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1 - Gothic Cinema during the Silent Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2020

Richard J. Hand
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
McRoy Jay
Affiliation:
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
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Summary

The moving picture was initially a novelty, really no more than a picture that moved. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the nineteenth-century's reaction to the very first moving pictures is to imagine being handed an old snapshot and seeing the images actually show movement. Moving pictures, running only a few minutes and featuring such activities as a man riding a horse, a train pulling into its station or a girl climbing a tree were exciting novelties that enthralled those that gathered in empty store fronts to see them projected.

Gothic cinema began during cinema's infancy, when French magician George Méliès sought to use the new medium's technology to expand the sort of illusions he’d performed on stage. Méliès investigated the possibilities allowed by multiple exposures, stop-action photography, hand-painted colour and using dissolves as transitions. While his enormous filmography of nearly 500 subjects ranged from the straight filming of actual events to movies that attempted to follow a narrative structure, his use of Gothic imagery is central to expanding the language of cinema.

Méliès is best known for his 1902 short Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), where cinema moves past single-shot films and extends to presenting special visual effects to enhance the idea of space travel. Perhaps best known by the iconic image of the moon, with a face, being hit in the eye by a landing spacecraft, Le Voyage dans la lune combines its effects with set design, live action and animation, some of these ideas being used near to their first time.

While Le Voyage dans la lune is Méliès's best-known film, he had already produced several interesting subjects that explored the possibilities cinema had to offer. Even as far back as Une Nuit terrible (1896), Méliès presents the macabre scene of a sleeping man being attacked by a large bedbug which he kills with a broom. The effect is simply a large bug made of pasteboard and moved with a wire, but it is the portent for the film-maker's further investigations as to what ideas he could convey with film. Une Nuit terrible is certainly not that last time a movie featured giant insects attacking unsuspecting citizens, but it is very likely the first.

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Chapter
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Gothic Film
An Edinburgh Companion
, pp. 11 - 20
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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