A Trip to the Moon (1902) A Trip to the Moon/La Voyage dans la Lune (1902) [unratable]

     The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, patented their version of the cinematographe— the first truly practical motion picture camera and projector— in 1894. By March of 1895, they were holding private screenings of films shot on their equipment, and on December 28th of the same year, they presented ten of their movies, each about 45 seconds long, to a paying crowd at the Salon Indien du Grande Café in Paris; that evening marked the dawning of cinema as a commercial medium of mass entertainment. In today’s terminology, the Lumières might be thought of as documentarians. They created the vast majority of their films by recording everyday events as they happened, essentially just pointing their camera at whatever struck their fancy and turning the crank, and in the middle of the 1890’s, that was more than exciting enough for most audiences. It was not the particular subject matter of the Lumières’ films that sold tickets at the Salon Indien, but rather the sheer novelty of a photograph that moved. The Lumières, however, were inventors rather than filmmakers in anything like the modern sense, and the cinematographe and its offshoots were to them primarily clever mechanical toys, devices for which they could apparently see no practical use and little enduring potential for commercial exploitation. They soon turned their attention to other technical problems (color photography was their next big project), and were out of the movie business except as manufacturers of equipment by 1901.

     Georges Méliès, a fellow Parisian, had a more expansive vision. He had been among that first paying audience at the Salon Indien, and he was so taken with the technology that he asked to buy a cinematographe of his own. When he was turned down, he purchased a less efficient type of movie camera from a rival inventor, and set about using it to reverse-engineer something more like the Lumière model. Méliès did shoot a few films of the type in which the Lumière brothers dealt, but he very quickly switched to something altogether more ambitious. A magician by trade, he perceived almost immediately that the motion picture was nothing more nor less than the most ingenious illusion yet devised by practically anybody, and he sought ways to incorporate it into his act. The key discovery was reportedly a stroke of pure serendipity. While filming a street scene, Méliès had his camera jam on him, and several minutes elapsed before he had it running again; the result of the interruption, when Méliès got around to viewing the film, was the apparent transformation of a nondescript vehicle into the hearse that had been following a few hundred feet behind it. Delighted with his discovery, Méliès began experimenting with ways to manipulate what his camera recorded, and within a few years, he had developed an astonishing array of cinematographic trickery: stop-motion, dissolves, multiple exposure, forced perspective, matting— virtually every form of special effect, in fact, that could be achieved inside the camera. Naturally, he began trading on what he had learned by mounting more involved versions of traditional magic tricks, like making people and objects vanish or sawing a woman in half, and screening these short clips as interludes during his stage shows. Then he started treating the films as shows unto themselves.

     The typical Méliès movie circa 1896 would feature the man himself in the guise of some character from whom the creation of wonders might be expected. Sometimes this meant nothing more than Méliès appearing in his usual stage getup, but he also frequently cast himself as a wizard or even as the devil. For some one to five minutes, Méliès would then preside over a succession of cunning illusions, causing things to appear from thin air, vanish into puffs of smoke, float about the set, grow, shrink, or transform into other things altogether. The Devil’s Castle (which lamentably appears to exist only in fragmentary form today) is probably the best remembered of his creations in this mode. A bit later, Méliès began experimenting with film as a narrative art, creating what amounted to moving illustrations of scenes from legend or literature— especially legend and literature of a weird or macabre sort. He produced, among other things, several vignettes from Faust, what might have been an extremely loose interpretation of the climactic pillar-of-fire scene from H. Rider Haggard’s She (at any rate, that’s how it was marketed in the United States), and the moment from the Pygmalion myth when the statue comes to life. And as the 20th century drew nigh, he began employing his tricks to climax scenarios of his own devising, as when A Novice at X-Rays teleports the patient’s skeleton out of his body instead of simply rendering it visible. Finally, Méliès entered the mature phase of his filmmaking career, confident enough in both his trickery and his storytelling skills to devote an entire reel (roughly fifteen minutes at the sixteen-to-eighteen-per-second frame rate that was standard in those days) to a single premise. A Trip to the Moon— easily Méliès’s most famous movie, and one of the tragically few of his 560 known works that survive today— is a product of this mature period, and provides an excellent illustration of why he was so highly regarded at the turn of the last century.

     The plot, such as it is, is an odd melding of two seminal space-travel stories, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (both of which would be filmed more or less straight many decades down the line). The president of a society of astronomers (Méliès, playing the lead role himself as usual) explains to his colleagues a plan to raise their studies to the next level by actually paying a visit to the moon. After a brief, slapstick altercation with a nay-sayer, the president (his name is apparently Professor Barbenfoullis— Professor Tanglebeard— but without so much as a single intertitle by way of dialogue, I’m sure most audiences never figured that out unless they attended a presentation of A Trip to the Moon with a live narrator) secures the agreement of the astronomical society to go ahead with his scheme. The idea here is to cast a rifle of unprecedented size, together with a shell capable of accommodating six men within it, and to use the former to launch the latter to its destination.

     Upon landing, the astronomers do a bit of ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the spectacle of Earthrise (this scene is only slightly less effective than the corresponding image in Destination Moon, made almost 50 years later), then decide to make camp and rest up from the stresses of the journey. (Incidentally, those stresses, in the real world, would have killed the men while they were still in the gun’s breech-block. No living thing could survive the g-forces generated by a gun powerful enough to lob so massive a projectile all the way to the moon.) The men are awakened by a sudden snowfall, however, and are forced to seek shelter in the caverns with which a nearby crater communicates. Beneath the surface, the moon is a much more lively place, its underground grottos thick with giant mushrooms and teeming with strange, humanoid creatures. One of these attacks the astronomers, but explodes into a puff of smoke when Barbenfoullis clouts it on the head with his umbrella. There are more where it came from, however— so many more that not even Bruce Lee could have swung an umbrella fast enough to fend them off— and the explorers are soon overwhelmed and captured. Barbenfoullis and his companions are brought before the aliens’ king, but before the ruler of the moon has much chance to consider what might be done with the captives, Barbenfoullis is on him with his trusty umbrella. The aliens are thrown into confusion by the explosion of their king, and the astronomers make a break for it. They flee to their spacecraft with the moon men in hot pursuit, and it’s a good thing for them that the landscape surrounding the giant shell no longer looks anything like the place where we saw it land earlier. Whereas before the shell was in the middle of a vast, crater-pocked plain, it is now perched precariously on a cliff, enabling Barbenfoullis to shake it free to fall safely back to Earth. The interplanetary projectile splashes down in a harbor, where it is picked up by a passing steamship. Originally, the return home was followed by a parade in the astronomers’ honor, but that segment was believed lost until 2002 (when a hand-colored print of the apparently complete film turned up in a barn somewhere in France), and so far as I know, it has not yet made its way into any commercially available version of A Trip to the Moon.

     Although A Trip to the Moon, in modern terms, is but a short subject— the sort of thing with which novice filmmakers hone their skills before tackling their first feature— it was among the most ambitious movies yet produced in 1902. The sheer volume of Méliès’s 560-film resumé shows that he habitually spent no time at all making his movies, but he devoted something like four months to this one, and the relatively huge investment of time and effort really shows. True, the sets are all painted flats, such as one might see in a stage play, but the level of detail in them is astonishing, and the imagination with which Méliès employs them is only slightly less so. Especially effective is the backdrop for the firing of the giant gun, which brilliantly exploits the natural absence of depth in a normal photographic image to give the impression of the painted cannon stretching for thousands of feet into the distance. And at a time when movies shot on a single, mundane set were still common enough, A Trip to the Moon presents us with about a dozen of Méliès’s lovingly crafted fantasias, including an underwater scene photographed through a fish tank! It’s still not too far removed from the pure, “Here— look at this cool shit!” sensibility of the 1890’s (there’s no apparent reason for the scene in which a bunch of Greek gods appear in the sky while the astronomers are sleeping, for example), but with fourteen solid minutes (assuming you’re watching it at the correct frame rate, that is) of the coolest cool shit to be seen anywhere in its day, A Trip to the Moon has to be considered a triumph of the early cinema.

     Sadly, this movie also played a major role in its creator’s eventual bankruptcy and disillusionment. One look at A Trip to the Moon will cause any perceptive viewer to suspect that its production must have set Méliès back a pretty penny, and indeed it was among the director’s most expensive films. In fact, a comparison between the finished product and Méliès’s original concept drawings shows that his sights had initially been set higher still. Méliès’s moon men, for instance, are pretty respectable given the technological constraints of 1902, but his storyboards and character designs show something closer to what Ray Harryhausen achieved in the early 1960’s, with his work on The First Men in the Moon. Méliès was betting heavily on the American market (which was already emerging as one of the most important in the world) to make him back his money, but he fell victim to the sort of piracy that was rampant throughout the movie industry in those days. An employee of the Edison Company (arguably the most powerful production house in the United States at the turn of the 20th century— and yes, that’s Edison as in Thomas Edison) managed to smuggle a print of A Trip to the Moon home with him after a visit to Paris, and Edison’s firm was so fast in cranking out pirated copies that by the time Méliès’s American distribution office had prints of their own to circulate, there was no longer very much point in doing so. Méliès never saw a cent from US audiences, and A Trip to the Moon wound up drowning his company’s balance books in red ink. This was neither the first nor the last time that something like this would happen to Méliès (in fact, it was precisely all the money he was losing to American piracy that led him to set up a distro office in this country in the first place), but it was almost certainly the most damaging single incident, and a harbinger of the financial woes that would drive him to sell his studio to Pathé in 1911, and to get out of the filmmaking business altogether in 1912. Of course, the final irony is that the very pirates who so drove Méliès to distraction are probably also the main reason why even a minute fraction of his work survives today. The masters of a great many Méliès movies were destroyed in 1917, when the French army occupied Pathé’s offices and melted down whatever film they found there in order to extract the silver from the emulsion and recycle the celluloid into boot soles. Then in 1923, Méliès’s old theater, the Robert-Houdin, was demolished in an urban redevelopment project, and the films in its storerooms sold off to a dealer operating about two steps above the pawn shop level. Finally, Méliès burned all of the prints and negatives of his films that he still had in his possession in 1924, apparently in a fit of rage over the depths of poverty and obscurity to which he had sunk, and spite toward the thieves and con-men who had profited at his expense throughout his career. That bonfire in the garden did its job, I suppose, for it surely put a lot of material beyond the reach of any further piracy, but posterity is substantially the poorer for Méliès’s post-retirement temper tantrum.



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