December 19, 1904 [Le Voyage à travers l'impossible/The Impossible Voyage]

The more of Méliès I see, the more I'm convinced I'm in the presence of a child—myself, that is, not (necessarily) Méliès. Despite his grotesqueries—actually, perhaps in part because of them—Méliès' works capture the chiaroscuro of a child's mind, the interplay of silver-shining delight and menacing gloom that children inhabit as comfortably (oh, I know: resignedly) as any mad mystic his ecstasy and agony. How fearful the world is down there amid the table-legs, behind the window-curtain, alone in the narrow bed. And how glittering the meanest toy held close to the eyes, enveloping all of one's ken, cunning as it rolls or spins. And the small hands unable to grasp simple objects—huge and numbing—but with fingers nimble enough to twiddle along life's simple surfaces—the carpet, the dirt yard—miniature legs leaping, a tiny person of one's own to send across imaginary landscapes. Méliès  understands this bipartite existence, reckless and fragile, as he tosses his Jules Verne travelers from automobiles to railroads to airships, above the main in ships and down in submarines, faintly tinted, with dimly discernible backdrops punctuated by foregrounds exploding in smoke and flashes—and all of it plummeting in his usual crowded fashion, the dream as Catherine Wheel, blasphemy as mischief, torture re-imagined as Coney Island.

And it's all toys and gadgets! His "narrative arc" is simple propulsion, as his travelers leap off mountains and fly through a firmament inhabited by Méliès' anthropomorphic astronomy, all leers and grins, until they land on the sun itself, in fire and flames—and saved by the ice-box box-car, and down to the bottom of the ocean, the cutaway submarine revealing all travelers cozy still—until fortunate disaster bursts and flings all home again, jiggedy-jig. Never quite safe, but always saved, those of us who live in Méliès' world recall "the pleasant land of counterpane"—including its dark and undulating shapes beneath, movements sudden and obscure (was that a visiting imp or merely my toe?) that the child sees without hesitation, but (blessedly, frustratingly) in dimming recollection. Méliès loves to end in outbursts and celebrations, and the child in me thanks him for not lingering on the fall through darkness but on the fireworks landing, square on their feet.


Popular Posts