FANTASMAGORIE (Émile Cohl, 1908)

The application of stop-motion photography to a series of chalk drawings on a blackboard helped realize what is generally considered the earliest animated film, Émile Cohl’s two-minute “Fantasmagorie.” From France, it remains one of the masterpieces of the genre, a miniature (though major) work of elastic possibilities encompassing kaleidoscopic visual transformations, with a roly-poly clown at its center, playfully abstract and yet full of feeling, including a riff of poignancy related to life’s transience. With an abrupt finish, Cohl’s unfettered dream comes to an irreversible end.
     Nifty—and haunting: the clown’s twice flipping over to reveal a flat collection of lines.
     Some violent imagery involving human death yields imagery of either resurrection or the willful denial of death. All of life may be a denial of death but for those points where “reality” exhausts and empties our denials.
     The film’s technique, inevitably, is primitive; but the film’s achievement goes way beyond mere historical importance. Expressive and compelling, Fantasmagorie is as vibrant today, more than a hundred years later, as it must have been when it first dazzled and amazed audiences.
     Cohl’s film recalls Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, what with the volatile changes in the clown’s size, his relationship to Nature, and his alternate condition of containment, or confinement, and release, liberation. The implication arises that these transformations shall continue as long as the dream of life—or the dream of cinema—continues. It is such a persistent characteristic of the material that it scarcely admits even a hint of instability; rather, the exhilarating flux that Cohl conjures, which his clown beamingly embraces, achieves a kind of stability through this positive attitude of his (both Cohl’s and the clown’s), his appreciation of life, his unflagging delightedness. This clown embodies the deepest dimension of the filmmaker’s heart.

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