The dance team in Segundo de Chomon’s Danses cosmopolites transformation (1902) are standard figures of so-called Trick films of that epoch. Indelicate to say it like this, but they’re essentially mannequins, capable of some mobility, upon whom the filmmaker cast merely the latest optical construct his overheated imagination had wrought. In those lawless pioneer days when screen acting, as such, was unheard of, little else was ever sought from anyone before the camera. The couple in this film go through a routine not unlike any number of Vaudeville performers in America . . . somewhat clumsily, yes, but conveying errant wisps of both continental verve and never-say-die showmanship as they endure the filmmaker’s persistence in hurling them from the ornaments of one cosmopolitan culture to another.
Neither eye-popping nor formally complex (relatively speaking, I hasten to add), Danses cosmopolites transformation nevertheless has a charm that was very often hidden within the visual, hand-tinted tumult of Segundo de Chomon’s later and more celebrated achievements. Employed initially by Pathé, Chomon was a filmmaker of extraordinary gift whose name just about always appears in the same paragraphs as Georges Méliès; and for marginally good reason. Both men were pioneers; both had more than a hand in the development of its various techniques of optical hocus-pocus (multiple-exposures, time-lapse gimmicks, dissolves); both gave their filmmaking over to extravagant, impossible visions that made America’s rather staid pioneer class look utterly moribund by comparison. But Chomon’s determination to embrace the illusory power of what was then a new medium . . . in its known totality . . . often gave his visions an incantatory force that would have rendered them, in retrospect, fairly insufferable were it not for an equivalent spirit of playfulness at their heart (a spirit laid bare in Danses). His wizardry was never dolorous or solemn. It exulted in a joyous sense of potential made positively radiant by the new technology and its vast, still undiscovered galaxies of expression.
In 1964, Jonas Mekas referred to Andy Warhol’s films as, in a sense, “a cinema of happiness.”
I sometimes think he picked the wrong filmmaker.