Like all privileged millennials, Ken Lowe is taking a gap year! Join him for this monthly feature throughout 2020, seeking out the essential, the classic, the weird, and the infamous films of a foreign country. This year, the spotlight is on France.
“[George Méliès] invented everything, basically, he invented it all. And when you see these colored images moving, the way he composed these frames and what he did with the action, it’s like looking at illuminated manuscripts moving.” —Martin Scorsese, in an interview about his film Hugo.
What, indeed, is “cinema?” Film Twitter has no shortage of opinions on what it is, what it isn’t, what it isn’t not. What determines whether a particular film is high art versus a cynical cash-in is probably impossible to define. When he waded in to criticize the intentionality behind Marvel movies, Martin Scorsese leveled a number of criticisms that (I’ll be strung up for saying that) I agree with.
Nobody, least of all me, has much standing to tell Scorsese what is or is not cinema. Many people seemed to reduce his criticisms to an aversion to spectacular filmmaking—that is, movies intended purely as spectacle, what people have equated to rollercoasters as opposed to actual narrative. I don’t think that’s what he intended to say, and the reason I don’t is that he dedicated an entire (somewhat overlong) film in homage to France’s great-grandfather of movie magic, George Méliès.
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is not Méliès’ first or even his most visually stunning film—I think The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) might be up there—but it is perhaps the one most people recognize. The fact it’s survived through an entire long century—a span of time during which most regular working people would have had no means of watching it outside of a museum or public library, until streaming internet video put that power at the fingertips of any teenager—shows how unforgettable the movie is. There is no dialogue (indeed, no audio track beyond whatever background music somebody wants to put to it) and no camera movement (because moving the enormous equipment of the day made it basically impossible), so the performances therefore have to be broad and operatic, more commedia dell’arte than anything. There are no title cards, so in one way there isn’t even “writing” so much as direction. In the most straightforward and simple way, A Trip to the Moon is its imagery.
A professor addresses a skeptical classroom, arguing (it will become clear) that a voyage to the Earth’s moon is possible. He gets some to accompany him as he boards a spaceship built around the same principle as a bullet, and he and his fellow voyagers are fired off into space. They land, giving us the surreal image of the man in the moon taking the bullet to the face.
The moon is, of course, weird and unsettled, but the atmosphere is perfectly breathable. The men camp for the night under the stars and the rising Earth in the background, dreaming strange dreams. They’re accosted by moon-people who go up in smoke when struck. Escaping, the professor and his fellow colonizers push their bullet-ship off the edge of the moon, with one moon-person clinging on for the fall straight back to Earth. They splash down back home, with their native prisoner in tow and the people of Earth ready to throw a big party in their honor.
Méliès, it should be noted, discovered one of his most important filmmaking tricks purely by accident. A jam in one of his cameras resulted in the “stop trick” technique, which allowed him to instantly teleport people and objects on and off camera, or to fully change the background or foreground of a scene. In one sense, his films are still deeply indebted to his past as a stage magician because they rely on a largely static stage with one camera view pointed at it, in the same way you sit in a theater and have only your single view of all the action happening on a stage. Born in 1861 and admonished by his teachers for filling his notebooks with fantastical sketches, Méliès bucked against the family business, using money he recovered from selling part of his father’s shoe company to purchase a theater, becoming an illusionist.
He soon discovered film, however, and became fixated on working in the infant medium. When the Lumiere brothers refused to sell him a cinematograph projector, he went to London to lay hands on an Animatograph, specially modifying it to serve as a film camera. The tricks and visual cheats in his movies immediately strike the viewer as something a stage director would have killed for back in the day.
More than that technique, I think, was what Méliès did to define what kind of stories movies as a medium can tell, specifically differentiating them from what kind of a story you can tell in a theater production. Méliès’ sends his heroes to the moon, to strange undersea and underground realms, to the North Pole, or even just to feverish internal dreamscapes. With one set and one camera setup, The Astronomer’s Dream transports its obsessed eponymous character through his own imaginations and fears. In the opening scene of The Conquest of the Pole, there’s plenty of incredible background scenery, double exposure, and massive puppetry at work, but the very first scene, set in a boardroom as people argue over what technological means they might use to get to the North Pole, transforms as the different hucksters try to sell their solutions: When the Suffragettes show up to demand participation, the entire scene becomes blanketed in thrown leaflets, the protest totally altering the scene despite the fact that no changes to the framing have occurred.
Méliès eventually entered into a deal with Thomas Edison and a conglomerate of other film companies to produce more movies, but before the decade of the 1900s was out his work was being criticized for not being very novel. Edison’s terms included a steady, nigh-impossible hose of content from his signatories—one Méliès and his studio couldn’t supply. A series of other financial mishaps and the First World War ruined his company, and in a fit of pique over his studio being taken over by a longtime rival, he torched a bunch of his negatives in 1923. Hundreds of his films survive, yet they represent just a portion of his life’s work.
Though he’d go on to receive worldwide fame and recognition for his work, it never translated into financial success for him. He died of cancer in 1938.
Everybody from Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg to The Smashing Pumpkins have referenced the imagery of Méliès somewhere: Scorsese’s Hugo explicitly casts Ben Kingsley as the filmmaker himself. Méliès’ flights of astronomical, eldritch and diabolical fantasy are the missing link between the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the rayguns and flying saucers of the mid-20th century. And yes, even the superhero film owes him a debt.
Kenneth Lowe has a breathable atmosphere. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.