September 16, 2012

The Past is Future: Méliès Reprises His Magic at Cornell Cinema

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We often forget the magic of the old. Like a vintage, handwritten love letter in our day and age, this rare enchantment evokes feelings of nostalgic appreciation for things that we thought were once lost. And the more we move into the future, the less we feel in tune with the origins of the cinema, where the culture of going to the movies began.

Film magic initially made an appearance in the late 19th century with short clips like the Lumiére brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (A Train Comes Into the Station) (1897). The  film drew hoards of people into theaters, because experiencing reality in another dimension was something everyone wanted to do, even if only for a minute. L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat depicts a train hurtling towards the audience. People actually thought the train would run them over! They would leave the theater, horrified but thrilled to have experienced such groundbreaking cinematography. I have always wanted to experience the same sensation the audience felt a hundred years back on the big screen.

So last Thursday, I went to Cornell Cinema’s A Magical Méliès Evening. George Méliès was one of those magical cinematic innovators. He was one of the first experimenters of colored film. By coloring film strips individually by the hand, he created the first batch of unofficial colored films. It was unusual for his time. Yet everyone knew that when he transitioned from illusionist to filmmaker, he brought his magic along with him.

Of the six films shown that evening, Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902) was the highlight of the night. The film was found 20 years ago after being lost for nearly century. Following the most expensive film restoration in history, Le voyage dans la lune premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Since we are so accustomed to being exposed to state-of-the-art digital technology in films these days, you can’t help but notice the primitive nature of editing in that the film. Yet that is what makes it so admirable. The lengths that Méliès would go to just to relay a simple 15-minute story of a group of men going to the moon and back are simply charming.

The affect of modernity has taken its toll. Surprise and magic have evaporated, and the movies we now watch now are often downright predictable. The end of cinema is not what I’m talking about. It is a business that has stayed alive amidst all the economic depressions and tragedies. But where is the magic?

Nowadays, film lovers seem to yearn for the past by channeling their reminiscence through recent films such as Midnight in Paris, The Artist and Hugo. These movies are actually tribute pieces to the culture of the past. Back then, perhaps, art was far more deeply appreciated, because it was not as readily available as it is today.  And the human effort that went into filmmaking wasn’t something you could justify by purchasing a ticket at the box office. Maybe by looking back to the past, we can learn more about what may lie ahead.

Original Author: Teresa Kim