August 29, 2008

L' Homme à la tête en caoutchouc (1901)

In less than 5 years, the cinema had made a gigantic jump from the short "documentaries" of the early pioneers (Le Prince, Dickson and the Lumière brothers) to the amazing Cinemagic of french director Georges Méliès, who became one of the first filmmakers to focus entirely in making fiction movies. Ever since he watched a movie for the first time (as a member of the Lumières' first audience), Méliès was convinced of the enormous potential of the new invention as a form of entertainment, as as soon as he could he started to make his own films. By 1901, stage magician Georges Méliès had already 5 years of making films and experimenting with special effects, and his movies were well-known around the world as the finest films of his time. With his many discoveries in the field of special effects, Méliès was able of making films that looked like real magic, and his movies became more complex with time, and even more fascinating.

"L' Homme à la Tête en Caoutchouc" (literally, "The Man with the Rubber Head") is another one of Méliès' many "trick films", which were short movies that showed him making an impossible magical trick. In this movie, an alchemist (as usual, Méliès himself) is preparing a strange experiment in his laboratory. The alchemist puts an odd devise on a table, and connects it to his bizarre creation: a living copy of his own head (Méliès again) that stands over the table without a clue about what will happen to it. Using an air pump he connected to the head, the alchemist begins to blow, and the living head begins to increase its size as if it was a balloon made of rubber. The head reaches a gigantic size, but the alchemist decides to release the air from it as he fears the head may explode. Proud of his invention, the alchemist decides to show it to his assistant (quite probably played by his wife Jeanne d'Alcy, but this is not confirmed), but the assistant may not be as careful as he was.

As in many of his early shorts, this movie is a "gimmick film", in other words, a movie devised around a special effect in order to show it like a magician would make a trick. In this case, the movie combines an excellent use of multiple exposures and editing to create the two heads, and a remarkably creative use of zoom to create the illusion of a head increasing its size. While a quite simple trick to our modern standards, the effect achieved is one of Méliès' most amazing and better done special effects, making "The Man with the Rubber Head" one of the best "gimmick films" in the Cinemagician's career. However, this short is more than an excellent gimmick, as what makes "The Man with the Rubber Head" different from his earlier films (and the similar movies of his competitors) is the care Méliès put to create a "story" to his trick.

While in his first films he simply appeared as a magician doing his show, in this movie there is a set build for the scene (instead of a simple circus stage), and while simple, the movie is clearly set in the middle ages. This gives the movie a distinct atmosphere, and already shows the path that Méliès was taking at that stage in his career, as that very same year he would start making his now famous series of fantasy films, which would be far more complex than his "gimmick films". One can say that it was with in those movies where Méliès tested his craft before making his masterpieces like "Le Voyage Dans la lune" the following years.


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