These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film. Continue reading
This week has been heavy on the Méliès at Spectacular Attractions. That’s no bad thing, and there’s always room for more. So, here’s an interesting appendix to my long post on the 1902 of A Trip to the Moon/ Le Voyage dans la Lune. These are stereoscope slides of photographs taken of a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune, inspired, like Melies’s film, by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. The operetta was first performed in 1875 and revived periodically for the rest of the 19th century. Produced without Verne’s permission, the similarities were obvious enough for the writer to complain about it in writing. Nearing the end of his life, Offenbach was facing financial difficulty, and decided to write three operettas at once, one of which was Voyage dans la Lune. It was astonishingly opulent, as these images will attest – Alfred Grevin, one of the founders of the world-famous wax museum, designed the 673 costumes used in the production. The All Music Guide has this to say: “Because Offenbach seems to have placed particular emphasis on the music that was to have accompanied the special visual effects, the work is best encountered in its original context, rather than shorn of its visual component. The level of musical craftsmanship does, in any event, reflect the hand of a composer backed by decades of experience, a composer who had by that time become a vital force in the life of French musical theater.” If you read French, you can find the complete libretto here. Find more Jules Verne stereoscope slides at Collecting Jules Verne, my source for these images.
I like to keep track of references to Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, which is already the most thoroughly referenced film here at Spectacular Attractions. The latest sighting comes in the BBC’s recent adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, one of the acknowledged influences on Melies’s film. Gatiss’s version of the story incorporates a framing narrative where a young boy at a fairground wanders into a tent where an old man sits guarding his cinematographe films on the day of the Apollo Moon landings. Persuaded to tell his tale, the old man spins a yarn, accompanied by a film show, of how he and his friend Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss) became the first men to land on the Moon and to meet its inhabitants, the Selenites. Wells’s book ends inconclusively – we don’t find out what happens to Cavor when he is left behind on the Moon. Gatiss gives a solution to the mystery that explains why Neil Armstrong wasn’t met by spindly, air-breathing aliens when he made his giant leap. It’s all rather fun, but the highpoint, at least for my all-consuming self-interests, came during a hallucinatory sequence where Bedford (Rory Kinnear) imagines returning to the Moon to rescue Cavor, all told in the style of a Melies movie. Bedford has been forced to flee the Moon, leaving Cavor stranded amongst the Selenites, and suffers from feverish visions as the spacecraft tumbles back to Earth.
In H.G. Wells’s book, Bedford imagines himself separated from his body, looking back with disdain upon “Bedford”, who he came to believe was “just a peephole through which I looked at life”:
I can’t profess to explain the things that happened in my mind. No doubt they could all be traced directly or indirectly to the curious physical conditions under which I was living. I set them down here just for what they are worth, and without any comment. The most prominent quality of it was a pervading doubt of my own identity. I became, if I may so express it, dissociate from Bedford; I looked down on Bedford as a trivial,incidental thing with which I chanced to be connected. I saw Bedford in many relations–as an ass or as a poor beast, where I had hitherto been inclined to regard him with a quiet pride as a very spirited or rather forcible person. […]
For a time I struggled against this really very grotesque delusion. I tried to summon the memory of vivid moments, of tender or intense emotions to my assistance; I felt that if I could recall one genuine twinge of feeling the growing severance would be stopped. But I could not do it. I saw Bedford rushing down Chancery Lane, hat on the back of his head, coattails flying out, en route for his public examination. I saw him dodging and bumping against, and even saluting, other similar little creatures in that swarming gutter of people. […]
I still reasoned that all this was hallucination due to my solitude, and the fact that I had lost all weight and sense of resistance. I endeavoured to recover that sense by banging myself about the sphere, by pinching my hands and clasping them together. […]
Enough of this remarkable phase of my experiences! I tell it here simply to show how one’s isolation and departure from this planet touched not only the functions and feeling of every organ of the body, but indeed also the very fabric of the mind, with strange and unanticipated disturbances.All through the major portion of that vast space journey I hung thinking of such immaterial things as these, hung dissociated and apathetic, a cloudy megalomaniac, as it were, amidst the stars and planets in the void of space; and not only the world to which I was returning, but the blue-lit caverns of the Selenites, their helmet faces, their gigantic and wonderful machines, and the fate of Cavor, dragged helpless into that world, seemed infinitely minute and altogether trivial things to me.
In Gatiss’s version, Bedford still suffers from hallucinations, but he doesn’t forget about Cavor, but instead reimagines the perilous situation as a comic trick film. We know that the pair were filming their adventures, and that Bedford’s story would never be believed, so this filmic apparition seems consistent with themes of the film. It’s not a perfect simulation of Melies’s style – there are too many close-ups, not enough extreme long shots, and the sets are less elaborately detailed, but it’s an affectionate homage that tips a hat to the long history of Wells adaptations, and to Melies’s pivotal role in making them cinematic. (You might also notice the cunning casting of Gatiss’s colleagues from The League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as the Moon and the Sun.)
[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]
[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]
For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges Méliès‘ A Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.
Last week’s episode of The Simpsons (462 – 2121 MABF13 “Moe Letter Blues“) featured a scene that gave Spectacular Attractions a bit of a thrill. The interlude for Itchy and Scratchy, psychotic cat-and-mouse masters of escalating violence, was titled La Mort d’un Chat sur la Lune (“The Death of a Cat on the Moon”), and delivered an affectionate pastiche of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, one of this blog’s favourite topics of conversation (see here for my ever-expanding, shot-by-shot analysis of the film). Adding to a long list of tributes to the film, Itchy and Scratchy begin their skit with Scratchy the cat acting as cameraman for Itchy’s film of a trip to the moon. The camera runs out of film, and the furious director slices open the cat’s belly and loads his intestines into the camera like a filmstrip…
Poor Scratchy then has to crank his guts through the camera, but when the prop moon falls down from its cables and smashes, Itchy again improvises a solution by decapitating his cameraman, inflating his head with bellows (perhaps another homage to Méliès’ L’homme à la tête de Caoutchouc, made the year before A Trip to the Moon in 1901) and hanging it up against the backdrop. The team of bearded mouse explorers light the fuse on their rocket…
…. launching it right into Scratchy’s eye. It’s a tribute to the enduring appeal and renown of Méliès’ film that it’s key image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye is still recognisable after more than a century. And look, they even got the tongue right:
- This is the second time A Trip to the Moon has been referenced in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon – in Par for the Corpse, from the season 13 episode “Blame it on Lisa”, Itchy uses Scratchy’s head as a golf ball and drives it into the moon. Anyone have pictures of this?
[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Katie Newstead. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. See more student work here.]
This selection of films from the period 1895 to 1906 shares the common theme of travel. During this time, few people travelled for leisure and tourism; those that did, usually did so on the basis of military service or for business purposes. The invention of the steamboat in the late 1700s, and the passenger train in 1821 coincided with the development of pre-cinema; with devices such as Shaw’s Stereotrope (1861) presenting a number of still images in quick succession to create the illusion of one moving image. Thus, a connection can be drawn between society’s desire to travel, and cinema’s attempts to represent movement.
These devices could generally only be viewed by one individual at a time. It was not until 1895, when the Lumière brothers invented the Cinématographe, which captured, processed and projected images on screen, that films could be shown to multiple audiences. One of the most famous Lumière films is L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, due to the myths surrounding its initial public reaction. Allegedly, a number of spectators were so frightened by the image of a train driving towards them, that they fled the screening. German writer Hellmuth Karasek described the film as having a ‘particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic.’ (2004:89-119)
While the accuracy of these tales has been debated, it is easy to imagine how audiences must have responded. The oblique angle of the camera parallels that of the railway track, providing a sense of distance and perspective. The fact that the train directly approaches the audience actively engages them with the image; they witness its increase in size as it speeds towards them, which further enhances the scene’s verisimilitude. The camera takes a point of view stance, allowing for identification between the spectator and passenger; they both patiently wait on the platform, whilst watching the train’s arrival. It could be argued that this plays on the current ideological desires of travel; the audience can fantasise that they too will be boarding the train. If the camera had been placed on the opposite platform to the waiting passengers, for example, this would have meant that the audience would not have been able to see the train approaching, and its arrival would have obscured those boarding it. Therefore, the camera’s clever positioning enables it to record a large amount of action; the train’s arrival and the people waiting, which functions together to form a coherent narrative.
The first public screening by the Lumière brothers took place on 28 December, 1985 and, while it did not include the above film, one member of the audience was particularly significant. Georges Méliès, the son of a wealthy shoemaker, had long been interested in the creative arts; reportedly drawing caricatures of his teachers as a boy. At around 10, he was taken to see legendary French magician Robert-Houdin, who later tutored Méliès in the art of magic during his military service.
After his father’s retirement in 1888, Méliès sold his shares of the shoe factory to purchase the theatre in which he had been inspired; The Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and reopened it that year. After the Lumière’s debut screening, he approached them with the intention of buying a Cinématographe, which they refused to sell. Unperturbed, he bought a British invented camera, and began to make his own films from 1896. He made films across many genres, including: documentary, comedy, pornography, and what is considered to be the first science-fiction film: Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Le Voyage Dans La Lune was believed to have cost 10,000 francs, and consequently is also regarded as the first big-budget film. Influenced by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901), Méliès’ film starred several acrobats looking to earn more money than they normally would on stage.
The excitement of travel is clearly evident; note the ceremonious nature of the rocket launch, complete with trumpeters, the flying of the tricolore, and the cheering crowds. The women who insert the shuttle into the rocket then turn to wave at the camera, allowing the audience to feel part of the action and the celebration. This sense of the active audience is similar to that of L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat, and serves to make the activity of viewing a film more engaging and appealing, and allows for greater empathy with the characters.
The shot of the moon increasing in size as the rocket speeds towards it mirrors the train’s approach of Ciotat Station. While the Lumière brothers used this technique to enhance reality, Méliès arguably uses it to create suspense and excitement; the viewer eagerly anticipates the moon-landing, and the imminent adventure.
The image that follows is the most iconic of the whole film and, indeed, of Méliès’ entire filmography; the rocket crashing into the anthropomorphic face of the moon. This has been reproduced many times: from the iron railings between 8th and 9th Avenue in New York, to the logo and statue of the Visual Effects Society’s yearly awards ceremony, therefore indicating the importance of this image among the public.
This image also appears in the third and final film of this selection: The ? Motorist or The Mad Motorist (1906), which was produced by keen motorist and engineer R. W. Paul. The film takes place between London’s Holborn and Muswell Hill, and the Orange Tree Pub, which the motorist drives up the face of, served as a production base for location shooting. The theme of the film must have been very close to the bone for Paul; who had previously been charged for speeding. The film does not seem to be condoning bad driving; on the contrary, the driver and his passenger appear to be enjoying the thrill of movement, and the feeling of freedom; which is illustrated by the car’s journey into space. During this fantastical voyage, the car drives around a moon that is similar to the one that features in Le Voyage Dans La Lune.
The ? Motorist could be cited as influencing such literary figures as Toad in The Wind in the Willows; both characters revel in the pleasure of speed. Furthermore, in a 1907 essay by Russian writer Andrei Bely, a character very similar to that of the mad motorist is described as: ‘Death in a top hat – […] baring his teeth and rushing towards us.’ (Bely, 1907; in Tsivian & Taylor, 2005:120) While this is not a particularly accurate physical description of the motorist, the fact that a Russian author should be writing about this film suggests evidence of a wide distribution, as well as an inspired and excited audience reaction.
As a whole, the three films that make up this selection demonstrate a desire to travel for pleasure, the need for individuals to broaden their horizons, and the positive anticipation of the future; a modern, industrialised world that is constantly striving towards speed and immediacy.
- Grahame, K. (2005), The Wind in the Willows, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.: New York.
- Gunning, T. (2005), ‘Lunar Illuminations: A Trip to the Moon, 1902’, in: Geiger, J. & Rutsky, R. (eds), Film Analysis, Norton & Company, Inc: New York & London, p.64-80.
- Herbert, S. (2000), ‘Introduction’ in: A History of Pre-Cinema, Routledge: London.
- Joyce, S. (2000), A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences, (Online Essay). Available from: http://silentsf.com/Project_Melies/Melies_HTML/Essay.html (Accessed 7 November, 2009)
- Karasek, H. (2004), The Moving Image: Volume 4, Number 1, p.89-118
- Taylor, R. & Tsivian, Y. (2005), ‘The Reception of the Moving Image’ in: Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, Routledge: London, p.108-129.
- Verne, J. (1865), From the Earth to the Moon, (Republished in 2005), Barnes & Noble Publishing: America.
- Wells, H. G. (1901), First Men in the Moon, (Republished in 2008), Arc Manor Publishers: Rockville, Maryland, USA.
- L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumière, 1895)
- Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902).
- The ? Motorist (Paul, 1906)
©Katie Newstead 2009
[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Joe Hickinbottom. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. To be provided as a handout which is to be read prior to the viewing of the selected films. See more student work here.]
- Une Partie de Cartes / Playing Cards (1896)
- L’Auberge Ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn (1897)
- La Lune à un Mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
- L’Affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair (1899) – selected sequences
- Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Born in 1861, French film-maker Georges Méliès displayed an active curiosity in the arts from an early age, so much so that his particular interest in puppetry and stage design gained him a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His parents’ desire for him to learn English led him to London where, after attending the shows of John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke in the famous Egyptian Hall (Figure 1), he became fascinated by stage conjury. Returning to Paris, Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Here, he worked as a theatrical entertainer, integrating the magic and illusionist skills he studied in England into his performances, alongside the development of his own tricks. When Méliès witnessed the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe – a camera, printer and projector in one – he immediately proposed that he buy the machine, but the brothers refused. Nevertheless, his drive to explore moving pictures guided him towards electrical engineer Robert W. Paul who sold Méliès one of his projectors. Méliès subsequently started to construct his own camera and, on completion, he held his first film screening in April 1896.
Initially Méliès exhibited the films of other artists, most of which were produced for the Kinetoscope, patented by American inventor Thomas Edison. Yet, months later, Méliès shot his first ever movie, Une partie de cartes / Playing Cards (1896), using a single reel of film lasting approximately 1 minute. In the film we see a group of men, outside, casually playing cards and enjoying each other’s amusing company whilst drinks are brought to them by a waitress (Figure 2). A direct duplication of the 1895 Lumière film of the same name, Une partie de cartes is somewhat different to much of Méliès’ ensuing work in that it is an actualité (or ‘actuality’) piece, apparently recording factual everyday events as they occur. Méliès’ competent sense for camera positioning and shot composition, however, are clearly evident here, making full use of the frame in the array of actions carried out within it. His central role as an actor would be the first of many dramatic performances in his own films, maintaining the status as a showman which he very much enjoyed in the theatre.
During the shooting of another actuality in 1896, Méliès made a discovery that would strongly inform his films from thereon. When his camera momentarily jammed, the processed film showed the effect of objects suddenly appearing, disappearing and transforming. Realising that the camera possessed this ability to manipulate time and space, Méliès proceeded to build his own studio where he could create his ambitiously spectacular and magical moving images. In 1897’s L’auberge ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn, we can observe Méliès’ complexly arranged combination of camera trickery, pre-prepared props and staged illusions. He brings to life the inn guest’s hat and clothes through the use of wires; makes various items of furniture vanish and materialise elsewhere by means of jump-cuts; and causes a candle to sporadically explode when the wick is lit by the guest, again played by Méliès (Figure 3). L’Auberge ensorcelée illustrates a distinct progression in Méliès’ work towards a more intricate and multifaceted approach to film-making, incorporating conjury and camera effects in a manner that transcended the marvels available to see on the stage.
As technical and mechanical advances were being made Méliès took advantage of the opportunities offered by the new equipment, introducing more sophisticated visual and narrative elements into his films. Longer reels allowed the assembling of a number of shots, or ‘scenes’, to construct a continuous story to act as a vehicle for his spectacles. Predating Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery (often hailed as the first complete film narrative) by some years, La lune à un mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) saw Méliès produce a film three times longer than most of his earlier shorts. Here, Méliès’ recurring theme of dreams proves fertile ground for his deep-seated interest in the phantasmagorical, playing host to a devil, a celestial fairy and a gorging moon, amongst others (Figure 4). The hand-painted backdrops and décors provide distorted perspectives and depth-of-field, establishing an aesthetic of fantasy within which the astronomer’s ordeal unfolds. In this sense, and considering the advanced use of props, La lune à un mètre could be regarded as an elaboration on the earlier Le cauchemar / A Nightmare (1896), yet also as a precursor to the longer and more complicated tales Méliès would later deliver.
A common misconception is that Méliès dealt mostly with fantasies and fairytales. Throughout his career he made films of a diverse variety including topical satires, historical re-tellings, science fictions, literary adaptations and dramatised actualities. His 1899 mini-epic L’affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair attempted to accurately re-enact (albeit dramatically), the political event of the seemingly false imprisonment of French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Running at 13 minutes, L’affaire Dreyfus tells its story across eleven individual films designed to be shown in sequence. Whilst we notice Méliès’ typical use of painted backdrops, the more realistic and faithfully representative perspectives offer here an authentic aesthetic (Figure 5). This, augmented by the more naturalistic performances of his actors, aided Méliès in conveying his own views, portraying the captain as a tragic character. The film caused so much controversy that it was banned by the French government and is thus acknowledged as one of the first instances of political censorship, debunking the notion that Méliès was simply a director of much-loved child-like fantasy films.
Notwithstanding this, Méliès is most remembered by audiences for his spectacular science fiction pieces. Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), displays the culmination of years of developing magic tricks, set design, mechanical props, and stop-motion, multiple exposure and dissolve techniques. The fragmented yet generally coherent narrative is acted out on an immense scale; the fantastical voyage making full use of Méliès’ skills. We watch as a rocket is propelled into the moon’s eye, as strange monsters dance playfully, and as vast landscapes appear to engulf the travelers (Figure 6). Up until his retirement in 1913, Méliès continued to produce such fantasies in addition to various trick films, dramas and even a Western. Although many of Méliès’ 500 or so films have been lost, his innovations as a magician, photographer, performer and film-maker can still be deeply recognised in those that survive. Working during a time when the camera was thought of predominantly as a device for capturing real life and projecting it back to the audience, Georges Méliès pioneered an entirely new realm of cinema, exploring the hidden capacities of the camera and the opportunities of spectacle held therein.
© Joe Hickinbottom 2009
- Brooke, M., [n.d.], ‘George Méliès: An In-depth Look at the Cinema’s First Creative Genius’, FilmJournal.net [16 October 2009]
- Early Cinema, [n.d.], ‘Pioneers: Georges Méliès’ [16 October 2009]
- Ezra, E., 2000, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 1-49
- Herbert, S. & McKernan, L. (eds.), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey, London: British Film Institute Publishing
- Joyce, S., [n.d.], ‘A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences’ [18 November 2009]
- The Missing Link, [n.d.], ‘Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions’ [16 October 2009]
- Richard, S., 1991, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Georges Méliès’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 39-55
- Roland, C., 1991, ‘Georges Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur: A Study in Recognition’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 57-111
“Some of the Principal Inhabitants of the Moon as they Were Perfectly Discovered by a Telescope brought to ye Greateset Perfection Since ye last Eclipse Exactly Engraved from the Objects, whereby ye Curious may Guess at their Religion, Manners, &c.”
On a recent visit to London’s Hayward Gallery, I stopped off at the Project Space to take a look at the latest exhibition, Deceitful Moon, which celebrates not the anniversary of the Moon landings, but instead the history of hoaxes and conspiracy theories surrounding the Lunar mission. Amongst the exhibits is a William Hogarth engraving “Royalty, Episcopacy and Law”, purporting to show the inhabitants of the Moon as seen through a telescope. From the caption, we can note that Hogarth was capitalising on the frenzy surrounding a recent eclipse (the original was painted in 1724, and this engraving made later that century) which, in a neat science fictional flourish, he uses to explain the sudden clarity with which the moon’s surface can be scrutinised. Is it meant to be a disappointment that these aliens are just like us, with the same staid and affected institutions at their core? As Ronald Paulson points out in his book on Hogarth:
The satiric device of the telescope reveals what was not visible at the great distance that stretches between these regal figures and the public (whether on a Greenwich ceiling or in fact) – that they are only robes hung over armatures, the king’s head being no more than a guinea.
I was immediately reminded of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, about which I’ve been compiling some notes over the past few months:
The throne room of the Moon king is similarly decked out in ceremonial pomp and, since the king can be easily bashed into a puff of smoke, perhaps there’s another satirical comment on the vapid nature of such institutions.
[This post is an appendix of sorts to the larger post about Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. If you want to draw your own comparisons between the two films, you can cross-reference the scene-by-scene frame grabs from each film by clicking between the two posts.]
As another academic year draws to a close and piles of marking start … er, piling up, I find myself with less time for blogging at length about things. So, I’m on the look out for things I can work through quickly, to keep things ticking over on this site (and because I enjoy writing for it). I know I promised a double-bill review of some Japanese King Kong movies, and a randomisation of Norman McLaren, more Star Wars randoms, more in the How Special Effects Work series, a post on Peter Tscherkassky’s amazing Outer Space, and probably a few others. In short, I promised you the Earth. And now here I am, giving you the Moon. Again. Will that do for now?
I wanted to do a scene by scene comparison of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in order to expand my notes here on that fabulous, important film. As an appendix to my ever-expanding scene-by-scene analysis of A Trip to the Moon, I present Segundo de Chomon‘s 1908 remake. Born in Aragon, Northern Spain in 1871, Chomón first worked for Pathé in 1901, where he helped to hand-tint prints of their films in Barcelona (an interest in colour films would stay with him throughout his career). He began making his own films the following year, and moved to Paris to work as a technical assistant to other Pathé film-makers in 1905. Later, he would serve as director of photography on Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and produced in-camera special effects for Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Often remembered for his remakes and imitations of other trick films, especially those of Melies, Chomon’s work has it’s own visual wit and immense dexterity with special effects: magicians constantly perform the same tricks again and again with their own personal variations, so it doesn’t seem too odd to find trick films that are very similar in theme and structure. Special effects are always modifications of earlier tricks, visual solutions to the same problem of how to depict an impossible event, and though Chomón’s film is structurally very similar to Méliès’ original (itself an adaptation/absorption of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), we might find some important differences:
From what I can tell, the figure on the right is very upset. He’s desperate for adventure, and I think he’s even yearning to go to the moon. His friends discourage him from jumping for it, and the professorial figure (i.e. the one with the big pointy hat) promises that they will go to the moon. They dance joyously, then exit screen left: as with Melies, they will enter the next shot from the right hand side of the frame, a neat bit of continuity editing, but also a temporal ellipsis. Time and space, in keeping with the theme of this film and others like it, are collapsed to give an impression of a breakneck, reckless voyage.
Here the professor describes how the mission will work. It is and isn’t rocket science, folks (see, I can recycle jokes from earlier posts, too): the rocket is shot from the Earth to the Moon, but this is where Chomon trumps his predecessor, for while Melies’ lecturer had to draw the diagram with chalk on a blackboard, Chomon’s scientist has a superimposed animation of a spinning globe and a moving rocket aimed at the moon. It’s beautifully done, as perfect a matte shot as you could hope to see in the early cinema period. Note that in both these scenes, the camera is closer than in Melies, and the performances perhaps more starkly individuated – there’s a lovely bit of business in the first shot where one of the friends tries to cheer up the miserabilist by popping a top hat on his head, to no avail. Chomon has a smaller cast, and so crowd scenes appear less cluttered. Similarly, you’ll notice that the perspective (see the telescopes in the background of this shot) is less vertiginous, less exaggerated in its distortions throughout.
The explorers go to watch the rocket being built – you can see its frame to the left of centre in this image. As with Melies, there’s an industrial accident for light relief: one man is accidentally hooked and hoisted by a crane. Are we supposed to mock the explorers for their clumsiness, their prim and proper incongruence on the shop floor? This composition is less “flat” than the Melies version, with convincing depth to the backdrop and strong lines across the frame, especially the gantry at the top.
In the next shot, it looks as though the explorers are now up on one of the gantries around the rocket-building yard. Space and time are still compressed – having seen the rocket being built, we’re now getting ready for the launch in the very next shot (it might be that they’re building a production line of rockets, but either way, we’re being shown the various stages of the mission in linear sequence). The gun that will launch the rocket points upwards and out of the frame in the background.
Unlike the Melies film, where the rocket is loaded into the canon by sailor-girls in hotpants, Chomon delegates this labour to a bunch of soldiers, but the composition is almost exactly the same. The explorers are themselves then loaded into the shell and popped into the barrel. The painting on the backdrop is immaculate – the lines of the brushed steel inside the barrel clearly marks out a space that might otherwise seem difficult to distinguish in a monochrome frame. The tinting of these images, often changing colour from shot to shot, delineates each scene.
A brief shot follows of the rocket leaving the gun, the force of the trajectory (which matches the direction of fire from the previous shot) indicated by that strong diagonal bisection of the frame.
Chomon’s recreation of Melies’ signature shot of the rocket penetrating the moon is similar, but significantly different, beginning with a dolly shot towards the sleeping satellite, but while Melies popped the shell in the Moon’s eye through the magic of a stop-motion substitution, Chomon slows down the action and smoothly flies the rocket into the moon’s gaping mouth. It’s a great, elegant effect without the violence of Melies’ version, even though it’s replaying the same joke of scale.
The moon landing now follows a familiar progression. They watch the sunset in the background. They settle down to sleep. It starts snowing. They retreat into a crater. Again, the action is closer than in Melies, and there is no display of stellar gods and goddesses. The disappointment for the explorers is that the climate of the moon is as unpredicatble as that of Earth. Luckily they brought little umbrellas…
In the underground cave, the explorers are attacked and abducted by moonmen, acrobats in suits with human faces (as opposed to Melies’ masked, exo-skeletoned crustacea). The action is frenetic, the shroomy backdrop impressively detailed. It looks like bits are missing from the film here, making the stop-motion substitutions as the mushrooms pop up, and the selenites appear, a little jerky. The explorers are hustled off the screen and brought to…
… the throne room of the king of the Moon. He’s a big, sultanic figure, his minions cowering before him. This is a more cordial meeting than in Melies’ film. The king even puts on a dance show led by a girl who is presumably his daughter:
Slightly oddly, this ballet routine takes up a good chunk of the film’s running time, repeating Melies’ interest in decorative female bodies, but transferring the pageantry from the Earth to the Moon. It’s all spoiled when one of the Earthlings, smitten with desire, grabs the king’s daughter and runs off with her. Understandably enfuriated, the king conjures his guards and sends them off in pursuit of the fleeing explorers.
One of the selenites is hand-tinted here, in this beautifully painted shot. The rocket is tipped over the edge to fall back to Earth, while the creatures are left behind on the edge of the Moon.
There’s no fuss about the depiction of the return to Earth, just a single shot of the rocket plummeting past the stars. In the next shot…
… it lands back at the starting point. For this final shot of the film, they’ve taken the trouble to crown the explorers with meticulously hand-tinted pointy hats. The stencilled colour marks this out as a special shot. Notice that the rocket has been destroyed in the fall, and the explorers clamber out triumphant. They’ve taken no prisoners, except of course for the king’s daughter, who seems quite willing to become a trophy bride for an Earthman. So, while Melies’ film ended with a colonial conquest, making the moonman dance for the pleasure of the crowd, here the king’s daughter is presumably to be assimilated with her new society, a very different (but perhaps no less sinister) form of conquest.
This blog has become a bit obsessive about Georges Méliès lately, after a lengthy discussion of Le Voyage dans la Lune and a much shorter one about his vanishing lady illusion. It’s a phase I’m going through. After this, there’ll be one more post about his appearance in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then I’ll give the old guy a rest for a while. But my latest GM-related discovery has been an interesting one that I wanted to share. I’m not sure how I missed out on this one for so long, but thanks to Gareth for the loan of the DVD boxset, I’ve now been able to catch up with the 12-part HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. With its twinkling, near-constant fanfare-for-the-common-man style score and misty-eyed nostalgia, this show lays it on a bit thick for my taste, but there’s genuine meticulous craft in its reconstructions of landmark moments in the Apollo Space Program. That’s partly the problem, though: it’s too reverent to allow much soul-searching about the bullishly patriotic rhetoric that fuelled those rockets and risked those lives to stick a flag in a distant rock, and just about every character portrayed is tiresomely noble. Maybe NASA was really like that, but it’s a lot of nobility to take on board over the course of an eleven-hour series. As a NASA assistant said in an episode of The Simpsons: “The public sees our astronauts as clean-cut, athletic go-getters. They hate people like that.”
I’m being facetious, of course. There’s plenty of room for a sciencey historical series that doesn’t generate artificial conflict for the sake of crowd-pleasing drama. It shows the minutiae of moonwalks as if it was all just another engineering job. I once shared the boyish, slack-jawed fascination with the moon and space flight, so I know why these guys are so passionate about what they do. I just never needed a full-blast trumpet section to make me feel it.
What piqued my interest in From the Earth to the Moon was the final episode, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Nice title, and an unusual way to end a series so firmly rooted in a particular period of American history. Intercut with scenes of the Apollo 17 moon landing and exploration (the last moonwalk to date) are recreations of the shooting of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon. Now, the parallel is obvious – the end of the Apollo program is viewed through its opposite bookend of an imaginative “beginning” seventy years earlier. They could’ve gone back to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or German rocket scientists in the 1920s and 30s (whose discoveries fed directly into American rocket science of the postwar period), but Méliès’ film is positioned as a thought experiment that made conceptual room for the later excursions into space (cynics might say that GM is a “safe” antecedent to the space program that avoids formalising the debt to Russians and Germans). Executive producer Tom Hanks, who also wrote the episode, could have given himself any role in this series, but chooses instead to humble himself with the part of Melies’ long-suffering assistant Jean-Luc Despont. He clearly takes seriously the link between the making of a fiction about a distant dream of space flight and the hard science involved in its achievement – whatever the technical obstacles, his NASA boys are filled with enough wonder to keep trying every trick to get those rockets into space.
I like to see reconstructions of actual movie sets at the best of times. Even lesser films are elevated for me when they include these scenes, as in the making of Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire, Citizen Kane in RKO 241 and a whole bunch of crap in Ed Wood. I love to cross-reference these scenes with the real thing; I find it riveting (usually) to see a well-known two-dimensional filmed image from different angles, so I was especially keen to see From the Earth to the Moon’s version of Le Voyage dans la Lune, a film with which I am minutely familiar, and even more excited to find that the whole thing was shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on his trilogy and the monumental Comrades.
Tchéky Karyo (in a rather dodgy skullcap) plays Melies as a passionate shouter on set, gesticulating fulsomely and talking his actors through the scenes as they play out, semi-improvised but always emphatically directed (thus capturing that nice contrast in Melies’ work between meticulous control and rather chaotic crowding in the busier scenes). There is little interest in the finer points of his life and psyche – he’s really a cypher for the dream of space flight, and the 1902 sequences are much jauntier in tone than the Apollo sequences. There are some direct comparisons between these two distinct timespaces: the making of A Trip to the Moon is juxtaposed with the broadcast of the Apollo 17 mission, showing the disparity between the wonderment of first imaginings to the bored, overfamiliar indifference of sated audiences in the twinkling of a match-cut; the rehearsal of a volcanic eruption on the 1902 film set is followed by the search for evidence of previous volcanic activity on the Moon’s surface in 1972, playing off a pyrotechnic fantasy against the long-form legwork of full-on geological investigation; a shot of sleeping astronauts is matched to the scene of Melies’ moonwalkers dreaming of stars. If you want to compare the modern reconstruction of A Trip to the Moon with the original footage, check out the images on my earlier post.
Seeing A Trip to the Moon performed “live” and in full colour is a pleasure, and will do nicely until a proper biopic (I might even waive my distaste for this silly little genre in the case of a Melies film) comes along. The conclusion that Melies was ruined by Edison agents copying his film may have a slight basis in truth (he was never really able to keep up with dupes of his films and the ever-evolving production methods of his competitors), but it wasn’t as immediate as suggested here. Positing A Trip to the Moon as a false-start highpoint of his career just makes for a convenient parallel with the close of the Apollo space program – both events are made to seem like wasted opportunities, thwarted by executive interference. Melies is a useful icon for the show’s rhetoric of progress and glorious exploration, ignoring the possibility that his intentions might have been satirical, mischievous and less starry-eyed. Accounts of Melies’ life and career dote on the fact that he ended up selling toys in a train station. Knowing that this purveyor of fantastic stories of flights to the heavens was eventually stuck on the peripheries of a more mundane mass transit system lets us congratulate ourselves for recovering an under-appreciated genius, or lets us imagine that we too are neglecting a chance that future generations will gladly revive decades from now. But aligning one’s enterprise, whether its a Space Program or a TV programme about space, with one of cinema greatest pioneers is the quickest route to romanticising it by claiming that you yourself, unlike those earlier fools, recognised the importance of fantastic cinema all along.
- Edward Bowen has written a fine analysis of this episode, which you can read by following this link. He has also edited and uploaded the footage of the reconstructed Le Voyage dans la Lune to YouTube, and you can see the two-part video below: