D. W. Griffith once said of Georges Melies, "I owe him everything." Coming from America's most respected pioneer in early film making, this is certainly high praise. In turn of the century France, Georges Melies was the first creative entrepreneur to recognize the cinema's value to tell a story and entertain an audience.
Previous to Melies, films only captured real life events, and film making was seen as a scientific curiosity rather than an art form. Melies, of a more theatrical bent, manipulated film to create amazing visual effects and tell fantastical tales. This weekend IFS is showing Melies' 1902 classic short A Trip to the Moon.
Melies began his career as a magician and owned his own theater in Paris. Interested in creating tricks through manipulating what his audience saw, he used photographic slide projectors in his act to great success. While seeing one of Lumiers' first demonstrations of the moving camera, Melies instantly recognized film as the perfect way of creating believable visual illusions. When Lumiers refused to sell him a camera, Melies invented his own.
From 1896 until the start of World War I in 1914, Melies produced hundreds of short films. He developed techniques of stop motion photography and superimposed images to create rudimentary special effects. At a time when filming events like a train arriving at a station was the staple of cinema, nothing like Melies' fictions had ever been seen before. Though he began showing films in his own theater, Melies soon began selling his films to traveling carnivals and picture shows to gain a larger profit.
Without the protection of copyright laws, Melies' techniques and effects were pirated by imitators, and Melies found himself unable to compete with innovators from America and Russia. Melies, left bankrupt, never made another movie after the war and died a toy maker in 1938.
Like all of Melies' films, A Trip to the Moon is short and non-sensical. The story concerns an expedition from an over-industrialized Earth to the alien jungles and mountainscapes of the moon. It presents a grim vision of the future, where the Earth appears dirty and crowded and the moon hostile and alien, unable to be colonized by the explorers who land there. This can provide an interesting comparison to contemporary ideas concerning the future of the 21st century.
Melies, who wrote, directed, created the sets for, and stars in this feature, was truly one of the earliest artists of the cinema as a narrative form. He gave his audiences what audiences of today still value: special effects, magical escapism, and stories which could be easily understood. Visually, A Trip to the Moon is great fun to watch and still amazing in its level of special effects. And as a basic text to the development of cinema, it should not be missed.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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