A Trip to the Moon (1902)

France

5*
Director:
Georges Méliès
Screenwriters:
Georges Méliès
Gaston Méliès
Directors of Photography:
Michaut
Lucien Tainguy

Running time: 11 minutes (at 20fps)

Original title: Le Voyage dans la lune

Méliès was the magician of early cinema. He didn’t only lift the seventh art form to new heights by using it to depict fantastical stories, but in the process he evoked a sense of wonder in his audience that would colour and enrich many different kinds of films and inspire most of the filmmakers that came after him. He was the first who dared detach the medium of film from its realistic basis – the Lumière brothers had filmed real trains arriving, real human beings leaving a real factory, and real water spewing from a real garden hose to water real flowers. But Méliès had other plans. He had stars in his eyes and his desire to make the impossible visible, even with very rudimentary means, led to this masterpiece called A Trip to the Moon.

Jules Verne, if not an inspiration for the film, was certainly an influence, or at least a kindred spirit. The film opens in a grand hall where astronomers with big pointy hats have gathered to listen to their astronomer-in-chief, Barbenfouillis, who gesticulates very animatedly and makes a drawing on the blackboard indicating  his intention to send a spaceship (though it rather resembles a missile) to the moon. Five astronomers are chosen to accompany him on this mission: Nostradamus, Alcofribas, Omega, Micromégas and Parafaragaramus (yes, the spelling is correct).

The names of theses characters have both real and fictional origins, and the combination is quite appropriate to the kind of film that Méliès was producing. Nostradamus, of course, is the renowned sixteenth-century clairvoyant. Alcofribas is the name used by the novelist Rabelais, whose works incorporated the grotesque and is best known for his novel about two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Micromégas was the title of, and the name of the main character in, a short story by Voltaire. Said Micromégas was an alien visitor who lands on the earth and observes the strange customs of humans. Besides the Greek root of Omega (the word refers to the last letter of the Greek alphabet), I know nothing about it, nor does Parafaragaramus mean anything to me, though it conjures up images of characters in the world of Goscinny & Uderzo’s “Asterix & Obelix”.

After surviving a fall into a bucket of nitric acid, Micromégas joins the other astronomers aboard the spaceship, which is shot from a cannon into space. The décor throughout is theatrical but never expressionist, and though many of the sets are clearly painted pieces of cardboard, the effect of having these characters move over the painted roofs into a spaceship gains a lot of its energy from the adventure inherent in the imminent exploration of outer space.

Exactly halfway through the film, the spaceship hits the moon, in one of the most famous shots of silent cinema. It is a moving human face, and this man-moon fits perfectly with the slightly strange atmosphere of the film that is about to become even more peculiar. Once the astronomers land on the moon, and their presence is seen as an intrusion, they are punished by Phoebus, who covers them with snow. They hide in a crater, filled with lunar flora, where a planted umbrella takes root and grows to become a giant mushroom. The surreal image is wonderful to behold because of the continuous growth of the “plant”, its movement, inside the frame without any cuts.

With this film, Méliès, the first master of cinematic magic, showed how to dazzle an audience, and he deserves all the recognition of being the first dreamer of the cinema and for engaging our fantasies in a way that demonstrated the far-reaching possibilities of filmmaking.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

USA

3.5*
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Screenwriters:
Edwin S. Porter,
Scott Marble
Directors of Photography:
Blair Smith,
Edwin S. Porter

Running time: 12 minutes

Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film, produced in the first decade of the motion picture industry, was not the first film to present the viewer with a narrative, but it must have been one of the most exhilarating films of its time, with action scenes that would clearly serve as the blueprint for similar scenes in tens of thousands of subsequent films. As a twelve-minute film, The Great Train Robbery, moves along briskly to show us the beginning, the middle, and the end of the train heist, focusing almost completely on the action while being indifferent to its perpetrators (the film is much more interested in the victims).

The film consists of a mere sequence of 14 shots, but unlike many contemporary films that have a similar Average Shot Length (in this case, around 50 seconds), no shot feels too long, for the pace is quick throughout as we rush from one action to the next. The actions, as the title makes clear, all revolve around a train robbery and involve gun fights in the forest, fist fights on top of a moving train, and chases on horseback. The shots are mostly static, but the action inside the frame will keep your attention.

As I mentioned above, the filmmaker focuses our attention on the very human individuals caught up in the action – for example, the telegraph operator at the train station, who is tied up, unable to alert the authorities of the bandits’ plans to rob the train, or the passenger shot in the back when he tries to escape. In the last instance, the passengers all have to line up to empty their pockets and give up their jewellery, when one man tries to run away. He is shot, but the bandits proceed to rifle through all the other passengers’ belongings; when they finally leave, the camera stays with this passenger, who has been lying motionlessly in the foreground.

Meanwhile, we never learn who the bandits or what their motives for this robbery are. It was not the film’s intention to educate its viewers but rather to entertain them, and it certainly succeeds in doing that, even though its rudimentary editing might seem laughable to a viewer today: in one scene, there is a very visible cut before a man is thrown off the train – what was a very lively individual before the cut suddenly turns into a lifeless dummy after the cut…

The most famous shot in the film is completely gratuitous and contains a close-up of a bandit who looks directly into the camera, points his pistol at us, and fires six shots. The shot comes after the narrative proper, as a kind of epilogue, or coda, and is clearly used for effect rather than serving as a continuation of the narrative. All the bandits having been killed by the end of the film, one could argue that the breaking of the fourth wall is warranted and so is the use of the close-up, which the director had avoided in the rest of the film.

The Great Train Robbery does not outstay its welcome; it is undoubtedly an important historical document that presents us with the origins of the action film, but while one can forgive the film for its technical shortcomings, the narrative still feels too rough around the edges and I would have appreciated a better sense of context and characters. However, as one of the first narrative films it is remarkably coherent and worth a look, just to see where it all started.