Do You Believe in Magic?

(Ethan Gates)– The greatest magician who ever lived was, in my humble opinion, not Harry Houdini, but a French illusionist by the name of Georges Méliès. Méliès had an unremarkable stage career in the late 19th century, but he was destined to make his mark in less conventional fashion. In 1895, while visiting a traveling fair with his wife, Méliès stumbled upon a demonstration of a marvelous new invention: the cinematograph.

Moving pictures. It’s impossible for us to understand today the effect these simple images had on an audience that had never before witnessed anything like it. The things that the Lumière brothers captured with their camera were simple, everyday scenes: workers leaving a factory, a train station, etc. But now they saw them in an entirely new light.

Méliès was entranced. While the Lumières thought their invention was nothing more than a sideshow gimmick, to be used only to record simple little slices of life, Méliès saw something different: an opportunity to dive into the world of dreams. Buying his own studio in 1897, Méliès proceeded to crank out 531 films by 1914, and almost every single one of them was a work of pure fantasy: underwater adventures, trips to the moon, mad scientists. He took his magician’s training to heart and did the Lumiéres one better: he showed audiences something they had literally never seen before. He employed almost every in-camera special effect known to man, including time-lapse photography, multiple exposure and dissolves to consistently shock and amaze his viewers.

I would go on with the details of the life of this fascinating Frenchman, but I would rather leave that to Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, who not only makes movies but adores them like no other director working today, has crafted an absolutely wondrous tribute to the pioneers of early cinema, and Méliès in particular, in his new film “Hugo,” based on the illustrated novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick. Seriously, RUN, do not walk, to see this movie. If you have any interest in film or film history, you will be delighted by the endless references to the masters who cleared the way for filmmakers like, well, Scorsese. And even if you couldn’t care less about Harold Lloyd or D.W. Griffith, you won’t help but get caught up in the stirring adventure that Scorsese has crafted – as young Hugo races through a fantastical Parisian train station, one feels the same child-like wonder in exploring this world as we felt with Narnia, or Neverland, or Hogwarts.

There is a certain kind of spectacular cinema that Hollywood rarely produces any more. It used to be the goal of filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and the tag team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to inspire a sense of awe with their images. Call it escapism perhaps, but no other medium has the same power to present us with new, fantastic worlds: in a dark theater, with nothing else to look at but those towering figures on the screen, it’s easy to be transported. Those filmmakers exaggerated, manipulated, created, imagined, and they did it so thoroughly and so well that for two hours, the “real world” ceased to exist.

These days, CGI has perhaps made it too easy to show us something “we haven’t seen before.” Rarely is the kind of effort put into designing a completely new world from the ground up. There are exceptions of course: the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies, “Avatar;” those films demonstrated a kind of daring (expensive) craft that studios are often scared to commit to.

Early filmmakers didn’t have to worry about that. They had no traditional way of doing things, no box office formulas, no one telling them what audiences would or wouldn’t like. Film was what people imagined it could be. Méliès pictured a world of magic and dreams and impossibilities; what do we see now?

Three to Think About: Early Classics That Everyone Should Watch

  1. The General (1926)
  2. The Great Train Robbery (1903) 
  3. Safety Last! (1923)