Films #77 & 78: A Trip to the Moon (1902) & The Extraordinary Voyage (2011)

film 77 78 a trip to the moon the extraordinary voyage

Ratings: A Trip to the Moon, 5/5; The Extraordinary Voyage, 4/5

It was impossible to give Georges Méliès’ short film anything other than five stars – it’s a mini masterpiece, with its images remaining some of the most iconic in cinema history. Over a hundred and ten years after it was made, A Trip to the Moon , perhaps the first true narrative film, is still breathtaking; Méliès’ unique vision is an example of pure fantasy, and it’s utterly bonkers. There are several versions of the film available, varying in length, colour, and quality. The version I watched is the best available; painstakingly restored, it is as crisp and clear as it ever was, the original hand-painted colours are gloriously psychedelic, the story finally told in its entirety. It comes with new accompanying music by French electronica band Air, whose specially written score is a perfect addition, adding tension and excitement at times, bringing (unintelligible) voices to the silent performances on screen, and adding another layer of whimsy and magic to the highly stylised, timeless images.

Film buffs will no doubt know just how important Méliès and his films were, but for those who don’t, a brief history lesson. While moving images had been around for several decades during the 1800s, the early pioneers of cinema were the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès. While the Lumière Brothers concentrated on providing spectacle through presenting general activities – leaving a factory, knocking down a wall, a train arriving at a station – in as realistic a form as possible, Méliès, a magician by trade, quickly saw film’s potential for trickery and fantasy. Having allegedly discovering such possibilities through a mistake – while filming an innocuous street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed, and it took him several seconds to get it running again, with the result being that, when he watched the footage later, a carriage suddenly transformed into a hearse – the filmmaker took full advantage of the new technology, and his early films are filled with trick shots and creative deceptions.

Rooted in fairground attractions and the sideshow, Méliès’ films generally consist of one or a series of staged tableaux; the camera doesn’t move during scenes and there is minimal editing, resulting in a distinctively theatrical style of presentation. Méliès was not concerned with realism, and his films in particular are obviously created, with painted sets and backdrops offering an instantly recognisable, entirely unrealistic aesthetic. A Trip to the Moon, featuring a group of academics who build a rocket and are shot through a cannon into the moon, where they discover a race of strange lobster-men, is overtly inspired by the written works of Jules Verne, and was later (illegally) remade by Pathé in 1908. The most iconic shot of the ambitious fifteen minute film, which became one of the earliest box office hits, is the rocket’s moon landing – splatting unceremoniously into the moon’s eye, it has inspired everything from music videos (The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight Tonight) to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). Yet none of the subsequent homages and rip-offs come close to matching the unfettered imagination of Méliès, whose vision is both childlike in its innocence, and absolutely mad in its showiness.

This restored version reveals the true beauty of this strange and unusual voyage, and each scene is a sight to behold – the troupe of scantily clad showgirls pushing the rocket into its launching position, the explorers first encountering the fantastical jungle on the moon, the fights between the lobster-men and the humans, the way in which the moon’s inhabitants are unceremoniously turned into multi-coloured puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas. It’s one of the most important films in cinema history, and the fact that it still survives is a miracle.

While Méliès’ vision, and his influence on film history, is the initial focus of Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange’s accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, they also show the painstaking process of restoring the film. The colour version was believed lost until 1993, when a single print, in terrible condition, was discovered in Spain. With great care and optimism, the film was carefully unreeled, piece by brittle piece and, in a process lasting over ten years, eventually it was brought back to life. The documentary, including talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), reveals the restoration as a true labour of love – an impossible journey made possible, ironically, because of extraordinary technical advances. While perhaps not providing any new information for those with a basic knowledge of early cinema history, it does nonetheless offer an excellent overview, while also including a substantial number of Méliès’ other films, including The One Man Band and The Man With Four Heads, demonstrating the magician’s penchant for trickery and his undeniable achievements. What is so wonderful is that, while modern film effects can so easily be dismissed as CGI – without the viewer necessarily understanding any of the complexities involved in that process – the early trick films remain magical somehow. We know they are an illusion, but explanations remain beyond our grasp, and all the more impressive precisely because of this. Like a real magic trick, the solution is often infuriatingly simple, but it’s a cynical person who really wants to know it. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the illusion, and embrace our childish, often forgotten, sense of wonder and awe.

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Film #65: The Artist (2011)

film 65 the artist

Rating: 5/5

“………”

There’s so much to love about The Artist. It had so much working against it – not only is it black and white and French, but it’s silent – yet this little movie charmed everyone that saw it, and went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Watching it at home is, admittedly, not the same as seeing it at the cinema – to get the best out of this movie, you really need to allow yourself to become completely immersed in it, without any distractions, yet it is still a delight from start to finish.

What is perhaps most impressive about writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film is how clever it really is. It opens with a deception; the image of a man screaming, with no voice heard. Yet it soon transpires that this is not “real life”, but is in fact a silent movie within a silent movie. It’s only when we don’t hear the audience’s reaction, but instead see the faces of the stars, hidden behind the cinema screen, as they hear the riotous applause from the auditorium, that The Artist‘s lack of sound really becomes evident. And it’s clever from start to finish – this is a silent film all about sound – but it never threatens to become overwhelmed by subtext or showing off. Hazanavicius has created something that feels natural, utterly believable, and entirely engaging – not because of its intelligence, but because of the beauty of the story, and the characters within it.

Knowing something about the history of cinema helps when watching The Artist, though it’s not a requirement. Set during arguably the most turbulent time in film history, the late 1920s, it follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who I first saw getting massacred by wild boar in French horror movie Prey), whose careers are both affected by each other, and by the introduction of sound. Whereas Peppy embraces sound, George refuses to accept it – his thoughts echo many who believed sound compromised the purity of cinema – and his inability to move with the times is to be his downfall (although, as is revealed in the film’s final moments, there is a reason no one wants to hear George speak). So as Peppy triumphs as the new face of the studio’s talkie pictures, George becomes a dinosaur, no longer relevant and no longer wanted.

While the film is clearly a love letter to cinema, the performances are central to its success. Dujardin, who deservedly won an Oscar for his role, is perfect – I can’t imagine anyone else playing George so beautifully. He looks the part completely, with his Errol Flynn good looks and delightfully expressive face; the star quality is instantly evident. He oozes charisma (it’s no wonder all the females are so impressed with him) and even in his more arrogant moments, he’s always endearing. He reveals a darkness as the film progresses, and it’s devastating to watch this handsome, charming man so tormented by how his life has turned out.

This effortless charm is not necessarily mirrored by Bejo’s Peppy, whose name suits the character; she’s at times a bit flippant, sometimes slightly overly-emphatic – of all the performances, hers is the only one that seems to be occasionally overcompensating for the lack of sound. Still, this is a minor quibble, and it is perhaps more to do with the strength of Dujardin’s performance, than the weakness of Bejo’s. They share the screen with a wonderful assortment of cameos by mostly American actors with great faces: John Goodman, Joel Murray (God Bless America), James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell. Of course, the other star of the film – perhaps the biggest star of them all – is George’s dog. In a true story of rags to riches, Uggie went from being a rescue dog to an award-winning acting dog – he won the coveted Palme Dog for his role, and regularly steals the show.

Crucial, also, to The Artist‘s success, is the score that accompanies it. The original score by Ludovic Bource perfectly captures the emotion and tone of the film; the upbeat, jaunty tunes in the opening moments gradually giving way to more sombre orchestral scores. The decision to use a section of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo in a later scene, while met with disgust by that film’s star Kim Novak, was a brilliant one – it’s poignant, heartbreaking, and is so well integrated that it could have been written specifically for this film. Why Novak was so emphatically upset about the inclusion is a mystery – for a film all about cinema, it’s hardly an insult to pay homage to the film recently voted the best ever made.

There are so many wonderful moments in The Artist that it would be easy to gush. It looks beautiful, shot in crisp monochrome – a romantic snapshot of 1920s Hollywood. The story is simple, but wonderfully told. By combining the classical style with very modern editing techniques, it never seems to drag, and I think this is really the key to its mainstream appeal. Yet what most impresses me is how easy it is to accept its format – and its success indicates that this was felt not only by critics, but by regular cinemagoers. In fact, it’s such a quickly acceptable style that when a “real” sound is heard (in a brilliantly executed nightmare sequence) it’s horribly unsettling. And here is the true beauty of The Artist; you don’t have to be a cinephile or a film buff to appreciate it. It’s a joyous experience, funny, heartfelt, nostalgic… I challenge anyone to watch it and not have a huge, slightly teary, smile on their face at the end.