Playing Cards (1896)

Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was cinema’s first great director. They Shoot Pictures lists him as the oldest director of artistic noteworthiness — he’s 14 years older than DW Griffith. The first entry in every edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is Méliès’ seminal A Trip to the Moon from 1902. His innovations both technical and artistic are countless.

As a weirdo aspiring film historian who has been smashing his head against a movie (or more) every day trying to better understand the language and legacy of cinema, I keep walking backwards to figure out what led to what. Inevitably, this brings you back to Méliès — often further (see: Lumières), but one must draw the line somewhere. His films bridge the gap between “historical interest only” and “aesthetic curios of enduring appeal.”

Thus I am tentatively embarking on a Méliès dive. I can’t guarantee I will watch every one of his extant films. Hundreds of 1500+ films survive, so even if I assembled notes on one every single day, it would take me months and months. I’m not THAT much of a psycho that I’d turn this site into a Méliès fan blog for the better part of a year. But I’ll try to check in every now and again on “The First Wizard of Cinema,” as his prodigious box set declares him.

The first film ever made by Méliès is in fact a remake of a previous film made by the Lumière brothers. I find it hilarious that even before the start of the 20th century, remaking previously beloved films was part of the movie business. The Lumières are, of course, even more foundational innovators than Méliès: Their first film screening on March 22, 1895 is as good a moment in time as any to declare “the birth of cinema.” Méliès hounded them to license their camera technology, and he wasn’t the only one, but the Lumières declined, so Méliès designed and patented his own, which he nicknamed “the coffee grinder” due to the loud, grating noise it made when filming.

Méliès did not use his own camera design for very long, but I believe this first film of his was recorded on “the coffee grinder,” as he did not switch to other equipment until 1897.

This first film of his is drop-dead simple. In a minute and a half, it shows three men playing cards, jovially chatting. One of them is Méliès himself. A second card player was played by Méliès’ brother, Gaston. A girl briefly comes and says hi; this is Méliès’ daughter, Georgette. A woman is summoned and brings a bottle of wine, which the card player uses to fill the glasses on the table. They drink the wine; the man opens a newspaper, appears to read aloud a story, and the card players laugh. And scene.

“Playing Cards,” like the large majority of pre-1900 films, can be classified as an “actuality,” which is a genre of film in much the same way the doodle is a genre of visual art. It’s a necessary prerequisite to get to the interesting stuff: Just a camera capturing a specific shot of something happening for 1 or 2 minutes. The technical and temporal limitations prevent any narrative or meaning. It’s essentially a technical exercise.

And yet, Méliès, in his first go, demonstrates more basic visual instinct than most of his peers. Where the Lumières preferred the visceral kinetic force of motion, most often at skewed angles (like the train coming in or workers leaving a factory), Méliès does slightly more interesting things with the mise en scène. Comparing it to the Lumière version of the exact same setup makes it pretty obvious, actually. The basic dramatic curvature and sense of focus is there — we are able to understand the emotions of each character at each moment, and it’s usually clear whom we should be looking at.

Meanwhile, the texture of the film created by the cigarette smoke and the soft-focus backgrounds — probably a technical artifact, but still pleasing — are more visually compelling than anything done by his contemporaries.

As an early artifact of one of cinema’s first great minds, “Playing Cards” is a deeply intriguing prototypical fragment of film. And it’s a good starting point for me to take a closer look at the works of Georges Méliès.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

A few words on "Is It Good?" ratings for early cinema.

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