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TV REVIEW : Georges Melies Tribute: When Film Was Fresh

The wonderful fantasy and trick films of the French cineaste, Georges Melies--who made more than 200 short movies at the very dawn of the cinema, from 1896 to 1913--are sources of curious, unabashed delight. In them, we watch magicians appear and disappear in explosive puffs of spoke, devils cavort, star-men dance and intrepid, mustachioed explorers daringly scale wood-and-canvas mountainsides or moonscapes while scantily clad chorus girls “ooh” and “aah.”

It’s a magic-land, befitting Melies’ origins as a music-hall illusionist. (Sadly, he went bankrupt and wound up operating a toy concession at the Montparnasse railroad station before the French government, belatedly, gave him recognition and a subsidy.) For all their fragility, they’ve proven to be precious, sturdy illusions.

In “A Tribute to Georges Melies,” shown tonight on PBS’ “Alive From Off Center” (Channel 28 at 10:30 p.m.), three modern French film makers--rock video specialist Philippe Gautier, and feature directors Aline Isserman and Pierre Etaix--try to evoke again the long-ago spirit of Melies.

Gautier and Etaix adapt old scripts of Melies’ (“The Seven Deadly Sins” and “An Artist’s Dream”), adding their own wit to the consciously primitive recreation of the master. Isserman, in her “The Slap of Beate Klarsfeld,” reimagines in the style of Melies (who also restaged historical incidents in his films) a famous episode involving Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld and ex-West German Chancellor K. G. Kiesinger.

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Etaix, a clown and maker of comedies, who assisted Jacques Tati on “Mon Oncle” and later made the ebullient “Yoyo,” seems the most natural match-up with Melies, and his effort, which puts “King Kong” in the artist’s studio, is the funniest.

But Gautier, who apes Melies’ style meticulously in his parade of vices, and Isserman, who creates a grim fairy tale, have their moments too. There are also delightful stretches of pure Melies shown in between. And the narration, a deadpan video trickery which suggests a Terry Gilliam Monty Python montage, colorfully complements the black-and-white trickery old and new.

One complaint: “Alive and Off Center” has chosen to eschew subtitling and offer instead, simultaneous translation of the French narrator and directors, which makes for an irritating babble of voices. Ignore them and wait for the magic instead.


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