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Blu “Moon”

The exquisite fantasy films of French movie pioneer Georges Melies are currently experiencing a new and unprecedented wave of popularity due in large part to their place of prominence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. (In that film, Ben Kingsley gives a delightful supporting turn as the elderly Melies and Scorsese devotes a good chunk of the story to showing actual clips of the great director’s movies while also poignantly proselytizing about the importance of film preservation.) Fittingly, the enterprising U.S. label Flicker Alley, who specialize in distributing silent movies on home video, have just released a new Blu-ray (only their second ever such release) of Melies’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Their release bundles together two painstakingly restored versions of the movie (one in black and white and one in its original hand-tinted color) along with The Extraordinary Voyage, a terrific new feature-length documentary on Melies’ life and work by the French directors Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray should be considered an essential addition to the home library of any serious film lover.

George Melies was a magician who became a filmmaker after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe (a combination camera, printer and projector) on December 28, 1895. But unlike the Lumiere brothers, Melies was not interested in making “actualities” about the real world. He wanted to make fictional narrative films in which he could create his own worlds. So, like Thomas Edison, Melies built a studio where his movies could be shot. Melies’ studio, meticulously recreated in Hugo, was ingeniously constructed of glass walls, like a greenhouse, so that his sets could be lit by natural sunlight. The films that Melies made in this studio, the first such movie studio in Europe, established him as the first real master of mise-en-scene (the way a director controls all of the elements within the frame). This is not to say that the Lumiere brothers were not wonderful filmmakers in their own right (I actually prefer their work to that of Melies), only that Melies was the first director to rigorously control the set design, costume design, lighting, staging of the action and the performances of his actors. Melies was also a pioneer in stop-motion photography and other special effects, wherein he essentially integrated the sleight of hand he had employed as a magician with cinematography. The resulting movies, including A Trip to the Moon, are the most sophisticated narratives of their time, blowing the primitive fiction shorts of Edison and others out of the water.

Melies’ glass-walled studio:

A Trip to the Moon borrows elements from science fiction novels by Jules Verne (De la Terre à la Lune) and H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon) in telling the story of a group of French astronomers who make the first expedition to the moon. The film begins with a Scientific Congress debating whether or not to make the trip. Hilariously, one member who violently opposes the idea has papers and books thrown at his head by the chief astronomer who is played by Melies himself. Then we see the construction of the rocket ship, which is loaded into a giant canon by a chorus line of girls identically dressed in short shorts (remember: sex was used to sell movies 110 years ago too!) and fired directly at the moon. This leads to one of the most famous images of the early cinema and one that I am proud to have featured on a Christmas ornament in my home: the rocket ship piercing the man in the moon in the eye. Once on the moon, our intrepid explorers are captured by the extra-terrestrial moon-men known as the Selenites. These prototypical movie aliens are portrayed by members of an actrobatic troupe who delightfully tumble and somersault their way around the set. The Selenites take the captives to their king but the astronomers escape and, after a climactic battle, make their way back to the rocket ship. From there, the explorers return to earth where they receive a heroes’ welcome.

As anyone who has seen Hugo knows, A Trip to the Moon is a remarkably entertaining movie even, as the saying goes, by “today’s standards.” What makes the film so much fun are the many lovingly crafted details of its overall design. Georges Melies was fastidious in building his elaborate sets, all of which utilize scale models to create the illusion of deep focus. One rooftop “exterior” scene, for instance, features a brilliant forced-perspective backdrop where a cityscape in the distance is dotted with miniature chimneys that puff real smoke. The costumes and props are likewise a delight — from the medieval wizard-like look of the astronomers in the opening scene, all pointy hats and flowing robes, to the Selenites’ extraordinary appearance, which combines insect-like bodysuits with tribal-looking masks and spears. All of this makes Melies’ 14-minute fantasy an ideal silent film to introduce to children (and is also why the movie references in Hugo work as well as they do, instead of seeming like a mere commercial for Scorsese’s World Film Foundation, as some critics have claimed).

The restored, color version of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is breathtakingly beautiful. The original 1902 color-tinting actually enhances the movie by more clearly separating characters from their environment, increasing the illusion of depth and subtly directing viewers’ eyes to what Melies wants them to see within a given frame (the man in the moon getting hit by the rocket is the only close-up in the film). My only quibble with the Blu-ray is that each version of the film included in the set comes with a different soundtrack: the black and white version features a score by Robert Israel and the original narration written by Melies that was meant to be read aloud at screenings of the film, whereas the color version features a beautifully bizarre, euphoric new score by the French art-rock duo Air. Ideally, one should be able to choose either score for either version of the film. Needless to say, this is a minor quibble and I am ecstatic that Flicker Alley has put this package together. I watched it with passion.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

18 responses to “Blu “Moon”

  • Omar Pineda

    I’ll be sure to check it out. Oh yeah Mike, Have you heard of a collection of Kubrick’s earliest films coming to Blu Ray from Kino?

    • michaelgloversmith

      Yeah, it’s coming out this fall and will contain:

      – Fear And Desire
      – The Seafarers
      – Day Of The Fight
      – The Flying Padre

      Looks really exciting. I believe this will make Kubrick the only major filmmaker (with a dozen or more films) whose complete works are now available in excellent quality blu-ray editions.

      Kino is doing some really incredible stuff. They’re also going to put out a blu-ray of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (a magnificent 10 episode, 6 and a half hour serial from 1915).

  • jilliemae

    These pictures are so amazing! Now if they could only spiff-up Silence of the Lambs…

  • Bherz

    Very interesting. I didn’t know Thomas Edison made films.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Ben, Edison’s role in the early American film industry (and his conflicts with various Chicago-area studios) is a major part of the book I am currently writing. Should have some more information about it for you soon.

      • Surtikenti

        I just looked up this moon prjoect after coming across this post and I have to say this might be my favorite series of photographs ever. The visual concept is simply amazing.

  • Zach D.

    Great review Mike! Can’t wait to pick this up in the near future.

  • david

    I actually haven’t seen Hugo yet,but your post is seductive enough for me to watch the classic silent film.

    I heard that Keaton’s Seven Chances was colored on Netflix,and the only dvd I collected with both B&W and color versions is Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. What do you think of this coloring technique? which B&W films you think need a re-issue with color version?

    • michaelgloversmith

      David, most of the time I think “colorization” is an abomination. That’s because most black and white films (especially in the sound era) were never meant to be seen in color and were only recently colorized because idiotic studio executives believe that will make them more appealing to contemporary audiences.

      The color version of A Trip to the Moon is a different story. It was actually released in a color version in 1902. A whole factory of women were employed to “hand paint” each frame of the film at the time. This version was thought lost until it turned up in an archive in Barcelona in the 1990s. It’s a fascinating story that is explained in the excellent documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, which is included on Flicker Alley’s blu-ray. I actually prefer the color version of A Trip to the Moon to the b&w version but I’m glad they included both. As you can see from the stills in my post, the color is very beautiful!

  • Omar Pineda

    Wow, you’re writing a book. =) That’s great. Yeah, Kino’s also putting out three of Lina Wertmuller’s films on Blu ray.

  • Top 25 Films Made Before 1920 « White City Cinema

    […] Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray. […]

  • A Silent French Cinema Primer « White City Cinema

    […] please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray released earlier this […]

  • Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012 « White City Cinema

    […] Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here. […]

  • Films before 1920 | julidetem

    […] Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray. […]

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