The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Actualities and Preconstructions by Susan Daitch  

By way of introduction, Susan Daitch writes: My novel, “The Dreyfus Book”, follows a group of characters indirectly involved in the Dreyfus trial and espionage case: petty forgers, photographers, cross-dressing generals, actors in early silent films, and film restorers who tried to save crumbling movies about the trial one hundred years later. Even the tangential players who participated far from the main stage were deeply affected by the circumstances of a trial that was to split the French public sphere as no other event of the nineteenth century. The effects of its divisiveness would continue to be felt into the next.

Following Dreyfus’ first trial in 1899, Georges Méliès made a film about the affair, using an ironmonger to play the leading role. Méliès was known for producing fantasies or “preconstructions,” which created imaginary scenarios such as a voyage to the moon, underwater exploration, and the transformation of everyday objects from cigarette lighters to exploding heads.

The “preconstructions” were full of sight gags, pratfalls and low-tech tricks like running film backwards. Of the scores of Méliès’ films which have survived, four stand out because they were not fantasies. These films, something like documentaries, reconstructed contemporaneous events, and Méliès called them "actualités", reenactments of the Spanish-American War, the eruption of a volcano in the Philippines, and the Dreyfus trial. This section of the novel is a fictionalization of the making of Méliès’ Dreyfus film, a project begun by reproducing the events of the case within the confines of his glass-walled studio in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, and ending with the riots which occurred when the film was first shown in France in 1899. The silent eleven-minute film was so incendiary it was banned from being shown in France until 1973. This chapter follows the man who constructed the sets for the Dreyfus film. He inadvertently gets caught up in the labyrinth of political violence that surrounded the making of Méliès’ confrontational actualité.


Actualities and Preconstructions

Paris 1899

On the train to Star Films in Montreuil he looked up from his lists just once, quickly, and in that random glance saw two boys clenching boards with long nails hammered through one end. They stood on the edge of a runnel which ran parallel to the train. A few days before the stream had been deep from rain, but it was now stagnant and green. The boys were killing frogs. They pounded each frog so that the nail pierced it, then they pried it off. He used to kill frogs the same way, putting them into a bag or stringing them around his neck, so that the frogs until untied, fried, and eaten, looked like a twitching garland, an Elizabethan collar made of green legs, but there was something else in the water that the boys pointed to, screaming and shouting at the train as it rushed past. It was a long shape like a body which, if that's what the shape had been, must have surfaced as the stream dried up. He was alone in his compartment and didn't know if anyone else on the train had seen what he had seen. The image of the boys went by in a flash, but Fabien was sure he had seen slimy hands, muddy clothes, smeared faces, and a body lying face down in the water.

Méliès was an adored man. His silent movies drew larger crowds than the Lumière Brothers' films. He offered escape hatches, transformation, jokes. No one wants to see what they can see everyday, he said, they want to see what they can't see. Then he began to think about filming what everyone looked at but didn't really see. The Dreyfus trial had split families, including his own. Is Dreyfus a spy? Yes, no, maybe. Méliès didn't think so, and if he could film what he believed he saw, others might agree.

A man dressed as an apothecary examined glass bottles, beakers, jars with arrogant, obscene-looking snouts, and coils of tubing going nowhere. He placed a head, identical to his own, on a small table and after selecting a stop-cock and curved pipe, connected a length of tubing from a whitened bellows to the base of the head. Rolling up his shirtsleeves, he proceeded to pump the bellows. As it grew, the severed twin head expressed mute alarm. Its eyes rolled upwards, a febrile sweat broke out on the brow, and its mouth opened in a silent scream, then just as it seemed to near the bursting point, the apothecary smiled with grace and deflated the head. The apothecary, Georges Méliès, wiped his hands on his full-length apron. He was bald and against a black background his head appeared free-floating and sharp, able to look at his smaller self with terror.

"You play the apothecary's assistant dressed as a clown," he said.
Fabien waited off stage, his face covered with cracking white paint. When the head was reduced to its normal size, Méliès walked on, picked up the bellows and began to pump again. The terrified head grew larger and larger, finally bursting in a cloud of smoke. Fabien, with Méliès' help, was thrown out the window. On his way past painted fenestrations, Fabien accidentally kicked a box which had held the allegedly rubber head. Although the box was a real cardboard box, the head hadn't been rubber; it was Méliès' own. The illusion of its isolation in space and subsequent enlargement was an optical trick. Poor frangible hat filler.
Georges Méliès loved the severed head trick as much as he enjoyed domineering and kicking his real and imaginary assistants.
Out the window, Fabien, out the window and to the moon.
"At least," an actor in a bottle suit reasoned, "the fractious decapitated head is usually his own, and that it's a fat head is only natural."

But I'm the fool, Fabien crossed his arms over his chest, as if proud of his role, as if by declaring his position he was pulling the rug out from under everyone before he could be knocked over himself. During his first months at Star Films Fabien had tried to manage his pratfalls by attempting to detach himself from his body, to try to feel as if someone else was being thrown around, but he couldn't really convince himself of the separation. His head remained firmly attached to his shoulders so far. Georges told him his humiliation was part of the constructed illusion of a film, and therefore his embarrassment couldn't be real. It was only a byproduct of Méliès' bonhomie. He wanted everyone to laugh at all times. The actor adjusted his bottle costume, twisting in it so his eyes appeared in a slot directly under the stopper.
"I think you have it out for me." Fabien yelled through the flimsy window.
"No, no, Fabien, I love you, you're my right-hand man. I want everybody to be happy," Georges said, dusting himself off.
"This is too much. I'm always the fall guy." As hard as he tried to turn the tables on Georges, fatherly and slap-happy, Fabien continued to trip on his shoelaces. In his frustration he remained the boob, the knucklehead, the one who falls in love with the most hopelessness, with no sense of how maladroit he appears. Even though he made intricate and delicate props in a studio to the left of the stage, he was perceived as the one with two left hands. Méliès treated him like a thick-headed boy picked from the audience for a prank while he, Georges Méliès, was the elegant master of ceremonies.
"In tricks I like to take all leading roles, for I can never make my players understand the thousand and one skills needed for a complicated sleight-of-hand to work well. You're not really flying out the window. It just looks that way."

Furniture had been overturned in the fake explosion. Fabien picked up a gauge which had been attached to the bellows and looked through a black aperture used in constructing the optical illusion of the growing head. Most objects were grey, black, or white in order to register more sharply on film, and sets painted in persistent trompe l'oeil played tricks on the inattentive. A less clever man might walk into windows, knock his head against spaces between painted trees, train cars, or large scale Corinthian columns. Ladders, hedgerows, rooms whose painted checkered floors had carefully plotted diminishing transversals, all these were painted or constructed so they narrowed to a point on the horizon. Truly wedge-shaped boxes implied square rooms. Fabien was careful, but the vistas of distorted linear perspective were so common among studio flats, the landscape of Fabien's days, that he often felt off balance, as if he were caught in a Uccelo painting he couldn't step out of until he was on the train back to Paris, and even then, as the landscape rushed by, he wasn't sure. Uccelo, fellow lover of practical jokes. Is the horse rooted to the plinth or does he float above it? There was something inaccessible about the pleasures offered by the films he worked on. He built false ceilings and imagined sink holes. He wanted to ask Georges, "Who laughs, who's taken in, who splits his sides over your gallows humor?" Georges talked about the profane gaze of the audience, all his optical illusions and sight gags were attempts at second-guessing the desires embedded in that profane gaze. Fabien sometimes sensed this future ogling as he prepared to be thrown out a fake window. This is what the spectators want, do it, he said to himself, jump out the window.