1899: 4 movies

posted 2012 July 9

Panorama of Calcutta 
Produced by the Warwick Trading Company
Cinematography by John Bennett-Stanford
Not really of Calcutta at all

   Three years earlier, in 1896, the Lumieres shot a couple movies from trains, and one from a gondola as it rowed through the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. So, this wasn't the first instance of a moving shot, and not even of a gondola shot, but it is a very warm and lively movie of India. The focus gets in closer, rather than just filming for the sake of filming. The camera is absorbed in every person, in the scanning of the life along this river.
   Not actually footage of Calcutta at all, the setting is the holy city of Varanasi. Warwick Trading Company was a movie-prodcution company that began in 1898 and two years later was the biggest movie company in England.

La colonne de feu
Directed by Georges Méliès; 
Starring Jeanne d'Alcy

   Fiery, blazing, like no other movie before, and probably since. The coloring, set decoration, and acting are performed at an extreme level of hellishness, so that it feels as if Melies has somehow managed to sneak his camera down to the Inferno and back. The source for this movie is the novel She by H. Rider Haggard, and the dance, of course, is the serpentine. Somehow, it feels like the first time we've seen it. The dance comes to life, it makes sense here. We understand what it's been trying to do now. 
   Shout-outs are in order for the two uncannily great performances. The title translates from French as "The column of fire".

L'impressionniste fin de siècle 
Directed by Georges Méliès; 
Starring Georges Méliès

    Like many of Melies' movies, this one features a magician's show, but the editing has a special fire this time. For example, when Melies lifts the young woman and transforms her into a handful of confetti, we feel her weight disappear, and the shock is palpable. But the clincher is when Melies transforms into the young woman mid-jump, and vice-versa. 
   The title translates from French as "The turn-of-the-century impressionist".

Le portrait mystérieux
Directed by Georges Méliès;
Starring Georges Méliès

   This movie has one gag, and by today's standards it's a pretty simple and outdated cinematic gag that anyone can do with the right computer software: characters from two different exposures talking to each other. But Melies was the first to do it. Actually he did it even earlier than this instance. He did it for the first time in the previous year. So, the achievement here is a little bit diminished, but Melies builds up to the gag so meticulously and so charmingly that it's still quite nice and it outshines a lot of Melies' flashier and needlessly complicated versions of the same general idea.  A great touch of creativity is the un-blurring and re-blurring of the portrait, which makes the portrait seem as if it were really a painting coming to life.
   The title translates from French as "The mysterious portrait".

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