Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Melies, Magic, and Aristotle

David Cook mentions, in History of Narrative Film, that Georges Melies was a magician. That may be neither here nor there when it comes to his contributions to cinema--the fade, sequencing of scenes to make a narrative, et. al.--but it does seem linked with the one illusion that his films seem to feature almost ritually, as a key element in the action--the object or character that's suddenly there, or suddenly gone.

In "The Haunted Castle," there is no castle, or a clear story beyond a series of disappearing things and characters. They are suddenly there, and suddenly gone, therefore haunting, and the setting, one room with some features that add a provisional sense of grandeur, becomes the castle. Gunning's discussion of cinema of attractions, the possibility that early film was more about the spell cast by the technology than any narrative, makes this kind of narrative seem like less of a story than a show, made to display what cinema can do. Cook's argument with Gunning, that writing of the time makes story seem like a vital part of what filmmakers, including Melies, were trying to display, suggests that the show really is the story. This makes a film like "The Haunted Castle" seem like a magician's illusion, part of that illusion being that there is a narrative for the audience to see. Melies' films existed to extend his magic into new technology, maybe.

The difference is, maybe, that magic shows are defined by hiding how they do what they do, and film effects are presented as finally unmysterious, even demystifying if they can occupy that space that illusions carried out on a stage used to. There's still that gap between knowing that they did it and knowing how they did it, but the rush may come with taking the mystery apart, instead of sitting a little apart from it, and finding some seeming inner space in sympathy with it, where an unknown-ness glows.

What makes a conduit between the magic trick and the cinematic effect, though, that Gunning points to and successive decades of effects-heavy Hollywood cinema seems to point to, is spectacle as a fundamental constituent of film, making Melies, and a lot of subsequent films and filmmakers, anti-Aristotelian in the manifestation of their priorities. For Aristotle, the spectacular can't hold an important place in the work, compared to character, plot, and action. For Melies, it's possible to say that spectacle acts as the foundation. There is no character, plot, or action in his haunted castle without this ritual spectacle--the vanishing thing, the vanishing man who must be a phantom because he is part of the vanishing act, and the characters who are haunted rather than haunting, whose only meaningful action is witnessing this illusion like us, but, unlike us, experiencing it as reality.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bat & Man

You can now order my chapbook at finishinglinepress.com! Here is the cover, wonderfully illustrated by Mark Cudd.

It's gotten kind mentions at these places: