Tuesday, February 2, 2010

To the Moon, Alice

So, every so often I teach a course on science fiction here at Fordham University, this semester being one of those occasions.  The course, as I originally proposed it, was called The Science Fiction Film, and it was mainly a film class.  But never entirely, and I eventually changed the name to The Science Fiction Genre, because it touches upon a variety of media, including books, magazines, comics, radio, television, the internet, etc.  But the emphasis is still on film.

That being the case, while I begin the semester with a discussion of the genre and its history, which typically is traced back to the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818 (acknowledging earlier antecedents, all the way back to Plato's Republic), I also like to begin with a screening of the 1902 French film, A Trip to the Moon, or more properly, Le Voyage dans la Lune.  Based on the pioneering novel by French science fiction author Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) published in 1865, and drawing also upon the pioneering novel by English science fiction writer H. G. Wells, First Men in the Moon, published in 1901, the film's rather liberal adaptation was scripted by the director, Georges Méliès (I've linked his named to his profile on the Internet Movie Database, a great site if you haven't seen it before).

Méliès made over 500 silent films in his career, and this one was his most famous.  As the Internet Movie Database relates, he was 

a professional magician by training, [who] first saw the new "moving pictures" in 1895. Little over a year later, Méliès was filming and projecting his own creations. By accident, he discovered that he could use stop-motion photography to render trick visual effects.
 That accident is actually quite fascinating, as the old IMDB relates:

While shooting one of his life scenes in the Place de l'Opera in Paris, the camera jammed. It took about a minute to clear the problem and resume shooting. When the film was processed and screened, Méliès saw a bus suddenly turn into a hearse; people in the scene suddenly appeared or disappeared. This accident led to his discovery of stop motion trickery which became his first filmic special effects technique. This stop motion technique had previously been discovered and used by Edison, but Méliès made extensive use of it in his short films.
After all, special effects techniques were not immediately obvious, even one so simple as stop motion, not obvious at all, so they had to be discovered/invented (and A Trip to the Moon makes good use of this effect).  In a sense, all of film is a special effect, and all of the techniques took time to work out, but that's another story.  Suffice it to say that stage magicians like Méliès, well versed as they were in theatrical effects, were the first experts in SFX.  And stop motion was not Méliès's only innovation, as he "was also the first to use techniques such as the fade-in, the fade-out, and the dissolve to create the first real narrative films."  The IMDB entry concludes

Still, Méliès, trained in classic eighteenth century theater, conceived all of his films in terms of fully played-out scenes. Unable to keep up with the changing industry, the end of his life was wrought with poverty, yet his films would be monumental stepping stones for great auteurs such as D.W. Griffith.
 He also built the first film studio in Europe, and was the first to use storyboards and production sketches, according to IMDB.  The film itself should have been a great financial success for Méliès, but for the ruthlessness of Thomas Edison, as IMDB explains:

After finishing work on the film, Georges Méliès intended to release it in America and thereby make lots of money. Unfortunately, Thomas A. Edison's film technicians had already secretly made copies of the film, which was showed across the USA within weeks. Méliès never made any money from the film's American showings, and went broke several years later (while Edison made a fortune on the film.)
The movie was filmed in black and white, but some prints were colored, by hand, as was done some of the time in those days.  And as it turns out, a color version was found not too long ago, according to IMDB:

In 2002, a print of the film was discovered in a barn in France. It was amazing in that not only is it the most complete cut of the film, but it was entirely hand-colored. The film was restored and premiered at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival the following year.
But the version most of us know is in black and white.   And silent, of course, although different versions have different soundtracks and sometime narration added.  Once again, here's what IMDB says:

Composed of around 30 scenes (or individual "skits") without any dialog and/or closeups. Melies listed them almost like modern DVD chapters in his Star Films catalog.

So, here's one version that I found on YouTube, divided into two parts due to the restrictions that site places on uploads.





Other versions can be found on YouTube as well, and there's a nice version over on the Internet Archive site, click here to go to it, I wanted to include it here, but the embed button doesn't work (but you may be able to download the file itself!).  And here's the script translation that accompanies the film there:

At a meeting of astronomers, one proposes to the rest a trip to the Moon. After addressing some dissent (the speaker pitches some paper at him), six brave astronomers agree to the plan. They build a space capsule in the shape of a bullet and a huge cannon to shoot it into space. The astronomers embark and their capsule is fired from the cannon with the help of a bevy of beautiful women (played by chorus girls of the Folies Bergères). The Man in the Moon watches the capsule as it approaches, and it hits him in the eye.

Safely on the Moon, the explorers get out of the capsule and watch the Earth rise in the distance. Something then explodes near them. They then unroll their blankets, and take a nap. They dream of celestial Folies-Bergères girls as the stars of the Big Dipper, Saturn, and another Moon, who call down a snowfall that wakens the explorers. The explorers seek shelter in a cavern and discover giant mushrooms. One astronomer opens his umbrella; it promptly takes root and turns into a giant mushroom itself. At this point, a Selenite (an alien inhabiting the Moon, apparently part man and part insect) appears, but it is easily killed by an astronomer (the creatures explode if whacked with a stick or umbrella). More Selenites appear and it becomes increasingly difficult for the explorers to destroy them as the creatures surround them. The Selenites arrest the astronomers and bring them to their leader. An astronomer picks the Chief Selenite up off its throne and dashes it to the ground, exploding it.

The astronomers run back to their capsule (popping pursuing Selenites on the way). Five get inside. The sixth uses a rope to tip the capsule over a ledge on the Moon and into space. A Selenite tries to seize the capsule at the last minute. Astronomer, capsule, and Selenite fall through space and land in an ocean on Earth, where all are rescued by a ship and towed ashore.

There is in fact a final scene of the film in which there is a celebratory parade in honor of the travellers' safe return. Parts of the final scene have been recovered but the entire scene has been lost.

 A couple of other trivia items courtesy of IMDB:  First, "the story of the making of 'Le Voyage', fictionalized and dramatized, is told in the TV miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (1998)."  I watched all of the episodes of this Tom Hanks-hosted series, and it made for an interesting segment in an engaging, albeit idiosyncratic narrative about the American space program.  The second interesting item is that "American rock band "The Smashing Pumpkins" used this film as inspiration for their award winning music video "Tonight Tonight". The ship which sails in at the end of the music video is named Méliès after this films director Georges Méliès."  The video is nicely done, click here to take a look (embedding is disabled or I'd save you the trip).

Anyway, getting back to the original film, here are some points I like to make about it in class:

The settings look like theatrical sets because in the early days of film, they were still thinking in terms of recording live theater performance.  They were only beginning to discover film as film, that is, the unique properties and biases of film as a medium.  To use Paul Heyer's term, they had little media sense.

The look of the science academy in some ways connects to our images of magic and the occult.  While science and magic are diametrically opposed in theory, in reality there has been a close interrelationship between the two.

Blacksmiths are part of the "hi-tech" system at the turn of the century.  We are not yet in the age of the automobile, travel by horse is ubiquitous, and the last name Smith in all its variations (e.g., Schmidt) is the most common of all surnames in Europe.

We are also not yet in the age of the airplane, or the rocket, the latter not really blasting off until the Nazis develop the V2 during WWII, which becomes the basis of the space program after the war.  Both Jules Verne and H. G. Wells could only imagine the possibility of an enormous cannon as a means for propelling a capsule into space.

Images of smokestacks belching smoke into the air did not have the negative connotation that they have today, and in fact were positive representations of progress and productivity, and of Industrial Revolution era hi-tech (the subgenre of steam punk might more aptly be named smog punk).  Concern about pollution did not really change how people saw the smokestack as symbol until the sixties.

The chorus line send-off has a French look to it, but mostly it's gratuitous cheesecake, for the pleasure of the male spectators watching the film.  The same is true of the women that appear in the dream sequence on the moon.

The image of the man in the moon is quite famous, but it is not contextualized in the film.  Is this metaphor, or is it imagination on the part of the characters, or is this really what the moon is like?  We are never told.  Méliès is not concerned with fidelity of scientific fact and method, the way that a purist science fiction writer or reader might be.  He just wants to entertain, and therefore departs from science and also basic logic whenever it suits him.




The capsule hitting the moon in the eye is humorous, but also an assault, and there is, arguably, no other body part that makes us cringe more when it's assaulted than the eye.  And there is a sense in which we identify with what's on the screen, so that this is also a poke in the eye for us.  




This is one of the most famous images of the silent era, it is worth noting.






Making movies is all about vision, about looking and recording what you see, and then having the audience looking at the images.  Filmmaking, and especially film screening are acts of voyeurism, and filmmakers are quite naturally obsessed with the process of seeing.  The theme of vision and sight, of the eye and related to it, the window and the mirror and other visual technologies, and of voyeurism, and the assault on the eye, all come up as a common theme in science fiction film.  Not in every film, mind you, but they come up quite frequently indeed, and in this, science fiction film differs markedly from science fiction literature.




Back to points about the film, I believe that by 1902 scientists were aware that there was no air on the moon, but again, the priority was entertainment here.  Seeing the earth rise is an example of how scientific knowledge can be used effectively and faithfully to create spectacle, though (as Kubrick will demonstrate in 2001: A Space Odyssey).  The dream sequence, like the man in the moon, again takes us away from science and into fantasy, but also violates any internal rules of logic.  Are the celestial beings just a dream?  At first that seems to be the case, but then it seems as if they are actually causing the snowfall that the explorers wake up to.  And the umbrella turning into a mushroom seems like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

And then there are the inhabitants of the moon, the Selenites (after Selene, goddess of the moon).  Here we see one of the earliest attempts to imagine and bring to life alien beings.  But how do you imagine something that does not exist, or at least that you have no knowledge of?   It is all but impossible to imagine what we don't know, so we draw on what we do know, animals, for example.


No doubt Méliès wanted them to appear as alien as possible, but could only work within the limits of what was available in his time.  Using human actors, the Selenites in the film resemble tribal peoples, native American, Africans, and Pacific Islanders.  What Méliès draws upon is the experience of France, then one of the world's great imperial and colonial powers, in its encounter with indigenous peoples.  And so, the portrayal of the Selenities reflects the attitudes and prejudices of 1902 France (and the western world in general).  The natives are restless, they're athletic and have rhythm, tumbling all over the place, they're aggressive and threatening, savage and violent, in need of a firm colonial hand.  And at the same time, they are incredibly fragile, so easily picked up, tossed about, and blown away, blown up, reduced to a cloud of smoke (in this instance minus the firearms).  Also, they are not very bright, as they threaten the more powerful explorers, persist in attacking leading to their own destruction, and then you have the one fellow who clings to the capsule on its return voyage, which we can assume he does not survive.  In all respects, they are reflections of turn of the century colonialism.




I think it's quite interesting to consider the fact that one of the most recent science fiction films, one involving state of the art special effects and computer generated graphics, not to mention the fact that it is on course to become the highest grossing motion pictures of all time, presents a vision of alien life forms cut from the same cloth, tribal peoples.  Of course, our attitudes towards such cultures, and towards colonialism, have changed dramatically, but the source remains the same, after over a century.  

I'm referring of course to Avatar, James Cameron's new blockbuster.  And, just to refresh your memory, here are some images:





 


  


  


  


And here's a brief mini-documentary that provides a look at these noble-savage-type aliens:

 

So, going from A Trip to the Moon in 1902 to Avatar in 2009 provides a wonderful example of the changes and the continuities within the genre.

As for the return voyage in A Trip to the Moon, well, once again we are in the realm of fantasy and entertainment, not science fiction, as the capsule simply falls off of the moon and down to earth.  But the splashdown does accurately predict how capsules would return during the pre-space shuttle parts of the American space program.  And by all means, let's end with a party (not seen in the embedded version, but you can catch it in the Internet Archive file).

Oh, and one more thing.  Crossing genres, just for a moment, I can't help but note the fleeting connection between A Trip to the Moon and the early television program, The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason.  Beginning as a sketch in 1951 on the variety show Cavalcade of Stars, hosted by Gleason, it had a brief but memorable run as a situation comedy in 1955-1956.  In the opening to that program, a similar but somewhat different image of the moon, and the man in the moon played a prominent role.




 


The moon also figures prominently in one of Jackie Gleason's famous lines, as told to his character, Ralph Kramden's wife, Alice, played by Audrey Meadows.  If you know what I mean, there's no need for me to repeat it here, and if you don't, well, here's one more video for you.  This includes an early version of the program's moon-oriented opening, and then goes on to play the line in all of its manifestations.  If you just watch the first couple of minutes, you'll get the point--if you can watch it all in one sitting, my hat's off to you!


And with this I say, to the moon indeed, to the moon!

2 comments:

David ANNWN said...

Hi Lance
Thank you - a very enjoyable article. Great links to Avatar. Méliès's other source for the Selenites were French lithographs and lantern slides from the 1830s-40s called diableries and feeries, especially some by Eugene Le Poitevin and related slides. Of course Méliès was a magician and magic lanternist first and a film-maker much later. Best Wishes, David [Annwn]

Voo Love said...

Lance, my old myspace buddy!!! So glad to find you again. This is Voo from .....The House of Voo.
How are you? I've missed your intelligence...and your goofiness. haha

houseofvoo@gmail.com