A man lathers himself with shaving cream, then looks into his mirror. A huge, ghostly pig head with a shock of white hair stares back. He quickly washes his face, then stares again, and sees another monster, more professorial, then a third beast with buckteeth and big ears. Our man shatters the mirror.
So goes the action of 1905’s Ah! The Beard, one of many trick films made by Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, a Spaniard who spent most of his career working in France (see the ringmaster writing “Pathé Frères” in one of his films) and whose films are being celebrated first with a New York Film Festival show on Sunday and then with an Anthology Film Archives retrospective close to Halloween, worked at cinema’s outset as a special-effects wizard. See how a man in The Hundred Tricks changes himself into a woman, then the woman into a clown, then the clown into two clowns, stuffs them all into a trunk, then comes out from back with them and takes a bow.
Critics have often broken cinema’s first era down into two categories: The cinema of spectacle (witches, ghosts, trips to the moon) and the cinema of actuality (kisses, dog walks, workers leaving their factory). Going by this simple split, de Chomón would definitely be in the first group, until one considers that for early filmgoers, actuality was spectacle. Scholar Tom Gunning (who’ll be on hand at Sunday’s show of de Chomón shorts) has discussed the early cinema of attraction as basically that—art meant to grab an audience’s attention. Frankly, grabbing it wasn’t hard. As a hand conjured coins, making them appear and vanish in de Chomón’s King of the Dollars, the viewer was likely amazed at the sight on screen, but also just a little astonished to be watching sights on screen at all.
The trick film succeeded with audiences because movies themselves were about magic, the projectionists conjurors making worlds out of air. Films about tricks were opportunities to show off tricks, in the same way that backstage musicals would later provide occasions for songs. An artist like de Chomón seized the chance to show off.
Did he ever. The Red Spectre provides a typically elaborate example. A coffin rises out of a (hand-painted) red hellish landscape, out of which pops a horned skeleton with a cape. He summons a group of dancing girls with a potent smoke blast, then brings empty bottles toward the camera, inside which are more girls. He thrusts women back and forth as he fancies, until one suddenly kicks and shoves him to the floor. With that, just as suddenly, Mr. Bones vanishes, and the lady throws the cape around herself. Flames rise. Fin.
If one wanted, one could read commentary about gender relations in France into the film, make it a coded plea for women’s suffrage, note that Finland had become the first country to grant all citizens the vote the year before The Red Spectre was made. But, proto-feminist as his films sometimes are (An Andalusian Superstition, one of his most elaborate movies, features a gipsy lady plotting how to avenge herself against a man), their hope seems not to declare, but to dazzle and delight.
This sets him apart from the filmmaker to whom he’s often compared. Georges Méliès was an equal showboater, equally committed to cramming theatrical long shots with endless amazements, but consistently did so in the service of story. The narratives were sometimes creepy, sometimes politically potent (read A Trip to the Moon as a film about colonialism), but consistently plot-driven. In Méliès’s films, the story is largely a pretense for effects, but in de Chomón’s work the story is the effects.
In that way a de Chomón film is superior to Avatar, which tries to shove its effects around bad dialogue and silly environmental messages (and do so at more than 15 times the average de Chomón film’s length). By contrast, de Chomón consistently grounds his work’s performativity, often in bright goofy colors; see the way the Ki Ri Ki Japanese Acrobats’s businesslike orange/green/pink/blue giants and dwarves do all their tricks in full view.
What is the value of showing de Chomón’s work now? His technical expertise tells us a lot about where contemporary special effects came from, adding to film history as though we’d discovered a grandparent. But “development” and “progress” are problematic words. There’s an elemental pleasure to watching a live magic act that comes just from pretending that the tricks we see are real. The more stripped-down, bare, basic, and ordinary the tricks seem sometimes, the better.
Two of the best films in this year’s main slate, The Strange Case of Angelica and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, summon up ghosts and spirits with classic trick film techniques: people flying on wires, wearing fur costumes, fading in and out of view. Certified Copy and Double Suicide, the best new and repertory movies showing this year, don’t even bother with feigning the supernatural; for them, the act of photographing people moving through the world is wondrous, and acknowledging the act of photographing makes it all the more so. De Chomón’s techniques walk like dinosaurs compared to those of current Hollywood studio films, but the most exciting films in the world right now are lifting them whole cloth. What seemed otherworldly to 1900s audiences may seem clunky, almost pedestrian to viewers in the 2000s—and, oh sweet mystery, more magical for it.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.