HERE’S LOOK­ING AT YOU

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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