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DID YOU READ

Georges Méliès, “Khadak”

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03182008_triptothemoon.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Perhaps, with the cataract of DVD’d Méliès mania besetting us — the new comprehensive Flicker Alley box “George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913),” the new, more modest and affordable Kino sampler “The Magic of Méliès,” both piling atop Facets’ standard “Méliès the Magician” disc — we can begin to consider the French pioneer as something other than a film history staple and an oddity for scholars. It’d be a brand new tact to take for films that, being over a century old, reach right back to the form’s infancy, movies’ equivalent of cave painting and hieroglyph carving. But there’s something effervescent and seductive there, a spirit of high innocence and ceaseless invention that has made several of Méliès’s elaborate images — most obviously, the man in the moon with the ship-bullet in his eye, from “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) — undying cultural icons, familiar to the masses who aren’t particularly aware of or even interested in the fact that the movies were being made during the McKinley administration.

Film geeks don’t need to be sold; objects like the Flicker Alley box, which bundles (and thoroughly indexes) most of Méliès’s surviving films (over 170 out of more than 540), are a cinephile’s idea of shipwreck treasure, long thought lost. But it’s become clear that Méliès is more than just the stop-motion special effects inventor and fin de siècle fantasist he’s normally defined as having been — or, that those definitions are more resonant cultural ideas than we have usually presumed. Certainly, returning to the artesian source for every manifestation of cinematic mystery and sleight-of-hand has its own aesthetic buzz — the essential élan and spectacle of movies can be found in their prenatal form in Méliès’s short dreams, whether they be mere trickery or elaborate fairy tales, such as “The Impossible Voyage” (1904), a 20-minute epic that uses up more visual imagination and hectic chaos than most features made in the next 40 years.

There are no Méliès masterpieces — he worked in the era before such a concept was even hatched. And it’s true, as per the classic historical argument, that his films occupy a 2-D theatrical space in comparison with the early Edwin S. Porters and D. W. Griffith. (The performances in Méliès are far more expressive, amusing and, ironically, rich in conviction than any contemporaneous film, however.) But that’s like dismissing Bosch because he wasn’t Rembrandt. It could be said that as a pioneer, Méliès expanded the cinematic vocabulary by skipping over the third dimension and extending towards a fourth — a way of seeing that evoked the unseen and the impossible, a use of recorded light that palpably smacked of the metaphysical. He elaborated on a space familiar to everyone at the time (the theater proscenium) and then, as if by magic, transformed it into the saw-it-with-our-own-eyes unreality of the ghostly and the subconscious. Not for nothing was Freud a youthful contemporary — but Méliès never dared to suggest textual insight, making only comedies and always, always striving towards irreverence, another advantage he had and still has over Porter and Griffith.

But more than that, Méliès’s movies are beautiful to look at, the first triumphs of filmic design (and the most thoroughly conceived until German Expressionism.) Watching Méliès is like seeing a secret, a lost and ancient gray universe of pre-technological inventions, nursery rhyme caricature, painted landscapes, cartoon Victorian affluence, trains and ships and cars that are obviously just facades but into which characters climb anyway, moons and stars, many of them with anthropomorphous faces, human butterflies, outrageous cross-section views (Wes Anderson’s debt remains unpaid), deceptive perspectives, movies within movies, faeries and imps, classical paintings come to life, relentless disappearances and reappearances, and so, infinitely, on. It’s an arena of unfettered childlike wonder, a Seine of blissful unreality, as energetic and joyous as a playground, and comparable, as pop art, to the career work of Maxfield Parrish, Chester Gould, Cole Porter, Bing Crosby, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Kirby, The Beatles and Hayao Miyazaki. Put that in your Cinema 101 DVD deck and smoke it.

(It should be noted that the Kino disc comes with a 1978 American bio-doc about Méliès, while the Flicker Alley set comes supplemented by Georges Franju’s 1953 reenacted biopic/whatzit “Le Grand Méliès.”)

03182008_khadak.jpgOn another faraway planet, Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth’s “Khadak” (2006) shows us a Mongolia we haven’t seen before, and does it in the course of a trippy magical realist tale that seems, despite the filmmakers being Belgian and American respectively, authentic to the region. Our hero, Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa), is the fatherless lad of a small sheep-herding clan living on the “gobi” plains; he suffers occasional seizures, which seem to insert his consciousness into a parallel realm where only the local shamaness can reach him. Their world is upset when a reputed livestock plague forces the Mongolian government to relocate the family to a semi-industrialized mining town, complete with blocks of workers’ housing shooting up abruptly like an aging dystopia against the doggedly blue Central Asian sky. Eventually, Bagi is hospitalized for his seizures and must escape from the system — but “Khadak” hangs on its plot frame like a silk sheet blowing in the wind, making spectral connections and conjuring evocative tableaux and visually mourning the tragic, soulless modernization of an ancient world. (A two-minute tracking shot of the family’s physical removal from the wilderness, with hazmat-suited soldiers and furniture stranded on the steppes in a Magritte-like dislocation, is typical of the film’s virtuoso and expressive yet oblique approach.) Brosens and Woodworth make full use of the Asian dusklight and the steam that rises from everything in the Mongolian cold, and seize on compositions in depth, and try as I might, I saw no evidence of a Western, orientalistic perspective. (In fact, it’s a much more elusive and de-Westernized film than, say, indigenous products like “Mongolian Ping Pong” or “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol.”) If “Khadak” fragments in its last quarter, abandoning bilateral universes and chronology, that’s because that’s what’s happening to the old life, free and independent and intimate with the ground and sky. All that’s left, it would appear, is the magic in our heads.

[Photos: Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon,” 1902; “Khadak,” Lifesize, 2006]

“Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema” (Flicker Alley), “The Magic of Méliès” (Kino) and “Khadak” (Lifesize Entertainment) are now available on DVD.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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