Mélies and Early Cinema(gic)

Lukasz Boron. Cineaction. Issue 82. 2010.

Before discussing the origins of the contemporary science-fiction genre, one must extrapolate a modern definition that is consistent with its earliest cinematic form. In one of the leading critical studies of American sci-fi cinema, Screening Space, Sobchack distills science-fiction to its first principles by analyzing its decisive role in the broad landscape of cinema. The genre is quite broad, in a sense, with various theorists offering numerous competing definitions. Sobchack, however, narrows her focus on the genre’s speculative nature, noting that:

The SF film attempts to meet our expectations by using the magic of design and special effects cinematography to show us things which do not exist, things which are highly speculative, which astonish us by the very fact of their visual realization on the screen since they have no counterparts in the world outside the theatre.

In his essay, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Altman distinguishes between two methods of analyzing genre theory. The sci-fi genre may be examined in terms of its semantic properties—a set of common characters types, locations, camera movements, and so forth—as well as its syntax—the denotation of meaning from its aforementioned semantic characteristics. Altman notes that, “The semantic approach thus stresses the genre’s building blocks, while the syntactic view privileges the structures into which they are arranged.” Though still in its gestational period, early cinema employs recurring motifs to define science-fiction’s syntactic theme of speculation. If traditional genre theory does indeed dictate science-fiction, then semantics are its bricks and mortar.

In The Aesthetics of Ambivalence, Landon surmises that, “Special effects facilitate the depiction of SF stories by providing the necessary images of non-existent phenomena—futuristic cities, other planets, space ships, aliens, faster-than-light travel” and the like. Arguably then, the first science-fiction motion picture in the history of cinema is Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), a film that entertains several salient examples of such visual speculation. Influenced by the earlier literary traditions of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men and the Moon, the story follows a spectacular journey to the moon aboard a makeshift rocket. After a group of explorers lands on its rocky and unstable surface, they are immediately surrounded by the strange and unfamiliar: streams of fire explode from beneath the surface; stars turn into women and snow appears to fall from the sky; after descending into the lunar surface, an umbrella magically transforms into a mushroom; the explorers encounter hostile moon creatures; captured by a society of civilized beings, the men escape in their rocket and fall back to earth unscathed. Le Voyage dans la Lune is a testament to the ideology of sci-fi cinema through overt motifs of speculation and its profound exploration of the unknown.

In “Early Film History and Multi-Media: An Archaeology of Possible Futures?” Elsaesser addresses the distinction between the genealogy and archeology of cinematic history: the former is concerned with trying to “trace back a continuous line of decent from the present to the past,” whereas the latter suggests history is written through individual, fragmented and discontinuous narratives. Modern scholarship aligns itself with the notion that early cinema is not primitive, rather, it is quite mature in its conception at the turn of the century. Following this reasoning, one can argue that cinema comes into existence after a period of gestation.

The grand narrative of science-fiction cinema is a discontinuous pastiche of competing histories. Cinema itself is envisioned as a technological collage of various contributing chronologies. Sci-fi genre theory is a residual narrative of distinct concepts that seek to reconcile Méliès’ films with the traditions of the magic theatre, trick photography, early film spectatorship, and the cinema of attractions. The magic theatre is perhaps the first decisive mode of displaying the power of illusion, in congruence with the visual shock of cinematic attractions.

In its basic form, early sci-fi cinema follows the historical tradition of the magic theatre, a model of exhibition first adopted by—a much younger—Méliès at the Theatre Robert Houdin in Paris. A practicing conjurer himself, Méliès “labour[s] to make visual that which …was impossible to believe” through proficient illusions. Méliès later transposes this to film by breaking the image down into its components of reception. Through masterful illusions, early authences are torn between science—the logic and objective knowledge that what they see is real—and fiction—the disbelief of seeing something that questions their preconceived knowledge of the object itself. In his article, “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in the Science Fiction Film,” La Valley provides an example of this in Le Voyage dans la Lune when the professor conjures a Selenite—a creature living beneath the moon’s surface—to disappear in a cloud of smoke, thereby making the impossible—spontaneous disappearance- seem possible. The filmmaker merges these two disparate notions through “his recognition that the film image combine[s] realistic effects with a conscious awareness of artifice.” Méliès develops the sci-fi genre at a curious juncture between objective truth and a subjective interpretation of the visual image.

Notable for his extensive work on early cinema, Gunning reconciles his discussion of early spectatorship with the sci-fi genre. In his article, “An Aesthetics of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” Gunning argues that the fundamental aesthetics of early cinema, or “the cinema of attractions,” imagines film through a sequence of visual shocks. In their infancy, the cinema-going authence “exists outside of the willing suspension of disbelief” and perceives the seemingly imaginary images onscreen—a journey to the moon in a makeshift rocket, an encounter with strange creatures, and subsequent return to earth—as real. The sequence of tableaus in Le Voyage dans la Lune reaches a climax during which Méliès relieves his authence through a moment of revelation or shock. Hurtling into space, the moon in the distance appears to grow in size and takes on a facial expression; it then grimaces in disapproval as the rocket crashed into its rocky landscape. In another instance, having escaped from their captors, the group of scientists is driven to the edge of a cliff where their rocket waits idly, and then plummets back to Earth. The ship falls from the sky and lands safely in the ocean where it is rescued. Early science-fiction is not dependent on narrative coherence but on “emphasizing the act of display” and consolidating wonder and revelation to a visually receptive authence.

In his notable essay, “Trucage and the Film,” Metz propose that early science-fiction depends on visual trickery to astonish the authence. He maintains that “trucage”‘—manipulations of trickery and visual effects unique to the aesthetics of the cinema—are an integral part of Méliès’ body of work. In his earliest efforts, Méliès uses the trick of disappearance in The Vanishing Lady (1896) when he entertains the possibility of making a woman vanish; replacing her with a skeleton he then conjures her subsequent re-appearance in front of the camera. Visual deception becomes a fundamental trope of Méliès’ aesthetic and of the sci-fi genre.

As King and Krzywinska surmise, “One of the pleasures offered by special effects is that technological progress is displayed at the level of the filmmaking process itself.” The film Méliès the Magician (1997) examines the technique Méliès uses to create these apparent tricks:

I invented this special type of unusual shot, which my clients called transformation shots … They were made with a series of techniques which can only be called trick shots. By chance, I’d found a trick stopping the camera, which permitted all kinds of substitutions … For this special effect, the camera is stopped at the moment when a character should appear or disappear.

Throughout his short films, Méliès compromises the linear continuity of time through the use of a “substitutions splice” and other such superimpositions, making it appear that an object has transformed into something entirely different. By stopping the camera and simply substituting one object for another, he uses invisible editing to suspend the authence’s disbelief in what they are seeing through short assemblages of staged, non-narrative fiction.

It is science-fiction cinema’s contingency on time that propagates several types of manipulation as a means of special-effect. As Doane notes in The Emergence of Cinematic Time, in the early films of Méliès, “time is above all extraordinary, elastic, producing unpredictable effects, insisting upon the uncanny instantaneity of appearance, disappearance, and transformations.” Popple and Kember assert that the cinéaste substitutes familiar theatrical amusements such as trapdoors, false sets, mirrors, smoke and staged lighting with nuances of cinematic photography to develop the “trick film.” A direct descendant of the Parisian magic theatre, cinema gives Méliès the freedom to control the passage of time during his filmed illusions.

The sci-fi genre is a product of early cinema technology and is defined by the present and future capabilities of the filmmaker’s apparatus. Méliès utilizes the ingenuity and visual nuances of cinema to create an entirely new genre. In “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction,” Stewart argues that:

Movies about the future tend to be about the future of movies… Science fiction in the cinema often turns out to be… the fictional or fictive science of the cinema itself, the future feats it may achieve scanned in line with the technical feat that conceives them right now and before our eyes.

From as early as 1899, Méliès models the use of trick photography as a means of trucage, even predating Le Voyage dans la Lune. “Melies was perhaps the first to realize that cinema offered a practical way in which time and space could be manipulated through tricks.” In Le Magicien (1899) he performs an illusion during which he makes a ballerina disappear, reappear, transform into confetti and, thereafter, into a conjurer, substituting a shot of a magician jumping off a table with the shot of a ballerina falling gracefully to the ground. In his 1904 short, The Mermaid, a man catches fish from inside a hat and, placing them inside an aquarium, transfigures them into a mermaid, who appears to float in the water through a technique of superimposition. He utilizes trick photography in The Living Playing Cards (1905) to make a deck of cards come to life—with a simple gesture, the Queen of Hearts emerges from her portrait and begins to walk towards the camera. As Gunning deduces, Méliès’ work is indicative of a “technological means of representation” that is unique to science-fiction cinema. Throughout his trick films, technological innovation becomes tantamount to the advancement of the science-fiction genre.

From a historiographical perceptive, how does Georges Méliès write the formative history of the sci-fi genre, and how can his fiction films—a creative and subjective version of nonhistory—be reunited with the archive? For the most part, contemporary film studies do not focus on how history is written through sci-fi. Science-fiction narratives advocate their ideological interpretations as texts, but they do not themselves write history. Méliès’ films are not a result of early cinema’s naivete, but are quite progressive.

Perhaps early cinema, this seemingly magical era of filmic discovery and innovation, is a unique example of how genres can write the history of film simply by being part of its inception. Precisely in his cinema, Méliès creates fictional, non-narrative, archival episodes of historical importance that demonstrate cinema’s reliance on spectatorship, magic and the mechanics of filmmaking to create an entirely new genre tradition. His trick films are overt archival documents of a distant and critically incongruent history of early cinema. The history of past and present science-fiction is written through film. Méliès is simply its founding author.

The science-fiction genre is a descendant of early cinema and the formative efforts of conjurer and cinéaste Georges Méliès. A critical discussion of modern sci-fi extrapolates the speculative nature of the genre: its foremost dependence on magic and special effects, astonishing the authence, and the realization of the impossible. Discussed in terms of its semantic and syntactic elements, classic genre theory proposes that motifs common to sci-fi are thematic of speculation and that special effects are used to depict unfamiliar visual images throughout Méliès work, namely in Le Voyage dans la Lune. Influenced profoundly by the magic theatre, Méliès creates onscreen illusions that convincingly merge the objective truth of science with the subjectivity of fiction, while remaining overly mindful of his ruse on the audience.

A product of the cinema of attractions, Méliès’ short films create visual shocks through salient moments of revelation by suspending disbelief and creating purportedly convincing visual images. His use of tricks is fundamental to the technique and aesthetics of science-fiction, demonstrated in such shorts as Le Magicien, The Mermaid, and The Living Playing Cards. Cinematic continuity is manipulated through transformation shots, using substitutions splices and superimpositions to make objects appear, disappear and transform into something else entirely. Méliès utilizes advancements in early cinema technology as his primary mode of representation, and is responsible for drafting the early history of the sci-fi genre through fictional trick films.

The work of Georges Méliès is, likewise, firmly grounded within the parameters of scientific objectivity. The notion of a heliocentric theory of early cinema is the basis for his aesthetic:

The camera is the spectator. The spectator in front of the screen says, ‘show me.’ I want to have a really passive part in the visual experience. Everything must move around me. Cinema must be like a planetary system, revolving around me, and I want to be at the centre of this system. I want to be the sun and the rest must move for me.

The struggle to grasp a definitive origin amidst the many discontinuities in film scholarship is a profound undertaking, prompting Elsaesser to go as far as to suggest that cinema, quoting Foucault, “has yet to be invented.” Perhaps sci-fi cinema has yet to enter into historiographical discussions because it has not achieved its full potential, either theoretically, technically, or conceptually. This may suggest that cinema itself, like a system of planets revolving around the omnipotent spectator, is ever expanding, and that scholarship can only speculate on its true formative origins. Regrettably, science-fiction genre theory may share a similar fate.