Archive for Melies

The Sunday Intertitle: Faust Person Singular

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2021 by dcairns

Having enjoyed Enrico Guazzoni’s quirky UNA TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, I decided to check out some of his epic or quasi-epic work. FAUST is from 1910, a year when epics ran short and small to modern eyes: Goethe’s play, credited as the source, is compressed into eighteen minutes here.

Time, that interfering studio executive, has wrought its adjustments to Enrico’s work, adding a weird cyclone of whirling white and black scratches or streaks, roving over the action and occasionally obscuring it completely. Fortunately we can still see the backdrops and costumes — Mephistopheles sports not so much horns as insectoid antennae, and has great fun swirling his cape like a serpentine dancer — and the performances which are certainly vigorous. These, after all, are not just early silent film performers, but Italians. However, they don’t perform their ebullient mimes outward, at us, Keystone-fashion, but at each other. I approve.

Guazzoni uses the story as an excuse for stage-magic puffs of smoke and jump-cuts in the Melies fashion, but his most interesting effect is when, as stated in the above intertitle, “Mephisto shows Faust an image of Marguerite in a magic mirror.” To accomplish this, Guazzoni alternates between two shots:

First, a wide shot of the scene, a cave. Mephisto holds up the magic mirror, which currently reflects nothing but bright light.

Then E.G. cuts to another shot, closer but still pretty wide, with different (dimmer) lighting, and now we can see Marguerite (cast details are sketchy but this may well be Fernanda Negri Pouget) genuinely reflected in the mirror. Once she’s made her impact, we cut back to the earlier angle and she’s gone.

It feels like getting her to appear and disappear in one shot was too difficult, so the director resorted to an unconventional angle change. The interpolation of closeups was barely established as part of film language (Griffith would get into it a year later), so he uses a rather spacious wide, which cuts jarringly with the shots either side of it, especially since the image gets markedly darker too. It feels like we’ve been transported to a whole other cave, though it’s probably the same backdrop from an angle to the right of the original.

But none of the clunkiness matters because it doesn’t feel exactly like an attempt at continuity cutting — it is, after all, a piece of magic Mephistopheles is performing here.

Guazzoni gets up to some other neat business — soon, the painted scenery gives way to real locations, allowing the actors to move from silhouette in an archway to brightly lit in the sun. The transitions from studio to reality are pretty smooth, in part because the sets aren’t always just flats and furniture, but sometimes have real chunky architectural heft to them. It’s actually hard to be sure sometimes if the action is outdoors, or indoors-pretending.

The French intertitles are still spoiler-heavy: the idea that it might be more dramatic to set up, say, the duel with Marguerite’s brother, via title card, but let the outcome be a surprise revealed by the action itself, has not occurred to anyone, or at least not anyone who got listened to. But there might even be a reluctance to shock the audience that way, a feeling they might need a bit of a warning of the impending death. Contains mild peril.

The image of the brother lying prone outside his house resonates peculiarly with me since I just collapsed in my own back yard while taking Momo out for his daily walk. It looked just like this. Low blood sugar seems to be the cause rather than anything more serious, an indication, however unpleasant, that my attempts to reverse my diabetes with a low-carb diet may be succeeding only too well.

Drink plenty of water. I don’t know if that advice would have helped Dr. Faustus, but what the hell, it couldn’t hurt.

The Birth, and Afterbirth, of Cinema

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , on May 28, 2020 by dcairns

Tsk.

From earliest times, man has been fascinated by the moving image. Fascinated or repelled, I can’t decide.

Stone-age man would daub the walls of his dwelling with fermented berry juice and then, as the firelight flickered, watch agog as the crude pictograms would seem to move, depending on how much of the berry juice he’d drunk. And if his cave walls were rough and uneven, he got a 3D effect. Some neanderthal artists even took a chisel to their smooth sandstone interiors in order to cheat and “upscale” their images. Like modern cinema, these early “flickers” were divided into several popular genres: deer, bison, mammoth and rom-com. Of these forms, only the mammoth production is still practiced successfully today.

The thaumatrope, from the Greek thauma, meaning “draw a bird in a cage,” and trope, meaning “I can’t.”

A short while later, in the eighteenth century, fairgoers were amazed by a simple spinning disc with a bird painted on one side and an upside-down cage on the other. When you pulled a string with your fingers, the disc spun, and the bird seemed to be inside the cage, depending on how much of the berry juice you’d drunk. These “digital versatile discs,” like modern cinema, were divided into genres, such as dove, owl, French hen, cockatiel, erotic thriller, and cormorant (the size of disc required by this large and conspicuous waterbird required two strong men to pull the string, and it set off a powerful draught, making it a popular summer blockbuster). This provided wholesome entertainment until artists learned to paint birds inside cages, which meant you could look at them with both hands free, and thousands of pioneering moving image artists were thrown on the breadline (so named because it was originally made from bread, or what passed for bread).

Next came the era of the lanternists. With an oil lamp and some painted slides, these showmen could cast images upon primitive “screens” (so named because they were originally made from screens). Movement was still impossible, but audiences paid exorbitant prices, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, to witness a series of frozen images, anticipating the streaming services of today.

But soon, the age of the nickelodeon, so named because it was originally made of nickel, was at hand! Customers, or “chumps,” deposited something or other (historians are divided: either money or bitumen) into a machine, then turned a handle. The machine then showed them a kind of virtual reality simulation of the point of view of a manservant. These popular attractions became known as “first-person-butlers,” and wowed audiences with realistic depictions of ladies disrobing, anticipating the streaming services of today. It is thought that early man believed, wrongly, that gazing upon such images would bring him success in the hunt.

Entrepreneurs soon realised that it would be more efficient if they could somehow show the same image to all their customers at once, allowing them to have both hands free. But how to achieve such a dream?

Joined at the head, the Lumiere Brothers were an unique medical case, since one was two years older than the other. Nobody could figure out how that happened.

When the youngest Lumiere brother, Gummo, invented the film projector, Paris was agog. And yet, technologically, it was simple: rotating cogs pulled a strip of celluloid perforated down the sides, through a “gate” as a bright light was passed through it, focussed by a lens, hitting a screen. The public flocked to see it. But soon, the novelty began to wear off.

It was Gummo’s elder brother, Shemp Lumiere, who hit upon the idea of making the device more interesting. What if you printed images on the film? The result was a sensation.

When the first moving picture, or “piccy,” showing a train arriving at a station, flickered onto the screen, there was confusion, with several audience members thinking the locomotive was real, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, and trying to board it, resulting in damage to the screen and their noses. Another film, depicting workers leaving a factory, caused panic as those in the front rows feared they were about to be crushed by the advancing proletariat.

Film pioneer Georges Melies reaps the rewards of his brilliant career.

Among the first viewers of these simple early illusions was stage magician Georges Melies, billed as “Le Amazing Georges.” He immediately saw the possibilities of combining cinema with magic, and made his own film of workers leaving a factory in which the factory was a hanging miniature and the workers were elaborately costumed mice. But soon he moved on to more fantastical scenes, including birds in cages and ladies disrobing.

From a cave industry to a cottage industry, cinema now became an industry industry, or “industry.” Like the very first image-makers in their damp grottos, the new moguls often came from the fur trade, which is why they had names like Fox, Coen (originally Coney), Warner (originally Warmer) and Goldfish. From the simplest of beginnings, they fashioned vast, vertically-integrated conglomerates to supervise the filming, distribution, exhibition, and ultimately the careless destruction, of motion picture films.

Being Segundo, He Has To Try Harder

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 3, 2017 by dcairns

Very happy to discover this, Segundo de Chomon’s final film as director, LULU from 1923. The Spanish master kept working as cinematographer, special effects artist etc, climaxing with effects work for Gance’s NAPOLEON, which may be what killed him. I’m speculating.

LULU appeared six years after the epic WWI puppet film, LA GUERRA E IL SOGNO DI MOMI, a very strange piece of work, but one which nevertheless does seem to make a kind of sense. Though smaller and simpler, LULU makes very little sense.

A drunken chimpanzee in a suit comes home and starts doing magic tricks and… wait. Is this Lulu? Why does he have a girl’s name? Why is he a chimp? Why is a chimp a magician? What does his being drunk have to do with anything?

Chomon started life as a Méliès imitator, but one so talented that his copies were often even more beautiful than the originals (though we must deduct points for lesser originality, of course). To cinema’s existing bag of tricks he added the combining of live action with animation, something Méliès never got into (his films, all live-action, just LOOK like cartoons with real humans inserted). He experimented with early colour processes and created the first purpose-built dolly.

Méliès films are pretty strange, and Chomon’s copies are at least equally so, and shorts like AN INCOHERENT JOURNEY take things even further, but with that one the title puts things in some kind of reassuring context, like somebody NOTICED all the incoherence and thought it was worth remarking on. WHY IS THIS FILM CALLED LULU?

Things get stranger. Lulu (if that’s who the inebriated simian occultist is) is pestered in his bijou apartment by a home invasion from a stumpy burglar character, blessed with a scary CLOCKWORK ORANGE long nose. Using vanishing and reappearing tricks, Lulu teleports the shit out of this guy, and then teleports a passing constable into the flat, NOT to arrest the now comatose would-be criminal, but to witness Lulu stashing the guy in his closet. What’s going to happen now? The film ends.

My best theory is that seventy-odd years later, that burglar has grown into the gimp in PULP FICTION but, again, I’m speculating.

(I know this is Sunday, and I know this film is light on intertitles — a little explanation would be welcome, Segundo — but at least it’s a silent. If I get another late silent film viewed today, you may get your weekly intertitle yet.