December 19, 2017

A trip to Mr. Dickens'

In 1821, when Charles Dickens was a nine-year old boy, he and his ne’er-do-well father took a walk along some of Kent’s country roads. On Gravesend Road they passed a house called Gad’s Hill Place, north and west of Rochester. Young Charles was very impressed with the house. The Dickens family was plagued with financial problems – his father was in and out of the workhouse – but Dickens Sr. recognized his son’s interest and told Charles that if he “were to be very persevering and were work very hard” he might some day live there.

And live there he did. After the financial success of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens was able to buy Gad’s Hill Place in 1856 for about £1,800. Understandably Dickens was quite the local celebrity. He would host summer parties, cricket games and always had big Christmas parties including a children’s tea.

Well, my grandmother’s grandmother happened to be a child during that time. Harriet was born in 1853 in Gillingham, one the Medway towns located about 5 or 6 miles from where Dickens would make his home. When she was a little girl she was one of the lucky local children invited to Dickens’ house for Christmas tea. 

While I will never hear Harriet’s first-hand recollections of the event – she died in 1941 – I like to think the children’s party was jolly frolic in Dickens' grand reception under the festoons of bunting and coloured streamers.  There would be the requisite sprigs of holly and mistletoe and crackling fires and Christmas crackers. The air would be redolent with steaming punch and steaming fig puddings. Of course, silly tissue paper hats would be worn. Girls in their crisp tartan dress and boys in their knee britches would perhaps play a giddy game of musical chairs or blind mans buff by the base of the new holiday fad, the Christmas tree

Perhaps instead the timid children would wait, measuring out the minutes with the ticking of the mantle clock, while horses stamped and whinnied in the forecourt as a damp English winter penetrated Dicken’s old brick home.

But I like to think not. His was no Bleak House. Dickens continued to celebrate the season with exuberance until the end of his days. Dickens kept Christmas well until his death at Gad’s Hill Place in 1870. 

My Great-Great Grandmother circa 1920

June 6, 2016

Caillebotte's Pyramid

Here's a photo of architect I.M. Pei's glass pyramid outside the Louvre in Paris.

photo:Mark Pimlott

Here's Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte's Paris: Rainy Day, 1877.

Now squint.

Art Institute of Chicago
 Do you see any similarities? I was looking at this from a distance and absent-mindedly wondered what Caillebotte was doing with a pyramid in the background of his famous picture. If one looks at the intersections of the grands boulevards in Paris, pyramids like this are seen on many street corners, like the intersection of rue de Turin and rue de Moscou where this picture was supposedly painted. Of course it all depends on perspective and where you are standing at the time.

With all these "pyramids" in Paris, maybe I.M. Pei's glass example  at the Louvre is easier to understand.

May 30, 2016

Georges Méliès - The Inspiration for HUGO

Scene from Hugo, Paramount Pictures
 I first posted this story 2 years ago. I've just returned from seeing Martin Scorsese's Hugo and I hadn't realized that the film was so closely tied with the story of the real Georges Méliès. Here's a synopsis of Méliès life. Please enjoy the accompanying films. 
Many of us have seen a clip of the ancient film where the poor Man in the Moon gets smacked in the face by a rocket. Georges Méliès, born in Paris in 1861 is responsible for that early film and as a film maker Méliès was the first to utilize cinema's potential to tell magical stories.

Méliès was an illusionist by trade. Before making films he was a stage magician at the Theatre Robert-Houdin (how wonderful).

In 1895, after seeing a demonstration of the Lumière brothers' camera, he became interested in film. Two years later he established his own studio.

From his rooftop property in Montreuil, Méliès directed 531 films ranging from 1 minute in length to 40 minutes. These early films are similar to the magic tricks that Méliès had been performing on stage featuring disappearing objects or people. Despite this, Georges Méliès revolutionized early cinema. Although many of Méliès’s early films were devoid of plot, his special effects and storyboards became fundamental aspects of filmmaking. His films were even pirated!

He wrote, directed and acted in nearly all of his films. His most widely-known film is 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la Lune) includes the celebrated scene mentioned above in which the rocket-ship hits the Man in the Moon.

However, Méliès, the poor guy, could not compete with the larger studios like Pathé (who eventually bought him out) and he spent his last years selling toys in a boutique in Paris’s Montparnasse train station.

Méliès did not grasp the value of his films, and he allowed most of his film stock to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. Many of his films were recycled into new film and as a result much of his legacy does not exist today. Luckily, a copy of Méliès's 1899 short film Cleopatra, believed to be lost, was discovered in Paris in 2005.

The importance of his work was recognized in the years prior to his death. In 1932 the Cinema Society gave Méliès a home in Château d'Orly where he died in 1938.
Please enjoy these Méliès videos found on Youtube.