SPANISH FILMMAKER SEGUNDO DE CHOMÓN began working in the medium less than half a decade after its invention, first as a renowned colorist in the days of labor-intensive frame-by-frame tinting, then as a pioneering special-effects designer. His career unfolded during the historical phase scholar Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions”—before narrative took hold as the dominant mode, when fairground-style spectacle and legerdemain remained the eye-baffling norm. One of Chomón’s earliest films, The King of Dollars (1905), makes the link to stage magic clear. It shows a disembodied hand performing coin tricks, enhanced by simple editing techniques that would have still been unfamiliar to audiences. Later works recall the baroque theatricality of his contemporary George Méliès (whose films he hand-colored), with a somewhat more sinister edge to their elaborate fantasy. In one of Chomón’s best-known titles, The Red Spectre (1907), a leering Satanic magician traps women inside tiny glass bottles while cavorting in his rouge-tinted subterranean lair. In Bob’s Electric Theater (1909), a boy shares a miniature toy stage with his friends, whereupon it plays host to stop-motion animated dolls who skewer one another with swords and furiously kick-box. A less violent variation on this theme appears in The Electric Hotel (1908), in which a bellhop employs a novel device that causes luggage to fly upstairs, then unpack on its own. These last two proto-Surrealist items serve as reminders of how much the mechanism of cinema itself remained a source of wonder for Chomón, and the use of “electric” parallels the way “electronic” would be employed in the 1960s—or, indeed, “digital” today—as a slippery marker of seductively ineffable technological newness. Though populated with dancing sorcerers, gypsy alchemists, and ghostly apparitions, Chomón’s work now feels ironically materialist, capturing the weird essence of cinema in its primordial form: an industrial-era machine, rigged out of gears and shutters, incandescent bulbs and chemical photography, that nonetheless creates lifelike phantoms from a projected beam of moving shadows.
A selection of films by Segundo de Chomón will be shown at a special screening hosted by the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 10, at 12:30 PM. A retrospective of Chomón’s work will appear at Anthology Film Archives in New York October 29–31.