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Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon

It is one of the most iconic images of cinema history: the Man in the Moon being hit in the eye by a steel and rivet rocket capsule. It captures, at the same time, everything quaint and fantastical about silent film and Scientific Romances. Though lasting a mere 14 minutes, Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon transports viewers to an amazing world where shimmering stars are beautiful women, the astronomer and the astrologer are indistinguishable, and all that is needed to reach the moon is a healthy dose of magic and a very large gun.

From the outset, one could be forgiven for thinking that A Trip to the Moon takes place in the late 1500's rather than the late 1800's. As in numerous Méliès films, the academics of the piece are dressed up in cloaks more worthy of the alchemist's lab rather than the scientist's. (As they in fact are in a later Méliès film) There is a coherence in A Trip to the Moon between the mythologically heavy sphere of the astrologer and the modern mechanical world of the astronomer, through which fantasy intermingles with science.

In this sense, Méliès is more of the pure romantic than is Verne. The great French author stated that it was his intention to infuse books like From the Earth to the Moon - upon which A Trip to the Moon is partly based - with beauty and wonder and all that is romantic in life. He also stated his intention, however, to be as scientifically accurate as possible given knowledge at the time. Méliès dispenses altogether with being scientific... There isn't an ounce of it in A Trip to the Moon, save for symbolic representations in the machinery of Victorian progress and industrialization. Like the world of the astrologer, Méliès' heavenly bodies are literally bodies in the heavens: personified figures, whether the Man in the Moon or the gossamer-clad women standing in as stars and comets.

For the pride of France, including a military salute and a chorus of flagbearing Rubenesque beauties to see them off, the voyagers are shot to the Moon from a giant canon. Upon landing, they enter the part of the film based very loosely on H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon and moreso on Jacques Offenbach's operetta Le Voyage Dans La Lune. The influence of Wells is certainly felt, but Méliès conceived of himself as heir to the great traditions of French art in a new medium. His work is infused with the sensibilities of Verne, Offenbach, Perrault, Voltaire, and the other standard-bearers of French culture.

Thus is the English author dealt a harsher blow than is Verne. Verne and Méliès both share a sense of satirical humour, and the reader can't get one chapter into From the Earth to the Moon without laughing at the ridiculousness of the Baltimore Gun Club: a group of American Civil War veterans and gun enthusiasts with varying and increasing numbers of missing limbs. Unfortunately for him, but to the great delight of viewers, the straight delivery of Wells is reincarnated in A Trip to the Moon as Vaudeville-tumbling slapstick.

Discovering the power of gravity in more than one way, the voyagers escape the lunar Selenites by literally pounding them into dust and throw any last, lingering remnant of realism completely out the window by pushing their capsule off the edge of the Moon. Once more, fantasy and science collide as the Mediaeval, pre-Columbian concept of the flat world is brought out as a surprising deus ex machina. How do you get a group of explorers shot from a gun back to the Earth? By recalling the magical, alchemical world of the astronomer/astrologer and having them jump off the edge of the Moon to fall through the aetherial vapours into a safe splashdown in the ocean.

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