Perhaps, with the cataract of DVD’d MÃ©liÃ¨s mania besetting us the new comprehensive Flicker Alley box “George MÃ©liÃ¨s: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913),” the new, more modest and affordable Kino sampler “The Magic of MÃ©liÃ¨s,” both piling atop Facets’ standard “MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s’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 MÃ©liÃ¨s’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 MÃ©liÃ¨s is more than just the stop-motion special effects inventor and fin de siÃ¨cle 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 Ã©lan and spectacle of movies can be found in their prenatal form in MÃ©liÃ¨s’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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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, MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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, MÃ©liÃ¨s’s movies are beautiful to look at, the first triumphs of filmic design (and the most thoroughly conceived until German Expressionism.) Watching MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s, while the Flicker Alley set comes supplemented by Georges Franju’s 1953 reenacted biopic/whatzit “Le Grand MÃ©liÃ¨s.”)
On 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s’ “A Trip to the Moon,” 1902; “Khadak,” Lifesize, 2006]
“Georges MÃ©liÃ¨s: First Wizard of Cinema” (Flicker Alley), “The Magic of MÃ©liÃ¨s” (Kino) and “Khadak” (Lifesize Entertainment) are now available on DVD.