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Technology: Worlds--and Century--Apart in 2 Spaces

September 03, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Space Age madness has invaded this column in the form of two very different ongoing exhibitions.

Production stills by pioneering film fantasist Georges Melies--best known for the 1902 silent classic "A Trip to the Moon"--are at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton through Oct. 6. And two young artists have put Breeden Gallery's new location in Orange on the map with an evocative interpretation of post-"Star Wars" culture.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, movies were amazing novelties, not full-fledged entertainments. Most no more than a minute long, they typically showed such everyday events as a baby being fed outdoors or workers leaving a factory.

A magician by trade, Melies was instantly captivated by the medium. He plunged into it in 1896 at age 35, turning out more than 70 films the first year.

Some already incorporated the technical wizardry--superimposition, multiple exposure, slow and fast motion, dissolve--that he would use to evoke amusing and wondrous realms of imagination.

Melies had a hand in virtually every aspect of his movies as designer, director and actor. He worked up detailed sketches of scenic backdrops (forerunners of today's storyboards) and seems to have pioneered the practice of making production stills.

He also frequently appeared as the star--sometimes making multiple simultaneous appearances.

To accommodate elaborate sets, he built the first professional film studio, a steel-and-glass building flooded with natural light, where the camera was affixed to the floor and tracking shots were achieved by moving the actors and scenery.

In "Trip," (which can be viewed on videotape at the center), frock-coated, umbrella-toting members of the Astronomers Club blast off to the moon in a sweet little rocket, heralded by a flags, bugles and a row of pert female helpers, imported from Paris music halls.

After smashing their rocket into the eye of a soft, pasty-faced female moon, the astronomers disembark. Falling asleep, they miss the cabaret spectacle of stars with women's faces and a girl swinging on a crescent moon.

A bearded head (Melies) peers out of Saturn to toss snow on the explorers. Awakened, they encroach on territory belonging to the Selenite Army (scaly creatures with lobster claws and webbed feet), which fights back with a vengeance. The astronomers escape, only to have their rocket fall off the moon and back into the terrestrial ocean.

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Melies' unique vision is all but impossible to capture in the static format of an exhibition. The touring show--assembled by silent-film expert Paolo Cherchi Usai, film curator at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.--is rather lifeless.

A generous sampling of small modern prints of the tiny original images (a few of which are also included) display the huge range of Melies' oeuvre--adaptations of novels, plays and operas as well as historical subjects, fairy tales and science fiction.

But stills from different films are juxtaposed in a seemingly random way, destroying continuity. Similarly, wall texts provide useful nuggets of information but tend not to be directly related to the stills.

Fancifully costumed and posing in front of obviously hand-painted sets, the actors resemble people playing charades. The tableaux are as symmetrical as Old Master paintings, and the actors always seem to be pointing melodramatically.

What's missing is the camera wizardry, what transforms all this claptrap into a universe of wonder.

Quite a few images are yellow and faint, and their size makes even the crisper ones a trial to study closely. Couldn't Eastman House have enlarged the reproductions for the exhibition?

Always lurking at the margins of the stills is Melies' trademark--a star representing his Star-Film Co. It collapsed in 1913, a victim of rising costs and the refusal of his distributor to handle the work of an artiste believed to lack business sense.

Melies was reduced to working with his second wife (and leading lady) in a toy and candy kiosk. In 1929, nine years before his death, intellectuals rediscovered Melies' work, and his star rose again.

One tantalizing theme mentioned in a wall text--Melies' glorification of women--is never explained or demonstrated. How did his treatment relate to turn-of-the-century French attitudes toward women in general? How did it differ from that of other filmmakers' of his day? It doesn't make sense to raise the issue yet fail to explore its ramifications.

The Muckenthaler has attempted to add atmosphere with a director's chair and a couple of Klieg lights (an inept choice in view of Melies' dependence on daylight for illumination). But it takes more than a bit of window dressing to enliven an exhibition that treats a vibrant art form as a dry museum piece.

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At the other end of the century from "A Trip to the Moon," the imagery in "Space Frame" at Breeden Gallery is a product of decades of pop-culture immersion in space exploration.

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