I am living in a past that was never fully present. The movies have a way of doing that: of so feverishly mixing the real with the imagined, the desired with the ignored and the repressed. I am thinking back to my time at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. I delight in the thought of returning to Piazza Maggiore, the beating heart of the city, and the white projector screen that commands the entire square and often lingers in the memoryscape of my dreams. There I would watch countless films each night. It was where all of Bologna seemingly gathered every night of the festival, filing into the chairs and – once those were full – taking a seat at a nearby bar, or on the steps of the church. It was where I would watch Modern Times and Fat City, The High Sign and One-Eyed Jacks. And most importantly, it was where I would see Méliès’ Bouquet d’illusions (The Triple-Headed Lady), a film made in 1901 that had been previously considered lost. I was a part of the first public audience to see it in over one hundred years.
Created by Méliès and eventually found in the collection of Frank Brinton – who, along with his wife, was one of the first to show moving images in America – Bouquet d’illusions is a marvelous short that celebrates the magic of cinema. The real subject of the work is the illusionistic wonder of the apparatus: showing a woman appearing to have three heads and the magician who performed the trick removing his own head and walking promptly without it. The viewer delights in the trickery and connects the work of the magician with that of the director. Méliès is the real conjurer, endowed with the ability to turn man into phantom. Filmmaking in the style of Méliès may sometimes feel antiquated, perhaps a little too distant from the experiences of the modern spectator: indeed, we were not the intended audience.
But for me, that opens up new possibilities of experiencing it. The film was once thought lost to history. Now that it has been restored and revisited, Bouquet d’illusions can be continually reborn, seen in different contexts and audiences. Seeing this work was like a spiritual experience, in that I felt overwhelmed with love for the course of film history. I felt as though I was connecting with all spectators, throughout time, who have viewed it. I was a witness to history and, with my eyes, alighting it in turn.
The magic of the apparatus came alive for me. For I realized that I was seeing something that did not really exist. Cinema is a past disguised as the present, combining the physicality of the film-strip (at least in the pre-digital age) with the mental, psychological experience of viewing. We are delighting in a past – of objects that are not really before us, of people who may now be dead, of sounds that may signify absence – as if we were experiencing them in real time. Film is an eternal present. I remember being overcome with joy, not just because of the film itself, but because of the people around me. Film felt democratic. I was surrounded by young and old, cinéphile and the casual moviegoer. We transcended and were transported into the world of the cinema; reborn just like Bouquet d’illusions.
Film is a journey, a pilgrimage that both transports the spectator and gives us an occasion to be better. Cinema demands that the spectator is up to the task of viewership, forcing the individual to essentially create the film on-screen, to determine meaning for oneself, to engage in its processes of memory and desire. A single film invites a multiplicity of readings, in part because each spectator brings certain personal and historically defined experiences to the film, but also because the film itself is always changing, due to its viewing conditions, its state of restoration or its being digital. In me, it inspires a process of becoming: Bouquet d’illusions is always with me and contributes to how I see the world: cinematically, seeking to uncover narratives written in movement and light.
Photographs by Isabella DeLeo
Edited by Kahini Mehta