FILM 101: A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)

I haven’t done a FILM 101 in a bit. The past installments have been on film devices or film theory concepts. This time out, I thought I would hit up a particularly historical movie. I considered writing a review on the film and doing a ranking as normal. But there are a couple of problems there. First, at 14 minutes, this is hardly considered a feature now (though it was in 1902). Secondly, ‘scoring’ this movie would be unfair. It is scientifically laughable, the narrative is stunted, and it looks more like a filmed play than a movie at times. Yet, despite the shortcomings it might appear to have in modernity, this is an immensely important and iconic film. On a purely coincidental and unimportant note: this article represents my 600th post to this website!

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A TRIP TO THE MOON (LA VOYAGE DANS LE LUNE) 1902

Director George Melies was a magician before he was a director. As the Lumiere Brothers were inventing and experimenting with film in the late 19th century, Melies was separately doing shows filled with illusions, humor, and drama. His shows played out like shows rather than isolated acts of magic. In 1895, Melies saw a public presentation of the Lumiere Brothers’ film Grande Cafe. He was enthralled, and went off to gobble up all he could about film and filmmaking.

Melies is often called the father of special effects. He played with ways to trick the audience by stopping the camera, re-positioning actors or objects, and continuing to film. His first such experiment was an accident. His camera jammed. The replayed film appeared to show a bus turn into a car. The stop-trick effect has been born in Europe. Though Edison had already used this trick previously in America, nobody would grow to perfect trick imagery quite like George Melies.

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Over three months in the early 1900s, Melies would make the groundbreaking A TRIP TO THE MOON. Released by Melies’ Star Film Company, the film contains roughly 30 staged scenes, and it runs somewhere between 13 and 17 minutes, depending on the cut you have your hands on. Some of the versions will contain a voice over, a narration which explains the action as it happens. This omniscient presence tells us that the aliens we see are called Selenites. Some versions of the film are black-and-white, and some were colored by hand. With the fragility of film from the turn of the 20th century, its a wonder there is anything left at all. Instead, we are privy to multiple versions which add or delete moments, voice over, color, and quality of film.

What they all share in common is the overarching narrative. A group of scientists (one of which was played by Melies himself) decide to take a trip to the moon. They construct a ship. There is fanfare as a group of girls (which Melies later credited as being from the Theatre du Chatelet) loads the ship into a giant cannon and the scientists are fired into the eye of the moon. The film then cuts to the surface of the moon where the scientists climb out of the ship (apparently the moon had air in 1902) and explore a little. They see the stars, whcih have faces projected on them. The stars are angry and make it snow. The scientists retreat underground where they encounter the Selenites (Melies used acrobats from the Folies Bergere). These alien Selenites may or may not be particular malicious, but the scientists use there umbrellas to hit them. The contact detonates the Selenites (a nice Melies stop-trick is used to effect this). Angry, the Selenites take the scientists to their leader. A simple swipe of the umbrella blows him up, and then the scientists are on the run. They return to their ship, push it off a cliff and, because science works like this, the ship falls off the moon and lands safely in an ocean on Earth.

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Despite some of the obvious scientific guffaws, the film is fascinating to watch. It doesn’t play as something particularly entertaining or exciting to a modern audience. Instead, it is a novelty. There is real imagination on display here, real ingenuity. To the filmmaking world, which was still showing simple slice-of-life moments of several seconds or a few minutes at most, this helped change the landscape. It was every bit as revolutionary as the advent of sound or the introduction of the blockbuster, or the leap in special effects brought by JURASSIC PARK. It is an imperfect film, and one which has functional oddities, such as the fact that the ship lands twice: first in the eye of the moon, and then on the proper surface. It’s as if the landing in the eye was a pure show of what Melies could do with film, even if it did not serve any narrative purpose. It is then, perhaps, the first example of directorial masturbation. Despite any blemishes, to discover A TRIP TO THE MOON is to to look at a narrative film with clear character and clear story and understand that this movie was made over 110 years ago.

Melies wanted to get A TRIP TO THE MOON overseas to the US, where money would really come in. Unfortunately, Edison’s people had already been copying it and distributing it and making money off it. Melies wound up broke. By the mid 1920s he was making and selling toys in a train station, where Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film HUGO finds him.

Here is, in black-and-white with English narration, A TRIP TO THE MOON:

 

 

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~ by johnlink00 on September 8, 2013.

One Response to “FILM 101: A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)”

  1. […] opportunity to drag out the old FILM 101 series as an excuse. I’ve done this once before for A TRIP TO THE MOON, and am bringing it back around for Alain Resnais’ powerfully brutal short documentary about […]

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