(5/10) A fun and well-made 1908 short by Georges Méliès about a fantastic camera projecting images in real time of the subjects’ real selves, this French one-reeler mostly rehashes old in-camera film tricks, betraying the director losing the creativity that once made him the greatest fimmaker in the world.
Long Distance Photography (Photographie électrique à distance). 1908, France. Written and directed by Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany. IMDb score: 5.8. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
By 1908 French movie pioneer Georges Méliès had spent ten years racking up an almost impossible string of highly successful films that had taken the movie industry, as well as the world-wide audience, with storm. From his first global hit with Cinderella (1899) through his most legendary film A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) to the underwater adventure Under the Seas (1907, review), Méliès produced at least one major success every year, like clockwork. That is, beside the several dozen shorter comedies, trick films and experimental movies he did every year. For 1908 the big film was Humanity Through the Ages, released very early in the year. The movie was a response the early feature films starting to come along, especially out of Italy. The episodic movie told the story of human brutality throughout history and was directed in a serious and more realistic style atypical to Méliès. He later said this film was the one he was most proud of in his career. Sadly it is now lost.
Long Distance Wireless Photography (US title) came out just a few weeks later, and wasn’t one of those big pictures, although it was rather successful. In fact, the film is really not much more than a slightly longer (6 minutes) version of Méliès’ standard trick films. However, its satirical streak does make it one of the more enjoyable ones.
The film’s US title is a rather clumsy translation of the original French Photographie électrique à distance – a closer translation would be “Electrical photography at a distance”, and in the UK the film was released as Electrical Photography. In essence the film is really just a rehash of the old trope of the magic mirror – an effect that was used and overused during the first decade of trick filming. Basically it’s a crude version of blue screen photography – in this case black screen photography: an actor or actress would be photographed against a black backdrop, rendering all black areas of the film unexposed. By way of double exposure, the image would then be superimposed on another scene with someone holding a frame – like a mirror or a painting – with a black backdrop, making it look as the image came alive. Méliès had been one of the pioneers of this technique.
In short the film shows an inventor (Méliès himself) in his workshop filled with machines and his two assistants preparing for a demonstration of their wonderful camera system. The assistants bring in an elderly, rich couple, and set up a big black screen for one of them to look at. Then they bring out a large camera and show its potential by filming a painting of the Three Graces, which magically come alive on the screen and start moving. Then the inventor puts the guests in front of the camera, one by one. When they turn on the camera, a moving image of the subject appears on the screen – but not a realistic image, but instead an image which shows their true self. First the inventor’s maid (Fernande Albany) steps in to demonstrate the equipment: she produces a noble and gracious image, and then it’s time for an old couple to try. The jovial old lady shows off a large face with a wonderful toothless laugh, which her stuffy husbands finds hilarious. But when the old coot takes the chair, the frame shows the image of a nagging, ape-like creature, which sends all the others into uncontrollable fits of laughter. The old man gets furious, and storms out of the workshop, while the professor and his assistants roll keel over laughing.
Perhaps more by accident than by design, Georges Méliès actually foresees the invention of television. Of course, in 1908 the idea of making an image appear in real-time somewhere else than where it was projected was pure science fiction, as no system of video transfer other than straight-line projection had yet been invented.
The film borrows the mirror motif from old fairy-tales, in which mirrors have been used both to distort and reveal the truth. A symbol of vanity, as in the Greek myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image, or that of Snow White’s evil queen, who uses the mirror as an instrument for feeding her own ego, but an instrument that ultimately turns on her by telling her she is no longer the fairest in the land. By building her self-image on constant outside flattery, she ultimately seals her own doom. But Méliès probably draws on more contemporary sources, namely Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, released in the 1890’s. While Wilde used a painting, it is really just a stand-in for a mirror, a mirror showing Dorian’s real, ugly self. Wilde even writes about mirrors in the preface to the book, using Shakespeare’s Caliban as a stand-in for modern day man, in a passage more aimed at commenting Wilde’s contemporary art preferences, but alluding to our paradoxical relationships to mirrors: Caliban is enraged by seeing his true self in the mirror, but equally so by not seeing his true self in the mirror.
UPDATE 13.2.2019: When originally writing this review, I tried to find any clue as to what, specifically, Méliès had used for inspiration — as his films tended to be loose adaptations of literary works, or more frequently: stage plays. Thus the speculation above. At the time I was not yet familiar with German sci-fi pioneer Kurd Lasswitz’ short story Der Gehirnspiegel (1902), or “The Brain Mirror”. Lasswitz is probably best known for his novel Two Planets (1897), postulating intelligent life on Mars, however, he wrote a number of novels and short stories that had a big impact on European science fiction in the decades before and after the beginning of the new century. Like so many writers who weren’t widely translated to English, his contribution to sci-fi has largely been overlooked.
The short story Der Gehirnspiegel, in short, recounts how a scientist invents a new machine, which through a sort of X-ray is able to project the thoughts of a person onto a canvas, or “mirror”, and invites his good friend and his wife over to test it. This is in essence the same story as in Méliès’ film. While the Internet Speculative Fiction Database doesn’t list a French translation of Der Gehirnspiegel, it is almost certain that it would have appeared in several French newspapers or magazines. At the time, the press was of utmost importance for the spreading of literature over the world, and the vast majority of the translated works have never been thoroughly catalogued. I found the story in a modern collection of science fiction stories that were published in Finnish papers in the 19th and early 20th century. And if it reached a peripheral country like Finland, it most certainly was published in France. Furthermore, the date seems to corroborate this. While written in 1902, Der Gehirnspiegel was re-released in 1907 in the collection Traumkristalle, which became a bestseller — and would without doubt have been translated and reviewed in French press. And Méliés’ film was made the following year.
Over-eager film scholars have concocted a number of deep-delving psychological and Freudian theories about sexuality and the subconscious, trying to find symbolism in Méliès’ film. While interesting as academic discourse, one should probably look to answers closer to Méliès’ home court, comedy and satire, for the motivation for the film. All his career Méliès’ made fun of the self-centred and the puffed-up, the people who exaggerated their own importance and overlooked those in weaker positions. In this film, Méliès clearly wishes to make fun of the annoying little man. And, it’s a very funny film.
The effects of the movie are done with stop tricks, black screen double exposures and dissolves, all superbly well done. The sets are well made, and the animated machinery of the workshop brings to mind the factory scenes from Méliès space travel films. But Long Distance Wireless Photography still only is a single-shot short trick film, no more no less, and the effects on display bring nothing new to the table that audiences hadn’t seen dozens if not hundreds of times by this stage, as most had been in wide use since 1900. What we’re seeing here is a master craftsman exercising his craft, and as a fun and witty short film the movie is not bad. However, the style of the film was rapidly going out of style, which Méliès obviously knew, seeing as he made Humanity Though the Ages as a clear response to these changes in film taste. But that film remained one of his very few deviations from his customary style, and for some reason he doesn’t seem to have repeated his experiment with new ways of filmmaking, but rather stubbornly stuck to his old guns, which played a part in his downfall as a director.
In 1909 Méliès output drastically diminished, in part because of the upheavals in the French film industry, where the Pathé company tried to create a similar monopoly was Edison had created in the US. New regulations meant films had to be made longer and they had to be made faster in order to make back their budgets, which favoured big studios like Pathé and Gaumont, and made it almost impossible for Méliès’ independent Star Films to continue creating the labour-intensive short films it had become known for, finally giving Pathé a weapon against Méliès, who had been a thorn in the big studio’s side for ten years. For Méliès the only chance left to keep making his films was to grudgingly merge Star Film with Pathé, giving up his artistic control. In 1910 and 1911 Méliès made almost no films at all, and in 1912 Pathé helped him finance two final epics, a remake of Cinderella, and The Conquest of the Pole. However Méliès and Pathé’s head of production Ferdinand Zecca had major artistic disagreements, and Méliès was denied final cuts on his movies, which Zecca radically re-cut. And in the wake of the first Italian epic feature films, Méliès’ theatrical style was hopelessly outdated. Outmanoeuvred and behind the times, Méliès quit filmmaking in 1912, never to return.
Long Distance Photography (Photographie électrique à distance). 1908, France. Written and directed by Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernance Albany. Produced by Georges Méliès for Star Film.