A century before James Cameron took us on a 3D flight far above the jungles of a threatened planet in AVATAR, long before George Lucas dropped us in a starfighter and led us on an attack against the Death Star, before Gene Roddenberry put us on the bridge of the Enterprise in deep space and countless other filmmakers put us aboard starships and space rockets and fantastic vehicles of all descriptions headed for who knows where, before even Fritz Lang envisioned his great silent METROPOLIS, a little-known French magician single-handedly created science fiction filmmaking.
His name was Georges Méliès.
Méliès made well over 500 short films between 1895 and 1912 (some sources put the figure closer to 600+), the best known of which is a fanciful little gem titled A TRIP TO THE MOON (LE VOYAGE DAN LE LUNE) from 1902. Based loosely on elements of both Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Well’s First Men on the Moon, this first-ever cinematic leap of imagination is more fantasy than true SF. Still, it does feature a rocket (fired by cannon, just as Verne suggested), vengeful Selenites, courtesy of Wells, and a view of the Earth from the moon that some 67 years later would seem astonishingly prophetic.
The filmmaker also took a trip to the sun in THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE (1904), appropriated Verne’s title, if not his story, for a version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1907) and broke into the horror genre with THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906). Along the way he pioneered the special effects that would become standard for all filmmakers and essential for those making SF and horror films—stop action, split-screen, time-lapse, multiple exposure, and dissolves. He even hand painted each frame of his films to achieve the miracle of color. And all of these wonders were accomplished in one of the world’s first actual film studios, a building made entirely of glass like a greenhouse to maximize the light.
Despite his many contributions to the development of film, and particularly his place in the history of science fiction film, Georges Méliès is hardly a household name, even among SF fans. It took not only a movie geek, but a film restoration geek like Martin Scorsese to resurrect Méliès’s reputation with his latest film, the heart-warming family movie HUGO.
Even so, the connection with the early filmmaker takes a while to develop. The story begins with the film’s child hero, Hugo, who lives hand-to-mouth in Paris’ Montparnasse train station, or rather, in the clock tower of the station, where he keeps the clocks wound and in repair. His father, you see, was a watchmaker, and Hugo has inherited Dad’s skills, along with a rusted old automaton, the project Dad was working on when he died, and a notebook, the key to the automaton’s repair. Hugo steals parts for the repair from a toy vender in the station, one Georges Méliès, a bitter old man, who eventually catches him and takes the notebook in compensation. Hugo is devastated, until he finds an ally in the old man’s granddaughter, who helps him solve the related mysteries of the automaton and Méliès himself.
HUGO is touted as a “children’s” film, but only the most thoughtful of children will fully appreciate it. Yes, Hugo is the hero and much of the film follows the boy as he tries to avoid the nasty station policeman and his Doberman, or watches the goings-on among the station shopkeepers. Still, the best parts of the film are the flashbacks to Méliès and his crew making film magic on the set of A TRIP TO THE MOON or setting up a shot through an aquarium for 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. What child will really understand the loss when Méliès is forced to sell his celluloid films to be melted down into shoe heels during WWI? Only film buffs like Scorsese (and me) will mourn that moment.
What is delightful is that the film reflects the rescue that Méliès (and some of his work) found in real life. The approach of the First World War destroyed the success that the filmmaker had enjoyed, and the outbreak of war finished him. He transformed his studio into a theater, then finally closed it. He really did sell toys in the Montparnasse station in Paris for a time. Eventually, however, he received the recognition he deserved, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1931. Shortly thereafter his colleagues in the French film industry arranged a place for him in their retirement community at La Maison du Retrait du Cinema in Orly. He died in 1938, fortunately no longer forgotten.
It is certain that the great majority of people who see HUGO will have no idea who Georges Méliès was. No doubt they will assume the character played by the actor Ben Kingsley in the movie is fictional. But we’re science fiction writers. We should know better. We owe this man a debt, for helping us see, at least a little, and maybe a bit fantastically, the shape of things to come.
Today is the deadline for submitting final manuscripts for the 2012 RWA Golden Heart contest, so hopefully you have all gotten your little darlings down to Houston in good time. I submitted two entries this year and RWA has confirmed receipt so I’m all nice and relaxed today—no chewing of fingernails wondering if things made it in time. How about that—planning really does work! Good luck to all that entered and may the best eight win!
In the meantime, I’m continuing to slog through the dreaded middle passages of Fools Rush In. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Ugh! I even cleaned my office in hopes of making it a more pleasant place to work. No help. *sigh* No doubt when I finish this thing everyone will love it. They’ll want ten more just like it! Aaaggghhh!!!