October 22, 1902 [Le Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon]

Georges Méliès' already-famous A Trip to the Moon might give me opportunities for complaint: the silly, stagy quality of some of the scenes, as when the bathing beauties assist in positioning the rocket, turning the grand adventure into a side-street chorus line—or Méliès' insistence on having his scenes crowded with figures all gesturing wildly as if to write in letters as large as possible, "THIS IS A MOVING PICTURE!" Ah, but already my critical faculties waver, because it is a study in constant movement, and his milling crowds of scientists, rocket-smiths, dancing girls and Selenites are all joined in the plummeting trajectory, so that, even when they could be still, they caper, they bustle, they squirm.

And Méliès, stupefied himself, confused as to whether his story is set in an alternate present, a potential future, or a phantasmagorical past, vibrates most of all, emanating some Blakean eternal delight to illuminate every frame. Despite all its twaddle, his picture assaults me like no other, the cinematic equivalent of a Bruckner Mass or Edvard Munch study in hysteria. His energies are boundless, and if he lacks finesse he overflows with fireworks enthusiasm. All the cinematic artists who follow will need to pay their respects to him, even if all they extend is their left hand.

See here:

The "scientists" who plan the voyage wear the pointed hats of alchemists; there is from the start more magic than mechanics.

He is in love with fading one scene into another, allowing one to dissolve into nothingness to make hasty room for the next. And his simple camera tricks may not be so simple after all, as multifarious as their nervous master of ceremonies, stacked on one another like already-blazing cord-wood.

His perspective is alarming: the gun that propels the bullet-vessel to the Moon is gargantuan, dwarfing the circus-pasteboard rooftops, positioned mere inches from its heavenly target.

His stage-flats rise and fall, mocking three dimensions, making room for whatever effect is paramount, as when the vessel strikes the Man in the Moon—and oh, there are other personified astronomical bodies of all-but-unreadable expressions, white and wide-eyed faces protruding from their disks, silent jaws squawking.

And the cheese-dripping Moon itself, poked in the eye by literally vaulting ambitions, unforgettably ugly, all wet dough and burgoo, outraged almost as much as the audience.

The surface adventures then, with rubber-bounce Selenites, popping into flame and dust at the first blow, driving the adventurers to the Moon's edge, to the sea below, all four elements at last, a complete world observed through delirium's telescope.

This is exhausting, to be ecstatic over this silly thing, the first true cinematic Declaration since that first Kiss, Méliès the one who finally reveals (and isn't it fitting? with a magician's shopworn flourish) but for once calling into the service of a real illusion (my words careen into one another) the twin forges of the moving picture: narrative and spectacle, inseparable—if they are to cast cinema as a lasting art, drama more dependent upon the visual than the Occident has ever experienced—outside of the silent pageants of faith and worship.

I have seen images of the shadow-puppet theaters of the East Indies, and in their angular, over-arching posture they capture this new spirit Méliès has given the cinema, the play between the Real and the Ideal, the anguish of Plato's cave reconciled in service to the slow ascent to flickering light.


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