Recommended Viewing Situation:
After regressing to childhood, stamping around on tin soldiers while adults laugh at you.
Running Time: 4 mins.
Format: 35mm hand coloured film.
Director: Georges Méliès.
Writer: Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels novel).
Cinematographer: Georges Méliès.
Following the outrageous success of Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902), Georges Méliès released a little-known silent short based on two chapters of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In it, he visualises Gulliver’s encounters with the Lilliputians and the Giants respectively. By taking on this already well-known and well-loved novel, Méliès leaves himself free to concentrate on the performative and cinematic challenges of bringing to life a tale in which size is everything. Using techniques such as substitution splicing, multiple exposures, and his gift of sleight of hand, Méliès manages to produce surprisingly smooth effects. With this four minute masterpiece, released over a century ago, Méliès puts the technical and visual effects of the much more recent Gulliver’s Travels (2010) to shame.
Méliès himself plays the part of Gulliver, adopting a visage that captures the grotesquerie of the novel. His over-sized nose, giant beard, and wild gesticulations make the character into an eighteenth-century explorer turned Mr. Punch. The frame rate adds an element of unreality to the whole experience, which evokes the uncanny reflections depicted in Swift’s novel. The effect is one that I suspect the makers of The Ring (2002) were aiming for when they had Samara crawling out of the television screen. For a four minute short, Le Voyage de Gulliver is incredibly meta. The grotesque effects of movements on screen mirror the grotesque nature of the human body when you think about it in too much detail, whilst simultaneously conveying Swift’s distaste for humanity in the novel.
Gulliver is us on the screen. We relate to everything from Gulliver’s perspective. So, when Gulliver is tied up and pierced with spears by the Lilliputians, we feel tiny, insignificant pinpricks in our sides. We feel tall and important when he stands. Similarly, when Gulliver is dropped onto the table surrounded by Giants, we see them in all their gigantic horror. We feel their laughter at our insignificance.
It is a testament not only to Méliès but also to Swift that these images still maintain such relevance to our basic human existence. The feeling of being the only (mildly) intelligent species to inhabit a life-giving planet (that we know of), in the midst of all that space can make us feel magnificently important, and simultaneously infinitesimally inconsequential. In addition, at four minutes long, Méliès has unintentionally given us the perfect cinematic format for an age dominated by soundbites, vines, and viral videos.
Georges Méliès painting by Yann Gobart: yanngobart.deviantart.com