Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees a program of Georges Méliès movies

Film historian David Shepard was in Niles last Sunday to host a wonderful program which samples his newly released most-completest-ever 5-DVD box set of Georges Méliès films.

Okay, the 30 second summary for anyone who doesn't know who Méliès was, he was the first person to build a movie studio and make movies as pure entertainment. He was a London trained stage magician who directed and starred in the Paris Theater Robert-Houdin. When the Lumière Brothers invented the first cinematograph (the apocryphal story is he was present at the first ever public showing, in reality their father lived in the apartment above his theater and he undoubtedly knew about the cinematograph and saw early experiments well before then) he was immediately interested. The Lumières thought that the entertainment possibilities were a limited novelty that would fade, and the true future of motion pictures was science--especially medicine. So when they wouldn't sell him a cinematograph, he built his own (for you modern day DIY filmmakers, he punched his own sprocket holes in the film, so suck on that!). He amazed the world with his fantasies, powered by his showmanship as a stage magician. His most famous film is undoubtedly A Voyage to the Moon, even if you haven't seen it you probably know the classic shot of the moon face with a rocket in his eye. He ended up losing all his money in film (mostly from counterfeiters--fight piracy!), in a fit of depression burnt his collection, and what films remain were discovered in various private collections.

David Shepard's tireless work has uncovered somewhere around 180 films (I forget the exact number), including many that have never been on DVD. Like I said, it's the most completest set ever, and here's a little inside info--the two archives that didn't cooperate, now want to cooperate after seeing the final package. So maybe a supplemental disk in another year?

Anyway, the day was a wonderful sampling, starting with the documentary/loving tribute "Le Grand Méliès" (1952), starring his wife Marie-Georges as herself (aged 90 at the time) and his son André as him (Georges, not André). Then a smattering, just a taste really, of the lesser known Méliès, culminating with his 1912 30-minute epic "The Conquest of the Pole", which like his most famous "Voyage to the Moon" is also based on a Jules Verne story. In between there were shorts of varying lengths showing his fine showmanship and wicked sense of humor (Georges often starred in his movies as the devil).

And that, my friends, is the very beginning of cinema, at least as entertainment. And certainly the beginning of special effects. And it was awesome. So awesome, I bought the boxed set right there.

Update: The total number of films on the DVD set is 173. After writing I realized I could just look at the box and see.

Also, for silent film fans, the Niles Film Museum is hosting the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival this weekend. And then the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is in a few more weeks. I forgot to mention that.


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