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FRANCE was the hot spot for the pioneers of the new cinematic form at the turn of the 19th century. The Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph quickly overwhelmed Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope and French entrepreneurs were enthralled by, and quick to build on, Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s projections on to a vast white canvas square at the 1900 World’s Fair.
Consequently, the names that remain recognisable from that rich creative period are those of the Lumieres, the Pathe brothers and Leon Gaumont. But someone just as influential — a contemporary of the Lumieres and Pathes — became the forgotten man of early French cinema. No studio now bears the name of Georges Melies.
‘‘ Melies the Magician’’ was arguably the most dynamic and creative of early filmmakers. The conjurer opened his first studio, at Montreuil, in 1897. It was not long after the Lumieres had their first screening for 33 paying customers in the basement of Paris’s Grand Cafe, on December 28, 1895.
After seeing an early Lumiere screening, Melies appreciated the form’s potential, producing a withering number of entertainments. After seeing the visual result of his camera jamming, he was also the first to appreciate that the form could manipulate time and space. He pioneered special effects such as double exposures, split screens and dissolves before commerce, circumstance and taste passed him by.
His talents were lost in the stampede as cinema audiences focused on stars, including Frenchman Max Linder, the Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin. Then World War I changed everything. Melies was bankrupt by 1923 and was discovered running a candy and toy shop at the Montparnasse railway station in 1928. He was celebrated at a 1929 gala but then forgotten, a cinema footnote whose works had been mostly destroyed.
His creative resurrection is well under way, however, and fellow travellers from different art forms continue to bow to his eminence. Most obvious of them is Brian Selznick with his children’s tale and graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, inspired by Melies’s life. It was only natural that director and cinephile Martin Scorsese would be the one to bring that story to the screen as Hugo, with the help of screenwriter John Logan.
Something was in the air. Hugo, and its five Academy Awards, arrived last month as French band Air released its soundtrack to Melies’s best known film — it features the widely seen image of a rocket landing in the moon’s face — Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). In Melbourne, audiences at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image’s career retrospective of artist William Kentridge’s work, Five Themes, will notice one of his themes, Artist in the Studio, includes the multi-screen homage 7 Fragments for Georges Melies.
Kentridge says ‘‘ it was a revelation’’ when he saw Melies’s work a decade ago. He realised he had seen stills but hadn’t yet seen the films. ‘‘ I just love the fact that he made 500 films [in 20 years]. It’s like every day some new idea is carried out. And I’m also astonished at the technical skill to have done all those multiple overlayings without the ease of video-editing. It has a sense of the Edwardian or late Victorians’ capacity for work,’’ Kentridge says. ‘‘ The workload that would be undertaken to get that physically made. It’s astonishing.’’
Air’s Nicolas Godin admits he and JeanBenoit Dunckel had to show similar industry after being commissioned to write a score to accompany Le Voyage dans la Lune’s screening for last year’s Cannes film festival. ‘‘ We had to say yes straight away because we would have no time to think about it,’’ he says of latching on to the back of a 10-year restoration. ‘‘ It was crazy.’’
The duo thought it would require less work because a soundtrack, such as they wrote for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, normally has one theme that is used throughout the movie. ‘‘ But it was a silent movie, of course, so we have to make music for every scene,’’ Godin says with a chuckle at the realisation. ‘‘ And because there’s no dialogue, the music becomes dialogue, so the music has another role. You don’t use it the same way.
‘‘ The second scene we used the same theme as [in] the first, but it didn’t work at all, it was boring, it was repetition. So we had to come up with another track and on and on like that until the end. Now I know how to score a silent movie, but I’m not sure I want to do it again because this is so unique; it is an achievement.’’
Despite the rush, the band is happy with its work, which recently has been released as a CD-DVD with the restored and colourised film. The musicians seemed to adopt Melies’s modus operandi unwittingly in their music. ‘‘ It’s very spontaneous and very personal because when you work too much you control things too much and it’s too much polished, you know,’’ Godin says.
‘‘ Sometimes the truth is better when you go fast because you cannot control things and it’s more honest.’’
Beyond being French and, arguably, France’s most popular international band alongside Daft Punk, Air, with its ethereal, electronic music with a sci-fi bent, was a natural fit for Melies’s film. ‘‘ Yes, I think it’s pretty close to our dreams and our universe and we were pretty happy to do the movie,’’ Godin says. ‘‘ It makes sense in one way because of our history. We came to the world with Moon Safari [Air’s 1998 genre-bending debut album].’’ Godin also recalls his professional jealousy when his friends in Daft Punk were commissioned to write the score for the film Tron Legacy. ‘‘ They were so lucky to find such a movie that fits them,’’ he says. ‘‘ When I saw Melies I thought that was the kind of movie for us because it is exactly what we like.’’
Godin and Dunckel were familiar with Melies’s work, partly because ‘‘ we are obsessed with magic . . . And we are very nostalgic about the magicians,’’ Godin says, mentioning France’s ‘‘ very big tradition’’ of magicians before and after Melies, including 19th-century groundbreaker Jean Eugene Robert-houdin.
‘‘ I imagine myself as a magician on tour through central Europe in the 19th century, very good moments like that, it’s a big fantasy. Melies thought cinema was another way to do magic with special effects. He invented special effects really.’’
Godin is not alone in being drawn to the magic of Melies’s work. Logan is well known as a playwright and has also written the screenplays for Gladiator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Coriolanus and the upcoming James Bond movie Skyfall. Logan says his body of work, including the recent animated film Rango, suggests he’s ‘‘ not particularly interested in grim naturalism’’ and more interested in ‘‘ things with a little panache, some would say overly theatrical flair. Melies is one of the first filmmakers to truly explore the fantastic, the theatrical, the sort of magic trick of cinema, and I’ve always loved Melies for that,’’ he says.
Regarding Hugo, Logan is quick to give credit to Selznick’s ‘‘ masterpiece’’ of a novel, a book he regards as a Dickensian, ‘‘ very simple story of a broken boy finding a home’’. But Melies comes to the fore in Scorsese’s film, which is also a celebration of early cinema and a homage to the landmark figures who preceded Logan, Scorsese and all others working in the movies.
Logan regards that aspect of Hugo as ‘‘ deeply significant’’ due to Hollywood’s ‘‘ very short memory’’.
At Cannes, however — a cinephile epicentre — Godin says expectations were high for Le Voyage dans la Lune, despite Melies’s outsider status. ‘‘ It represented so much and is such a big symbol for so many people that I admire that I thought: ‘ Oh my god, what have we done?’ ’’ Godin says.
‘‘ It’s like we should never had done it because the music has nothing to do with 1902 and nothing to do with the original movie. Melies never thought of putting music on his movie . . . and we add something, we created another piece of art, you know.’’
Godin and Dunckel briefly and too late questioned whether they had the right to do it, despite being unencumbered or given any direction while developing the score. They wondered whether they’d committed ‘‘ blasphemy or something like that’’.
Obviously, the duo has reconciled its involvement now, partly because of the way in which Hugo has helped expose Melies’s story, and now his few remaining films, to a wider audience. ‘‘ Certainly, what we wanted to do with the music is, if you look at the movie, you have a real pleasure and entertainment thing and not see it like a museum piece,’’ Godin says.
‘‘ This pleasure is the best gift we could give to Melies.’’ Air’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (CD-DVD) is released through EMI. William Kentridge: Five Themes, Australian Centre of the Moving Image, Melbourne, until May 27.
Hugo, in cinemas now; DVD out May 23.
The famous image from Georges Melies’s 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune
French duo Air