Sunday, August 17, 2014

Journey Across the Cosmos Through Film: Le Voyage dans la lune or, When the Moon Gets Hit in the Eye, That's Amore

Considered the grandaddy of all science fiction films, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, for all those non-Francophiles amongst you), released in 1902 by French magician-turned-director Georges Méliès, was in many ways a truly groundbreaking work of early cinema, yet it is also a film mired down in the primitive understanding of narrative film technique that was the norm in the infancy of the medium. The following bit of an essay, is my humble contribution to the Journey Across the Cosmos Through Film Blogathon, currently being held over at Hitchcock's World, a film-centric blog. Enjoy.

Film historian Ken Dancyger says of Méliès' most famous work, "[The film is] no more than a series of amusing shots, each a scene unto itself. The shots tell a story, but not in the manner to which we are accustomed. It was not until the work of American Edwin S. Porter that editing became more purposeful."  And while this may very well be true, with Méliès' static camera (never moving, much like just filming a stage show in many ways) and his over-reliance on optical tricks over actual storytelling, it does not for one second, diminish the magical, somewhat surreal (in at least a basic surrealism 101 kind of way) quality of the early director's work.  

Perhaps it isn't up to the standard that Porter would establish just a year after this landmark film (with his own landmark film, The Great Train Robbery), and later such silent narrative artists as D.W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau or Charlie Chaplin, but the novice could weave a magic spell of sorts over an audience with his flash and flair and sometimes shocking images, or at least shocking for the primitive audiences of his time.  He was the first style-over-substance filmmaker, but he was damned good at it and he would hit his pinnacle, or reach for the moon one might say if one were so inclined, with Le Voyage dans la lune.  Weather his films be narratively structured, or rather merely primitive tricks to befuddle a paying crowd, Méliès could astonish many folks with his films - including this critic.

Loosely based on two popular books of the time (by two writers many consider the grandaddies of sci-fi themselves), "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne and "The First Men in the Moon" by H.G. Wells, Méliès tells the tale of a group of French astronomers who decide to travel to the moon and their going about building a rocket (shaped more like a bullet than the modern real world rockets of our own atomic, and post-atomic, age) and launching it from a cannon, with the help of a rather perplexing bevy of beautiful women dressed as sailors of some sort.

The next shot (the most famous of the movie and still an iconic shot a hundred plus years later) shows the rocketship landing in the eye of the "Man in the Moon". Following are images of celestial bodies personified, a moonscape snowfall, giant mushrooms, strange effervescent moon creatures and an improbable fall back to Earth, with an astronaut and an alien in tow via a rope. All of these images are stunning in their own right (Méliès has made unique images before this as well) but put together, they form a most fascinating motion picture experience - even at a mere sixteen minutes.

I remember, when one of those new Star Wars prequel travesties were being released (I can't believe it matters which one in particular!) and a local movie theater was showing Le Voyage dans la lune as an opening short with the blockbuster Lucas thingamajig. Asking to be able to go in to see just the Méliès film and not the so-called main attraction elicited quite a few looks that would make one assume one had a monkey growing out of one's neck.  Anyway, to see this film on as large of a screen as this added even more magic to the already quite magical little motion picture. It was also fun to see Martin Scorsese's re-imagining of the film, and in 3D no less, for his 2011 film, Hugo - and again, on the big screen.

Unfortunately for Méliès, the advent of a more sophisticated filmmaking style (the aforementioned Porter, Griffith et al) came into vogue and left the sleight-of-hand director out in the proverbial cold.  Eventually, Méliès went bankrupt (forced to sell his company in 1913 to Pathé Frères) and was reduced to making and selling toys in the Montparnasse train station in Paris. The filmmaker, after many years of toiling in obscurity, would be "found" once again and his place of honour in film history would be reestablished (a retrospective of the magic man's work would be shown publicly shortly before his death).  Unfortunately, the vast majority of his 500+ films are now lost to the world.

But still, the apex of his life's work, Le Voyage dans la lune, lives on (today amongst many Top 100 Movie Lists - my own included!) and is a fascinating look at the so-called primitive style of filmmaking from the turn-of-the-century.  Yes, perhaps primitive indeed, but awe-inspiring at the very same time.


  1. Nice job, a wonderful little article on a significant piece of film history, and an excellent addition to the blogathon.

  2. Thank you. I've always had a soft spot for Melies. When I first saw this film (1988ish?) it was the first pre-Griffith film I had ever seen.

  3. He is one of my favourite directors actually. I love watching his films and would dream of being one of those gals in costumes frolicking on the set. I love Hugo and the affectionate way Scorsese treated this man from years gone by

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