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Animated drop cap letter "S" featuring a rabbit coming out of a magician's top hat. Full word: Smokestacks.

mokestacks rise in a post-industrial revolution cityscape. A creature leapfrogs beneath man-sized mushrooms, then vanishes into a puff of smoke. A rocket crashes with a splat into the moon’s eye, and the moon sticks out its tongue in response.

The scenes are from A Trip to the Moon by French director Georges Méliès. The film was made in 1902, and narrates a journey around the universe reminiscent of Jules Verne’s fantastic fiction. Méliès directed over 500 films, each a painstaking effort to celebrate the impossible through special effects, hand-painted color, and the surreal appearances of celestial faces or a dirigible balloon careening through outer space.

Méliès was, maybe unsurprisingly, a magician before he became a filmmaker, which was why Matthew Solomon started studying his work.

“When I was in grad school I wanted to do research on filmmakers who were magicians,” says Solomon, an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media and a scholar of early film. “After all, movies did come out of magic performances. Then I discovered Méliès was also a caricaturist, and he had a fashion industry background. He did so many things, I was fascinated.”

Solomon has published two books that consider the work of this filmmaker, and his new project also tackles Méliès, examining the material world in which Méliès made films and connecting the films to their larger economic, political, and historical contexts. And he was lucky enough to meet the late Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, Georges Méliès’s granddaughter, who dedicated her life to preserving the filmmaker’s work for future generations of film lovers and scholars, and wrote his biography, an English translation of which is currently underway for publication by the University of Michigan Press.

mokestacks rise in a post-industrial revolution cityscape. A creature leapfrogs beneath man-sized mushrooms, then vanishes into a puff of smoke. A rocket crashes with a splat into the moon’s eye, and the moon sticks out its tongue in response. 

The scenes are from A Trip to the Moon by French director Georges Méliès. The film was made in 1902, and narrates a journey around the universe reminiscent of Jules Verne’s fantastic fiction. Méliès directed over 500 films, each a painstaking effort to celebrate the impossible through special effects, hand-painted color, and the surreal appearances of celestial faces or a dirigible balloon careening through outer space.

Méliès was, maybe unsurprisingly, a magician before he became a filmmaker, which was why Matthew Solomon started studying his work.

“When I was in grad school I wanted to do research on filmmakers who were magicians,” says Solomon, an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media and a scholar of early film. “After all, movies did come out of magic performances. Then I discovered Méliès was also a caricaturist, and he had a fashion industry background. He did so many things, I was fascinated.”

Solomon has published two books that consider the work of this filmmaker, and his new project also tackles Méliès, examining the material world in which Méliès made films and connecting the films to their larger economic, political, and historical contexts. And he was lucky enough to meet the late Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, Georges Méliès’s granddaughter, who dedicated her life to preserving the filmmaker’s work for future generations of film lovers and scholars, and wrote his biography, an English translation of which is currently underway for publication by the University of Michigan Press.

A portrait of Georges Méliès on the left. On the right, a trio of explorers rides on a hot air balloon through a sky that contains a school of fish. One figure wears a wizard hat and peers through a large telescope.
Georges Méliès was born in 1861 into a prosperous Parisian family who had made their name as global exporters in the bootmaking trade. When Méliès broke with his family, he took his cut of the family boot fortune and bought a magic theater, becoming a professional illusionist. Next, he wanted to make films. Unable to buy a camera, he rigged two projectors together with a flexible metal that he used to make illusions in the magic theater, and soon thereafter he was producing up to 80 films a year. “[I]t is my use of tricks and my taste for the fantastic," Méliès said of himself, "that have determined my vocation as the so-called Magician of the Screen.” 

Georges Méliès was born in 1861 into a prosperous Parisian family who had made their name as global exporters in the bootmaking trade. When Méliès broke with his family, he took his cut of the family boot fortune and bought a magic theater, becoming a professional illusionist. Next, he wanted to make films. Unable to buy a camera, he rigged two projectors together with a flexible metal that he used to make illusions in the magic theater, and soon thereafter he was producing up to 80 films a year. “[I]t is my use of tricks and my taste for the fantastic," Méliès said of himself, "that have determined my vocation as the so-called Magician of the Screen.” 
 

Georges Méliès was born in 1861 into a prosperous Parisian family who had made their name as global exporters in the bootmaking trade. When Méliès broke with his family, he took his cut of the family boot fortune and bought a magic theater, becoming a professional illusionist. Next, he wanted to make films. Unable to buy a camera, he rigged two projectors together with a flexible metal that he used to make illusions in the magic theater, and soon thereafter he was producing up to 80 films a year. “[I]t is my use of tricks and my taste for the fantastic," Méliès said of himself, "that have determined my vocation as the so-called Magician of the Screen.” 
 

Hide and Seek

Georges Méliès had always been prone to hyperbole. Méliès sometimes claimed that he had made thousands of films which had all subsequently vanished by 1923, the year he went bankrupt and the year his granddaughter Madeleine was born. The more accurate number, experts now agree, was closer to 520, including many he incinerated deliberately, having no place to store them.

Méliès died in 1938, and the family lore fueled his granddaughter’s growing curiosity about her grandfather that sent her on a global quest to recover his lost films.

In 1943, during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Méliès’s granddaughter began working as a secretary in the Cinémathèque Française, which had come under the control of the Reich Film Archive. She frantically hid films to prevent them from being destroyed or stolen by the German occupying forces. “I have the whole world of cinema on my shoulders,” her boss told her. “You take care of Méliès.”

Hide and Seek

Georges Méliès had always been prone to hyperbole. Méliès sometimes claimed that he had made thousands of films which had all subsequently vanished by 1923, the year he went bankrupt and the year his granddaughter Madeleine was born. The more accurate number, experts now agree, was closer to 520, including many he incinerated deliberately, having no place to store them.

Méliès died in 1938, and the family lore fueled his granddaughter’s growing curiosity about her grandfather that sent her on a global quest to recover his lost films.

In 1943, during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Méliès’s granddaughter began working as a secretary in the Cinémathèque Française, which had come under the control of the Reich Film Archive. She frantically hid films to prevent them from being destroyed or stolen by the German occupying forces. “I have the whole world of cinema on my shoulders,” her boss told her. “You take care of Méliès.”

 

 

Hide and Seek

Georges Méliès had always been prone to hyperbole. Méliès sometimes claimed that he had made thousands of films which had all subsequently vanished by 1923, the year he went bankrupt and the year his granddaughter Madeleine was born. The more accurate number, experts now agree, was closer to 520, including many he incinerated deliberately, having no place to store them.

Méliès died in 1938, and the family lore fueled his granddaughter’s growing curiosity about her grandfather that sent her on a global quest to recover his lost films.

In 1943, during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Méliès’s granddaughter began working as a secretary in the Cinémathèque Française, which had come under the control of the Reich Film Archive. She frantically hid films to prevent them from being destroyed or stolen by the German occupying forces. “I have the whole world of cinema on my shoulders,” her boss told her. “You take care of Méliès.”

 

 

 

 

 

This fellow with the exploding head is a running joke found in Méliès's drawings and films. Solomon links the filmmaker with the satirical cartoonist group Les Incoherénts. Likened to Dada, the members of this mysterious collective were strict with their pseudonyms and favored ephemeral exhibits, like sculptures made of cheese, or paintings on a loaf of bread. Solomon compares their humor and mockery of political figures to internet meme culture—ripe with fleeting in-jokes and caricatures that only really make sense in the moment.

Hide and Seek

Georges Méliès had always been prone to hyperbole. Méliès sometimes claimed that he had made thousands of films which had all subsequently vanished by 1923, the year he went bankrupt and the year his granddaughter Madeleine was born. The more accurate number, experts now agree, was closer to 520, including many he incinerated deliberately, having no place to store them.

Méliès died in 1938, and the family lore fueled his granddaughter’s growing curiosity about her grandfather that sent her on a global quest to recover his lost films.

In 1943, during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, Méliès’s granddaughter began working as a secretary in the Cinémathèque Française, which had come under the control of the Reich Film Archive. She frantically hid films to prevent them from being destroyed or stolen by the German occupying forces. “I have the whole world of cinema on my shoulders,” her boss told her. “You take care of Méliès.”

 

 


This fellow with the exploding head is a running joke found in Méliès's drawings and films. Solomon links the filmmaker with the satirical cartoonist group Les Incoherénts. Likened to Dada, the members of this mysterious collective were strict with their pseudonyms and favored ephemeral exhibits, like sculptures made of cheese, or paintings on a loaf of bread. Solomon compares their humor and mockery of political figures to internet meme culture—ripe with fleeting in-jokes and caricatures that only really make sense in the moment.
 

This fellow with the exploding head is a running joke found in Méliès's drawings and films. Solomon links the filmmaker with the satirical cartoonist group Les Incoherénts. Likened to Dada, the members of this mysterious collective were strict with their pseudonyms and favored ephemeral exhibits, like sculptures made of cheese, or paintings on a loaf of bread. Solomon compares their humor and mockery of political figures to internet meme culture—ripe with fleeting in-jokes and caricatures that only really make sense in the moment.
 


Madeleine Malthête-Méliès did and continued to do so. After the war ended in 1945, she bought a copy of her grandfather’s film Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchausen and five other titles from the British Film Institute. A few years later, she was traveling the world, and she found copies of Méliès’s films in Stockholm, in Antibes, in Montreal, in Washington, and in flea markets and archives elsewhere.

Malthête-Méliès worked not only to recover copies of her grandfather’s films but also to screen them for international audiences while delivering her own live narration as part of the shows. She called these two-hour screening sessions “ciné-concerts.” Her programs included music and sometimes guest speakers, and she collaborated with theaters, cultural centers, and universities on several different continents.

The ciné-concerts, like the quest for the lost films, were a family affair. When the Ciné-concert Georges Méliès appeared at Solomon’s invitation before a packed house at the University of Michigan’s Penny Stamps Auditorium on November 1, 2012, Malthête-Méliès’s cousin’s daughter Marie-Hélène Lehérissey performed the live narration for a program of selected Méliès films while her son Lawrence Lehérissey played the piano.

“Not one year has passed without finding a film, a drawing, a letter,” Malthête-Méliès recalled before she died in 2018. “It is always doubly emotional, because to the emotion of the collector is added the emotion of a granddaughter finding traces of her grandfather, the magician who performed tricks with cards, cigarettes, and coins for her.”

 

This fellow with the exploding head is a running joke found in Méliès's drawings and films. Solomon links the filmmaker with the satirical cartoonist group Les Incoherénts. Likened to Dada, the members of this mysterious collective were strict with their pseudonyms and favored ephemeral exhibits, like sculptures made of cheese, or paintings on a loaf of bread. Solomon compares their humor and mockery of political figures to internet meme culture—ripe with fleeting in-jokes and caricatures that only really make sense in the moment.

Georges Méliès appears on a film reel, doffing his hat. In the background is a sepia-toned undersea scene.
Méliès’s world can teach us something about our own, Solomon says. Despite poverty, war, and destruction, the myth and the magic of Méliès traversed the world and survived a century. “Maybe we have lived in a connected world for a very long time,” Solomon says.

Méliès’s world can teach us something about our own, Solomon says. Despite poverty, war, and destruction, the myth and the magic of Méliès traversed the world and survived a century. “Maybe we have lived in a connected world for a very long time,” Solomon says.

Putting the Pieces Together

After years of research, Solomon had become friendly with the Méliès family and spoke with Malthête-Méliès at her Paris apartment along with her daughter Anne-Marie Quévrain. They shared a bond of appreciation for the long-deceased filmmaker and a mutual understanding of the importance of the material that Malthête-Méliès had collected.

When he received the LSA Michigan Humanities Award, Solomon turned a corner with his research by focusing on the material that the filmmaker’s granddaughter had collected for all of those years. By that point, it had taken on new dimension. “This project is personal,” Solomon says, alluding to the relationships he has developed with members of the Méliès family.

It was also ambitious. Solomon wanted to record and understand the complex economic, advertising, manufacturing, and political systems that had shaped Méliès’s late nineteenth-century Parisian world. He studied the raw materials and techniques Méliès had used to manufacture films. He mapped the ship-and-mail services that sent films all over the world, and explored connections between Méliès and a forgotten art movement known as Les Incoherénts.

Much of this work involved exploring and researching Malthête-Méliès’s collection of non-film objects, which includes documents, correspondence, drawings, costumes, and other objects while engaging with French-language Méliès scholarship, an important part of which was written by his granddaughter and great-grandson, who worked with other members of their family to record their memories and preserve the material traces of Méliès’s legacy.

Solomon recruited LSA undergraduate student Olivier Bahizi, an aspiring filmmaker majoring in film, television, and media, to work on the project. A native French speaker, novelist, and former journalist, Bahizi translated documents and liaised between Solomon and the French publisher La Tour Verte to facilitate the translation and publication of Malthête-Méliès’s biography of her grandfather by the University of Michigan Press—an important complement to Solomon’s forthcoming book on Méliès.

As to what drew Bahizi to this project and to filmmaking in general, he says that it goes back to his childhood.

“I was born in 1977, in Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “My mom and I had a deal. On Sundays, I could go to watch a movie on one condition—if I was behaving well during the week. She knew that I would do anything for getting her permission and her money to go to see a movie.

“We lived in a village ten miles away from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “And I remember when I was sitting in the old church transformed in a movie theater, watching black and white images of people speaking in unknown languages. I was a little boy looking through a wide-open imaginary window, through which I could discover other places and other people.”

It's that same sense of wonder that viewers must have felt sitting in a darkened cinema in 1900 watching one of Georges Méliès’s trick films or fantasies, and Solomon and Bahizi both hope that this project can give people a fuller sense of Méliès’s work and world.

“It’s illuminating, doing that research,” Bahizi says, “and it’s why I’m here at the University of Michigan.”

 

 

Illustrations and animations by Julia Lubas and Liz DeCamp

Putting the Pieces Together

After years of research, Solomon had become friendly with the Méliès family and spoke with Malthête-Méliès at her Paris apartment along with her daughter Anne-Marie Quévrain. They shared a bond of appreciation for the long-deceased filmmaker and a mutual understanding of the importance of the material that Malthête-Méliès had collected.

When he received the LSA Michigan Humanities Award, Solomon turned a corner with his research by focusing on the material that the filmmaker’s granddaughter had collected for all of those years. By that point, it had taken on new dimension. “This project is personal,” Solomon says, alluding to the relationships he has developed with members of the Méliès family.

It was also ambitious. Solomon wanted to record and understand the complex economic, advertising, manufacturing, and political systems that had shaped Méliès’s late nineteenth-century Parisian world. He studied the raw materials and techniques Méliès had used to manufacture films. He mapped the ship-and-mail services that sent films all over the world, and explored connections between Méliès and a forgotten art movement known as Les Incoherénts.

Much of this work involved exploring and researching Malthête-Méliès’s collection of non-film objects, which includes documents, correspondence, drawings, costumes, and other objects while engaging with French-language Méliès scholarship, an important part of which was written by his granddaughter and great-grandson, who worked with other members of their family to record their memories and preserve the material traces of Méliès’s legacy.

Solomon recruited LSA undergraduate student Olivier Bahizi, an aspiring filmmaker majoring in film, television, and media, to work on the project. A native French speaker, novelist, and former journalist, Bahizi translated documents and liaised between Solomon and the French publisher La Tour Verte to facilitate the translation and publication of Malthête-Méliès’s biography of her grandfather by the University of Michigan Press—an important complement to Solomon’s forthcoming book on Méliès.

As to what drew Bahizi to this project and to filmmaking in general, he says that it goes back to his childhood.

“I was born in 1977, in Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “My mom and I had a deal. On Sundays, I could go to watch a movie on one condition—if I was behaving well during the week. She knew that I would do anything for getting her permission and her money to go to see a movie.

“We lived in a village ten miles away from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “And I remember when I was sitting in the old church transformed in a movie theater, watching black and white images of people speaking in unknown languages. I was a little boy looking through a wide-open imaginary window, through which I could discover other places and other people.”

It's that same sense of wonder that viewers must have felt sitting in a darkened cinema in 1900 watching one of Georges Méliès’s trick films or fantasies, and Solomon and Bahizi both hope that this project can give people a fuller sense of Méliès’s work and world.

“It’s illuminating, doing that research,” Bahizi says, “and it’s why I’m here at the University of Michigan.”

 

Illustrations and animations by Julia Lubas and Liz DeCamp


Putting the Pieces Together

After years of research, Solomon had become friendly with the Méliès family and spoke with Malthête-Méliès at her Paris apartment along with her daughter Anne-Marie Quévrain. They shared a bond of appreciation for the long-deceased filmmaker and a mutual understanding of the importance of the material that Malthête-Méliès had collected.

When he received the LSA Michigan Humanities Award, Solomon turned a corner with his research by focusing on the material that the filmmaker’s granddaughter had collected for all of those years. By that point, it had taken on new dimension. “This project is personal,” Solomon says, alluding to the relationships he has developed with members of the Méliès family.

It was also ambitious. Solomon wanted to record and understand the complex economic, advertising, manufacturing, and political systems that had shaped Méliès’s late nineteenth-century Parisian world. He studied the raw materials and techniques Méliès had used to manufacture films. He mapped the ship-and-mail services that sent films all over the world, and explored connections between Méliès and a forgotten art movement known as Les Incoherénts.

Much of this work involved exploring and researching Malthête-Méliès’s collection of non-film objects, which includes documents, correspondence, drawings, costumes, and other objects while engaging with French-language Méliès scholarship, an important part of which was written by his granddaughter and great-grandson, who worked with other members of their family to record their memories and preserve the material traces of Méliès’s legacy.

Solomon recruited LSA undergraduate student Olivier Bahizi, an aspiring filmmaker majoring in film, television, and media, to work on the project. A native French speaker, novelist, and former journalist, Bahizi translated documents and liaised between Solomon and the French publisher La Tour Verte to facilitate the translation and publication of Malthête-Méliès’s biography of her grandfather by the University of Michigan Press—an important complement to Solomon’s forthcoming book on Méliès.

As to what drew Bahizi to this project and to filmmaking in general, he says that it goes back to his childhood.

“I was born in 1977, in Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “My mom and I had a deal. On Sundays, I could go to watch a movie on one condition—if I was behaving well during the week. She knew that I would do anything for getting her permission and her money to go to see a movie.

“We lived in a village ten miles away from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda,” Bahizi says. “And I remember when I was sitting in the old church transformed in a movie theater, watching black and white images of people speaking in unknown languages. I was a little boy looking through a wide-open imaginary window, through which I could discover other places and other people.”

It's that same sense of wonder that viewers must have felt sitting in a darkened cinema in 1900 watching one of Georges Méliès’s trick films or fantasies, and Solomon and Bahizi both hope that this project can give people a fuller sense of Méliès’s work and world.

“It’s illuminating, doing that research,” Bahizi says, “and it’s why I’m here at the University of Michigan.”



 
 
Illustrations and animations by Julia Lubas and Liz DeCamp

 

 

 

 


 


 

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Release Date: 10/26/2020
Category: Faculty; Students
Tags: LSA; Department of Film, Television, and Media; Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Julia Lubas; Matthew Solomon; Gina Balibrera; Elizabeth DeCamp