1898's Greatest Films

The United States defeats Spain in war as Teddy charges up San Juan Hill, Zola publishes J’accuse! and is convicted of libel for it, and Empress Dowager Cixi stages a coup. These are the greatest films of 1898, the way I see it:

#1) La lune à un mètre

(dir. Georges Méliès)

Often confused with Méliès’ better-known 1902 A Trip to the Moon, I actually prefer this to its successor in some ways. It’s certainly funnier. I tried out an experiment on my 4-year-old son. I first played this film (labeled The Astronomer’s Dream on the DVD set) and then played the 1902 Trip to the Moon. This 1898 version won out. (I sat on the couch behind him so as not to influence the results.)

He cracked up as the astronomer’s drawing came to life, as he bonked his head, and fell over when his chair disappeared — and went into hysterics as the giant moon gobbled up the poor astronomer and spit him out into pieces. It’s the best example of Méliès’ genius of the absurd.

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#2) Un homme de têtes

(dir. Georges Méliès)

Méliès’ past as a stage magician is on full display here. Set the technical achievement aside for a moment, and look at the joy on Méliès’ face(s) as he shows off his trick. For someone who made his living in an ancient profession, you can imagine the thrill of becoming the very first person to perform a radically new act. The film has a happiness and a life that is absent in the Lumieres’ early experiments.

This was one of the first uses of multiple exposures. Méliès relished this process, and used it over and over again to create movie magic.

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#3) Panorama pendant l'ascension de la tour eiffe

(dir. Auguste and Louis Lumière)

Still interesting to see today, this film must have been thrilling when it first came out. Never before had a camera been so high. The Lumières were the first filmmakers to capture the Eiffel Tower; its presence in cinema today is ubiquitous enough to be unclichéable. The Eiffel Tower was less then a decade old when this film was made. The background is of the Palais du Trocadéro, built in the form you see here in 1878. It was demolished and rebuilt as the Palais de Chaillot in 1937.

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#4) Illusions fantasmagoriques

(dir. Georges Méliès)

Movie reality is much more malleable than the reality we usually experience, giving new freedom to old magicians like Méliès. This new power also brings an end to the old. Méliès seems to understand that audiences will (understandably) be less impressed with a film version of his stage tricks. Here, he speeds through an assortment of illusions that he would normally build up and showcase in his old medium. How quickly we get used to new special effects and grow bored by the old ones.

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#5) Querelle de matelassières

(dir. Auguste and Louis Lumière)

Winslow Homer The Return of the Gleaner

My strong preference for Méliès over the Lumières is readily apparent, but I will give them one thing: The brothers paid more attention to composition than Georges did. At this point in his career, Méliès did little more than set a camera in front of a stage.

The Lumières’ Querelle de matelassières is well-framed. We can see the action clearly, and the use of the rule-of-thirds gives the picture focus and energy. The Lumières made a few short films like this one, featuring stories of ordinary people. (See Le scieur de bois mélomane and Le goûter champêtre for examples.) I chose Querelle de matelassières simply because the costumes remind me of my favorite Winslow Homer painting at Crystal Bridges, The Return of the Gleaner.

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