Friday, May 4, 2012

Fire Breathing Dragons


I was watching Martin Scorsese's spellbound Hugo the other evening, and there is a scene that re-creates a lost moment in movie history, when Georges Méliès, now known as the father of special effects, made one of his (now lost) magical films featuring a fire-breathing dragon.

The way that Scorsese re-created the scene was very nearly as magical as Méliès. The difference, of course, is simply that Méliès was a pioneer, doing things no one had done before. Scorsese knows this, and all his technical advantages are put at the service of Méliès.

The very next day, as luck would have it, I watched moments from a film called Reign of Fire (2002) again, and it spoke volumes to me, quite inadvertently, about film's enormous technical advances. Reign of Fire concerns a group of people who, in some dimly conceived future world, are routinely being incinerated by fire-breathing dragons.

When Méliès tried to give fantasies substance, the potential of the new motion picture medium, for him, totally outweighed its early technical shortcomings. Nearly all of those shortcomings have been eliminated by now. Scorsese had to create another illusion - reinventing the shortcomings that Méliès had to contend with. Alas, Scorsese had to rely too much on a quite unprepossessing child actor (Asa Butterfield). Scorsese certainly isn't alone. This has happened to many otherwise fine movie directors.

But what the otherwise moribund movie Reign of Fire emphasized is how the special effects industry is now geared towards the creation of the most purposefully improbably realities. Every day, on Reign of Fire, conscientious men and women went to work to commit themselves to the painstaking chore of creating a substantively real world in which people are routinely terrorized by fire-breathing dragons. Georges Méliès, who never pretended he was doing anything other than creating wonderful illusions, would've wept.

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