, and special effects men who helped to create them. With its pyrotechnics, optical illusions, light projections, monumental sets, colourful costumes, songs and dances, the féerie enchanted and captivated its audiences."

"Nothing remains of the phantasmagoria shows of Robertson, Philipsthal, or Comte, except for a few fragile glass plates. Nor does anything remain, aside from a few photos and precious trick objects, of the astounding quality and intelligence of Robert-Houdin’s magic shows, which deceived his public with elegance and refinement."

"And yet… If one wants to relive a féerie stage extravaganza, a phantasmagoria, white and black magic, illusionism; if one wants to go back to Hell, cross the Milky Way on horseback, explore the North or South Pole in a balloon, or chase Selenites – all one needs to do is to watch a Méliès film."

"It is important to stress Méliès’ cultural roots, because today’s spectator, if not familiar with this past, quite simply risks not understanding the richness and interest of this universe, which is absolutely unique in the history of the art of cinema."

"It is also essential to see the films of Méliès over and over again, and under the best conditions. Forget your DVDs – even if they are quite useful and often well thought-out – and relive art trompeur on the big screen, with the original music and patter, when they exist. For, indeed, we must repeat: the cinema of the years 1890-1900 was a “living spectacle”, with barkers at the entrance, and a pianist or orchestra, sound-effects men, and bonimenteurs or “lecturers” inside the auditorium. “Noise machines” were even built to accompany these films, producing thunderclaps, wind, lightning, rain, gunshots, etc."

"Almost all of Méliès’ films contained sound effects, which are rarely resuscitated today. When, in  1905, Méliès triumphantly projected two films on the stage of the Châtelet, during the féerie extravaganza Les Quat’ Cents Coups du diable, it is obvious that the show took on a completely different scope from today, since a full orchestra and sound-effects men were in the orchestra pit, while actors were performing on stage. On several occasions, and always felicitously, Méliès would revive this mixed-media experiment, half-cinematograph, half-theatre: Le Raid Paris–Monte-Carlo en automobile, the “great fantastic race funambulesque” that made fun of the automobile adventures of the King of the Belgians, Leopold II, was shown more than 300 times in 1905 at the Folies-Bergère."

"For want of reproducing Méliès’ stage féeries, magic, and cinematograph shows at the Châtelet – which should be done someday, just as one should also try to restore to life the cinematographic cadavre exquis that Henri Langlois and Georges Franju conceived in 1937 for  the “Gala des Fantômes” – the Cinémathèque française, which has always endeavoured to collect and protect the work of the “Magician of Montreuil”, has restored “in digital” (as we say nowadays) several rare films, entirely hand-painted."

"These aniline dyes, applied delicately on to the film – a painstaking task, frame by frame, on a minuscule surface, with sometimes astonishing precision – also constitute one of the major characteristics of a Méliès show. By adopting the bright colours of magic lantern plates, Méliès first gave additional life to the grey images of the cinematograph that had so dispirited Maxim Gorky in 1896. But he went even further, by literally creating a cinematographic language of colour: some of his special effects were not truly effective unless the film was painted with a brush. Obviously, his pyrotechnical tricks, gushes of smoke, lightning bolts, and starry-night effects on moving panoramic backcloths take on a completely different dimension in colour."

"For a long time, film archives were completely unequipped to save these fragile hand-painted incunabula. To preserve them from destruction, they were recopied in black & white, with disastrous results. The spread of colour cinema finally allowed for duplication, with techniques increasingly improved over time, up to today’s digital technology, which permits miracles (as well as regrettable aberrations). The four films presented here come from the collections of Madeleine Malthête-Méliès and Marie-Hélène Léhéressey-Méliès (who provided the original print of Rip Van Winkle), who have been extremely generous in depositing their nitrate films at the Cinémathèque française. They are all hand-painted. Savour these fireworks from a bygone, but ever so captivating, era!" – Laurent Mannoni

The restoration of these films has been made possible thanks to a CNC grant for the digitization of cultural heritage.

La Légende de Rip Van Winkle and Jeanne d’Arc were accompanied by the original live commentary (boniment) as performed at their earliest public screenings. The texts are preserved in the Méliès Archives, now in the collections of the Cinémathèque française. For the Giornate performances the original texts were translated into English (with Italian subtitles).

LE MERVEILLEUX ÉVENTAIL VIVANT (The Wonderful Living Fan) (Georges Méliès, Star Film - FR 1904) D: Georges Méliès; orig. l: 90 m.; 35 mm, 87 m, 5' (16 fps); no titles; print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris.
    AA: Féerie. The giant magic fan of whose sections ten beautiful women come alive, their costumes metamorphosing. Slightly low contrast but bright. Digital look, but gratifying.

Jeanne d'Arc (1900). Photo: La Cinémathèque française. Click to enlarge.

JEANNE D’ARC (Joan of Arc) (Georges Méliès, Star Film - FR 1900) D: Georges Méliès; orig. l: 250 m; 35 mm, 210 m, 11' (16 fps); print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris.
    AA: A historical epic in tableaux. Méliès is at the beginning of the lavish tradition of Jeanne d'Arc films, in contrast to the Dreyer-Bresson approach. Domrémy, the vision, denouncing the captain, the court of the King, Renault de Chartres, the coronation at Reims, the battle at Compègne, the siege of the fortress, Jeanne captured, the vision of the village, the interrogation, the burning at the stake. The signature bright red highlight of the hand-coloured films of Georges Méliès appears at the burning. The apotheosis: the ascent into heaven. - David Robinson was inspired as the bonimenteur in English. - The hand-colouring of the source material had been charmingly rendered in the restoration.

La Légende de Rip Van Winkle (1905). Photo: La Cinémathèque française. Click to enlarge.

LA LÉGENDE DE RIP VAN WINKLE (Rip’s Dream) (Georges Méliès, Star Film - FR 1905) D: Georges Méliès; orig. l: 405 m; 35 mm, 278 m, 15' (16 fps); print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris.
    Based on the short story by Washington Irving (1819).
    AA: Fiction, féerie. Another early, founding film adaptation of a beloved tale. Rip the village fool with a funny walks finds a hollow in the mountain in search of Captain Hudson's treasure. "Le rêve de Rip". In the fairy-tale grotto Rip meets the ghosts of Captain Hudson's crew and hacks up a snake which metamorphoses into gnomes. [My notes are confused and incomplete about this title.]. The colour is beautiful, but there is a slightly airless digital touch.

Le Raid Paris - Monte-Carlo en automobile (1905). Photo: La Cinémathèque française. Click to enlarge.

LE RAID PARIS – MONTE-CARLO EN AUTOMOBILE (An Adventurous Automobile Trip) (Georges Méliès, Star Film - FR 1905) D: Georges Méliès; SC: Victor de Cottens; C: Harry Fragson, Victor Maurel (rival motorists), Félix Galipaud, Séverin [Caffera], Jane Yvon (well-wishers at the Opéra), Antonich (giant), Little Pich (dwarf); orig. l: 200 m; 35 mm, 172 m, 9' (16 fps); no titles; print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Reconstructed from two hand-painted prints.
    The film was commissioned by the brothers Isola and the writer Victor de Cottens for the Folies-Bergère revue. It appears to have been a great success, and was exclusive to the theatre until the end of the run of the revue, after which it was made available to film exhibitors. It was evidently through the connection with de Cottens and the Folies that major stars of the stage agreed to take part, even if only for walk-ons, and presumably the surprise of recognizing current favourites was one of the attractions of the theatre presentation.
    AA: Fiction, comedy. Another first maybe? The first auto demolition movie? At least in Driven! The Desmet Automobile Show, curated by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, screened in Pordenone a few days ago, the earliest film was from the next year, from 1906. The chauffeur is clad in furs, and Little Tich (or an imitator) with his ultra long shoes appears in the beginning. The victims of the catastrophic journey involve policemen, pumps, mailmen, The Alps, Dijon, the customs officer with a pot belly, and vegetable stands. The magic car belongs to the gravity-defying vehicles of Méliès. The colour red appears in explosions, but also the car itself is bright red.

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