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: