Some people that I know have this silly notion that I hate all European directors, and when I point out several that I do like I'm told they conformed to Hollywood standards and thus don't count. Well, much as I've criticized Jean-Luc Godard it's time now to go a little bit further back and look at a good French director. Not only a talented man but quite possibly one of the most significant auteurs in the history of film, the man who made a few crucial discoveries that would begin to shape cinema as an art form and clear the way for others to shape it into what it is today. That man was Georges Méliès.
You may or may not immediately recognize the name, but either way there was no doubting the influence this man had on the film industry. You may remember him from Martin Scorese's Hugo where he was played by Ben Kingsley and we got to learn in great detail much of his life story. Alternatively you may also recall one of his most famous movies, 1902's La Voyage dans la Lune (better known in English as A Trip to the Moon) and its famous image of the bullet crashing into the moon's eye. As a film genre, science fiction would not become widely recognized until the 1950's with George Pal's Destination Moon, but it has been a part of cinema since the beginning thanks to Méliès.
Méliès' story is indeed a fascinating one. It is a tale of triumph and tragedy. Before Méliès came along, film was just a passing commercial fad and nobody understood its full potential. For a while there was a popular attraction known as the "nickelodeon" (not to be confused with the modern children's television network). Essentially the way it worked was you would walk into a bar or some other public place and there would be a few boxes you could look into. Placing a nickel into one would allow you to glimpse a moving image, you'd watch that and then you would go to the next one and put another nickel in and see that image. For a while they were popular but after a while people got bored with them. It was believed there was no future.
Meanwhile, we also had the Lumiere Brothers, a pair of filmmakers who also never fully understood the potential of what they had access to. To them, a film camera was not much different from a photo camera. You simply set it up and recorded things as they happened, the only difference being that you could now produce a moving picture instead of a single still frame. They did a lot of these documentations of everyday occurrences like workers leaving a factory or a train pulling into a station, and loved to show them off to audiences.
Enter Georges Méliès, a simple magician who became so fascinated with the "moving pictures" he decided to create a few of his own. Then one day he made an incredible discovery. The story goes that he was one day out on the side of the road with his camera. At that point he was still just photographing it, but then his camera jammed and it took him some time to fix it.
When he went back over the footage, he saw something remarkable (I've heard a few different versions of exactly what, but the one I've usually described is that he saw a car apparently disappear). By total accident, Méliès discovered the "stop trick" (a technique he would use a lot in the years to come) and realized that film was much more than a simple photographic tool.
At the time, he may not have fully understood the world he was about to open up. He certainly would not have realized how many people would be inspired by and build off of his work. He would not have known how much of an impact this simple accident would have on the following decades, unknowingly clearing a path for thousands of filmmakers to come, making it possible for this very blog to exist.
To him, as a magician, he was simply interested in creating illusions and that was exactly what he did. Méliès realized that film could be used not just for documenting everyday life but also to create incredible fantasies. In the years to come he would gain his own studio with a cast and crew and plenty of then-cutting edge special effects at his disposal with which he let his imagination run wild. He was also the first person to really edit his movies, although the nature of his editing may seem primitive to modern audiences (he'd always shoot entire scenes from one angle, although he would often put each scene in a different set and used his "stop trick" to create various illusions of transformations and people appearing and disappearing).
The sad part is one that you should be all too familiar with if you've seen Hugo. As great as Méliès was he ultimately just could not keep up with other filmmakers. For a long time his works were a novelty, but then Edwin Porter came along with The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery which brought about more sophisticated filmmaking techniques. Those were followed by D.W. Griffith making the first feature film Birth of a Nation which brought about methods of filming and editing still used today. Various other misfortunes began to pile up on him and a lot of Méliès' films were destroyed in order to re-purpose their material for use in World War I. In the end, Méliès ended up running a toy shop in Gare Montparnasse, a train station in Paris (you may remember this part being explored in Hugo) and died of cancer in 1938.
The influence of Méliès on modern cinema cannot be denied. He was the first person to recognize that film was an art form, not just a new way to document things as they happened. In that sense, Méliès is essentially the first major auteur of cinema. Looking at his films it is clear that the man had not only quite the imagination but also a sheer passion for the films he made, and it all ties back to his beginnings as a magician. He simply loved to create illusions, but found a whole new way to express that love which would open the door for many others over the following decades. Even today many of the greatest filmmakers owe something to Georges Méliès.
Sadly, only a small fraction of Méliès' films have survived, but the ones that have continue to be studied and analyzed. Even with technological advancements since his time it is hard not to see his passion carried through his work. Méliès was an actor, a magician, and the first major film director, and he was a genius in all those respects.