(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)
So you can watch this on Youtube. One of the oldest movie fantasies in the genre is short enough for the average Youtuber to upload on their site – it’s only twelve minutes long. I feel like that is some kind of metaphor for the rabid change in cinema technology, but I’m not sure what metaphor that is.
I do know, though, that for most of it, I had no idea what the hell was going on.
Ostensibly, it’s about a team of astronomers vowing to take a trip to the moon. They build a rocket and head there, take a nap upon arrival and are watched over by the Big Dipper and by Saturn, and have a couple run-ins with lunar creatures before coming back to Earth and a hero’s welcome. But to me, it looked like –
- Group of guys with wizard hats sit in a room gesticulating a lot
- Wizard guys bother a bunch of workmen
- Wizard guys cimb into a giant rocket and are seen off by a team of chorus girls
- Moon gets rocket in eye
- Wizard guys climb out of spaceship, gesticulate a lot and then go to sleep where they are watched over by creepy ladies peeking out from stars
- Wizard guys run around and gesticulate more
- People in lizard masks start chasing them
- Wizards get back into rocket and splash down on earth
- Wizard guys make grand re-entry into town, chased by a lizard guy whom they dispatch by hitting him on head
- Happy people play ring-around-the-rosie around a statue of a wizard
The end. No, really.
But my confusion may simply be a function of the passage of time. A lot of the conventions we associate with movies, especially silent movies – credits, captions, music – simply aren’t here. Even film scholars – they’ve been able to recover the identities of only half the cast. Georges Méliès, who also wrote and directed, played “Professor Barbenfouillis”, the main wizard-guy who proposes the expedition; but we only know the actors’ names of the other astronomers. As for the lizards, they’re actually “Selenites”, Meilie’s term for moon-people, and are played by various acrobats on a day off from the Folies Bergère. But history has not recorded their names, nor did the film itself.
And without opening credits, I had only the onscreen action to rely on – but that wasn’t helping me either. Meilies was from a theater background, where it’s common to have a single static set; people can come and go, the ranks on stage can grow and shrink, but audiences can still follow the action (or at least figure out who to pay attention to) because they can hear people talking. But here…I couldn’t.
More than anything else, that’s what drove home for me just how new this film was for its time – the creators were theater-trained, used to the conventions and rules of theater, and trying to apply them to a wholly new art form – and only realizing after the fact that not only was this art form new, it was different, and needed different rules.
Film gave directors a lot of freedom too, though. Melies got interested in film because of its special-affects capability – he would do all sorts of weird experiments with his camera to see what it would do to the filmed image; running it backwards, at different speeds, and such. His experiment with “what would happen if I stopped and started filming mid-way” was his favorite, and lead to him being able to have the wizards “magically” turn poles into chairs, an umbrella “magically” turn into a mushroom, and the like. Special effects was his forte in theater too, though, so he can probably be forgiven for overlooking the more mundane parts of dramaturgy.