At the end of the nineteenth century, modern magic made a specialty of instantaneous disappearances. The Vanishing Lady, first performed in 1886, was the most sensational stage illusion of its time. Just ten years later, the invention of the cinematograph provided magicians like Georges Méliès with a new piece of magic apparatus that could be used to visualize even more striking disappearances. This paper interrogates the specific materials that made the disappearances of modern magic possible–both onstage and onscreen–through a close look at a number of Méliès’ theatrical and cinematographic illusions. Using contemporaneous conjuring manuals and magazines alongside accounts of the second industrial revolution, the paper places Méliès’ innovative illusions in both the context of magic history’s new techniques and the context of industrial capitalism’s new materials and chemicals, emphasizing the ways modern magic relied upon manipulations of such newly available substances as celluloid, chemical adhesives, and ductile steel wire.
BIO/BIB — Matthew Solomon, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, where he teaches film history and film theory and directs the doctoral program. His research focuses on the cinema’s relationships with the performing and visual arts. He has published widely about silent cinema, including a recently completed monograph about The Gold Rush for the BFI Film Classics series. He is currently at work on a book about Méliès and the modern world. Matthew Solomon’s publications include Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2010. «Georges Méliès: Anti-Boulangist Caricature and the Incohérent Movement,» Framework 53, no. 2 (2012): 305-327. Shorter version translated into French as «Méliès, l’Incohérent,» in Méliès, carrefour des attractions, ed. André Gaudreault and Laurent Le Forestier, with Stéphane Tralongo, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2014, 203-216. «The Medium is the Magic: Trick Films and the Imagination of Celluloid,» in Alexandra Navratil: This Formless Thing, Winterthur: Kunstmuseum Winterthur; Amsterdam: SMBA Amsterdam, Roma Publications 2013, 85-100. Translated into German as «Das Medium ist die Magie: Trickfilme und der Zauber von Zelluloid,» in Alexandra Navratil: This Formless Thing [German edition], Winterthur: Kunstmuseum Winterthur; Amsterdam: SMBA Amsterdam, Roma Publications 2013), 81-104.