March 6, 2012

Loud Grins in a Silent Theater: A Magical Méliès Evening at Cornell Cinema

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This year’s Oscars proved an Academy of chatty celebrities and green-is-good Hollywood executives could all join together in one room and celebrate a little silence. The praise for Best Picture winner, silent film The Artist was anything but quiet, with critics and statuettes alike embracing a medium long thought dead. Cornell Cinema’s Elegant Winter Party this past Saturday assured me this was no passing fad, but a genuine love for all the romance and purity of the silent film format, a love that has persevered for over a century’s time.Billed as a “Magical Méliès Evening,” the event was officially the winter fundraiser for the Cinema; at heart, it was the de facto annual summit for all Ithaca cinephiles. Men and women, young and old, found an excuse to dress up and chat among themselves over restaurant-catered hors d’oeuvres and the state’s finest ports. String lights dangled from the balconies and gold stars from the walls as silent Méliès films screened an ambient glow, with live piano accompaniment the likes of which most had never before seen. Willard Straight Hall’s relatively expansive theater shrunk to accommodate the hundreds of dapper cineastes and caterers bustling through the aisles, neither faction unwilling to dissect the poignant merits of George Clooney’s performance in last year’s The Descendants. Which they did. And all this was before the party even began.The agenda for the evening centered on pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès and his immortal 1902 masterwork, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). That film contains a shot most should recognize, that of a rocket ship lodged into an anthropomorphized eye of the Moon. Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s ode to Méliès, markedly featured this image last year, popularizing the man many never thought they knew. Director of Cornell Cinema Mary Fessenden explained that, “with all of this recent exposure, more people will rightly attribute that image to Méliès and know what an important figure he is in cinema history.”Those seated in the packed theater had no more excuses to ignore Mr. Méliès’ work with a double bill of A Trip to the Moon, in both black-and-white and color. Both formats had twists in their presentation. The black-and-white production featured the live accompaniment of eerie, Eno-esque electronic duo, The Electric Golem. James Spitznagel and Ithaca’s own Trevor Pinch took to the stage in wizard hats and grooved to the fantastical images on the screen. Actually, labeling the images as fantastic is a relatively tame way of putting it: A congregation of bearded astronomers shoots a bullet-shaped rocket to the moon, implanting the ship in the moon’s eye, and the astronauts roam the terrain — with no concerns for insufficient oxygen or gravity — to find ornate mushrooms and reptilian humanoids. Those aliens apprehend the astronauts, but not for long, since they will explode into a puff of smoke if hit with enough force, a technique the astronauts — who look like the result of Thomas Nast modeling the Seven Dwarves after Dumbledore — employ to escape their captivity. They then rush back to the spaceship, where it tips over a cliff and falls through space and into the Earth’s ocean. A parade celebrates their feat, ending with the townspeople and astronomers dancing around a statue that looks like the atrium fountain from the Ministry of Magic.The whimsy of it all somehow matches the spacey touch of Electric Golem’s accompaniment. This film is, after all, the first science fiction film and really the most thorough artistic expression on celluloid up to its time. Electric Golem’s vision was fittingly earnest, as any proper film critic would agree.Film preservationists also agree, spending almost 20 years restoring the damaged color print that was discovered in 1993 and premiering the remaster just last year, at Cannes Film Festival. Over a century before, Méliès and his team tinted each frame individually, adding bright colors to backgrounds and characters. With 14 minutes at 16 frames a second, the finished reel was a labor of love and triumph of exhibition. Considering preservationists went through similar lengths to restore the original negative, Cornell Cinema showcased the ultimate version of the film, with a history as old as its age.French electronic group AIR scored this restoration in a fashion very unlike that of The Electric Golem. Downtempo timpani marches, echoing guitar lines and pretty piano ballads filled the theater space as the painted images filled the screen. The cross-generational approach of modern electronica and vivid color atop primitive effects and structure proved oddly effective. I cite the exuberant, vocal ovation once the credits rolled as my witness.The night closed with a documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage, chronicling the film’s production and revival, with comments from French directors like Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet as well as Tom Hanks, who credited the advent of the 60s space race to Méliès’ vision six decades prior. Journey to the Moon, a short film by South African artist William Kentridge, was also thrown in the mix, for good measure. It featured stop-motion animation of telescopic teacups and pencil-scrawled moons, not taking itself too seriously but similarily beautiful in its dreamy flow.The bevy of auction items and door prizes — ranging from Cinema t-shirts to a Hugo companion book signed by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker ’61 — let a few lucky ticketholders walk away with a special something. But all attendies left not just with a little added knowledge of cinema’s first artist but a firsthand account on the emotions he stirred.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos