A Trip to the Moon: George Melies Journey Into Narrative Cinema

The image of a rocket ship flying into the eye of the moon is world famous, so famous that the name Georges Méliès is rarely attached to it. Georges Méliès was one of the first cinematographers of the early twentieth century to step beyond the documentaries and “actualités” of the Lumière brothers. Méliès began his entertainment career in the theatre as a stage magician, becoming a master of illusion and trick. The invention of the cinematograph and the kinetograph opened doors of possibility that Méliès couldn’t refuse, and he set about building a camera of his own.

Though many of his 500 films were stand up magic tricks, Méliès became well known for his féerie films of classical fairy tales and yet it’s his forays into science fiction that survive him. The relatively new genre of science fiction perfectly suited Méliès’s theatricality, allowing him to create elaborate sets and costumes to bring his tales to life.

Unfortunately Méliès’s vision was more advanced than technology allowed, forcing him to come up with new filming and editing practices, as well as only filming when the sun gave light. The most debated topic on George Méliès, however, is whether his work can be considered ‘narrative’; the past 100 years has seen so much progression in the film industry that it is difficult to define this ‘early cinema’ without being influenced by contemporary film standards.

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For many the birth of narrative cinema correlates with the release of D. W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation (1915). Fiction films released before this time were more likely to be classified within the ‘cinema of attractions’, a genre Méliès exemplified with his tricks and effects. In order to legitimise A Trip to the Moon as a narrative, first it is important to consider what is meant by this. Christian Metz has summarised multiple definitions of narrative into 5 criteria which I will use as a frame for my analysis of A Trip to the Moon’s narrativity. Narrative itself has taken on a wide variety of meanings and definitions to individual critics. Metz’s narrative is comprised of five things: ‘a beginning and an ending’ (Metz 17,) temporality (18,) discourse (20,) the moment of ‘unrealization’ (21,) and a number of events (24.) With these criteria I will argue that Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) does convey a narrative and how he does it.

It seems that the ‘beginning’ is too obvious a place to start, though it is even taught in early education that stories must have a beginning, middle, and an end. Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon is no different. The film opens with an establishing shot of ‘The Scientific Congress at the Astronomic Club’ (qtd. in Solomon 227), as illustrated by the equipment in the room and astronomical symbols on the scientists’ coats. Once Professor Barbenfouillis enters, the viewer discovers the plan to fly to the moon, and thus the basic plot for the film is in place. Then, according to Metz, it’s not the middle that is of interest, rather the ending, because it ‘opposes [the narrative] to the “real” world’ (17). Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon unintentionally had not one but two endings; one of the many popular copies of the film that circulated in the early twentieth century had five of the thirty tableaux missing, with the voyage ending triumphantly when the rocket returned to port. The men have returned from the moon, the mission is complete and so the narrative ends satisfactorily. The original ending, however, has Professor Barbenfouillis and his men celebrated with parades and honours, in what Gunning believes to be the satirizing of ‘Western imperial ambition,’ (Gunning, Trip 74) against the Selenites. The finality of the film is invoked by the replacement of Méliès’s Barbenfouillis with a statue, suggesting that now the Professor is immortalised, unmoving in a statue, so too has narrative time ceased to move.

The second narrative criterion, briefly mentioned above, is temporality which ‘invites us to consider that one of the functions of narrative is to invent one time scheme in terms of another time scheme.’ (Metz 18) A Trip to the Moon illustrates to modern audiences many instances of temporal change though contemporary audiences may not have known that it takes longer than 16 seconds to land on the moon—the first time at least. The most notable temporal distortion for a contemporary audience would have been when the scientists go to sleep. These precious 40 seconds have been described as ‘narrative dead time’ (Gunning, Trip 71.) Méliès must have agreed as he used it to exhibit his editing skills, cross-cutting alternating syntagma together in order to show the celestial beings above the sleeping scientists (Ezra 45.) Méliès was often seen to create films in the same way he would create stage shows – it was no coincidence that his film studio mirrored his theatre, the Robert Houdin. Gerald Prince argues that theatre ‘does not constitute a narrative […] since these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on stage.’ Though Prince’s argument has merit in this context, I would argue that Méliès’s role as auteur, with control over the editing and framing of the film, not only disproves Prince’s application of this argument to film, but also the many critics that believe he is too theatrical. Though I argue Méliès made choices to create a narrative in his work, some choices were out of his control once the film was distributed: A Trip to the Moon was advertised as fourteen frames per second, and this is what Méliès would have planned for, some exhibitors, however, played the reel faster (at twenty four frames per second, for example) in order to play more films in the same slot, distorting the temporality even further. Méliès has received the most criticism for the double moon landing: ‘this “lack” of temporal continuity in the early (“primitive”) cinema is often condemned’ by critics such as Georges Sadoul who would prefer it to be re-edited into the ‘proper’ chronology. André Gaudreault argues that ‘Sadoul once again forgets that the system of early cinema did not “require” the chronological continuity that would later dominate film practice’ (Gaudreault 116.) Méliès revels in the spectacle, having said himself that the script is of ‘secondary importance’ to his tricks (243) and most likely did not want to sacrifice the iconic shot, nor the succeeding shot which advances the plot.

In discussions on narrative the term discourse inevitably comes up as the two are often assumed to be interchangeable. As Metz says, ‘a discourse must necessarily be made by someone’ (20) as it is simply the way that you ‘tell’ a narrative. Gerald Prince, as quoted in Porter Abbott, notes the opposition within the academic community; many scholars believe that ‘a narrative requires a narrator,’ and so disregard films and plays that ‘rely instead on acting and other elements to communicate the story […] But for many other scholars requiring a narrator is a needless constraint. For them, the narrator is one of a number of instruments – among them actors and cameras that can be used in the narrative process of representing events.’ (qtd. in Abbott 15) This inadvertently illustrates why it is so difficult to classify Méliès’s work as narrative or not. In able to look at how the story is told, we must look at where that story comes from in the first place. In a letter to Jean Acme LeRoy, a fellow cinematographer and family friend, Méliès claims ‘The idea of “Trip to the Moon” came to me from the book of Jules Verne’ (qtd. Solomon, 233) though the tale was also inspired by H.G. Wells, an Offenbach operetta, and even a Coney Island attraction titled “A Trip to the Moon” (Gunning, Trip 73). Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon then becomes a work of adaptation as well as a work of creation. Méliès would have had to perform his own sequence of narrative sense-making upon these texts. In doing so he has made his own choices as regards the story and the discourse, manipulating the narrativity of the piece, its temporality, adding or rejecting events in the story and so on before he even made it in front of the camera and despite his claim to place little importance on the story.

Abbott agrees with Prince that ‘the story is always mediated – by a voice, a style of writing, camera angles, actors’ interpretations’ (Abbott 20) so Méliès had more responsibility than he credits himself for. It is noted above how non-narrated films had to ‘rely instead on acting and other elements’ and so this is exactly what Méliès did. His lavish handmade sets, costumes and his acting were, necessarily, pantomime-like in their hyperbole, particularly as they had to stand out against a monochrome backdrop. Ezra utilises Metz’s term ‘explanatory insert’ to describe the oversized props Méliès uses to draw attention to objects that might otherwise be difficult to notice,’ (39) such as the scientists’ telescopes and medals the size of dinner plates. This is also done in reverse by placing the scientists on rooftops ‘above which they tower like giants’ (Gunning, Trip 72.) It is impossible to understand how Méliès created his discourse without considering his skill with the camera. Méliès is often critiqued for his lack of ingenuity, with critics arguing that there can be no narrative without the character development you gain from close ups and changes in shot. When Méliès was producing films he was restricted by ‘a static camera […] forcing Méliès to create movement in shots by other means, including using movable sets, pulleys and cranes, and trap doors.’ (Ezra 26) In this case Méliès’s experience working in theatre allowed him to break the boundaries placed upon him by the technology and yet it still does not live up to the expectations – narrative or otherwise – of modern film critics. Méliès himself points out: ‘We must try not to subject cinema, as is advocated today, to a single formula, […] oblige filmmakers to cast all their works in the same mold [sic], and we suppress in them the originality’ (qtd. in Solomon 241.) Modern film critics continue to do this with Noel Burch’s coined term, the Institutional Mode of Representation, ‘a concept of cinematic narrative that did not exist at the turn of the century.’ Early film makers ‘told stories using a different, more flexible form of narrative’ (Gaudreault 112), including performing magic tricks on screen. Méliès was an expert magician on stage and soon became an expert on screen; throughout A Trip to the Moon we see telescopes turn to stools, umbrellas turn to mushrooms and Selenites disappear in puffs of smoke. It is very easy to dismiss this as ‘simple’ because ‘his cuts juxtapose two “shots” with the same framing’ (Gaudreault 117) but Gaudreault continues: ‘this type of operation led Méliès to consider and solve the basic problems of match cutting […] in fact, Méliès was one of the first to think of the cinema in terms of cuts!’ (117-8) Méliès is unfortunate that his editing techniques are being overshadowed by the narrative and techniques of modern film, rather than being appreciated for revolutionising cinematography.

Metz’s fourth criterion for categorising a narrative is the moment of ‘unrealization’ because ‘the perception of the narrative as real, that is, as being really a narrative, must result in rendering the recited object unreal.’ (Metz 21) Méliès was accustomed to performing in a theatre, where the audience would arrive already expecting their moment of ‘unrealization’. In the early days of the cinema audiences did not know what to expect; for audiences used to seeing the ‘actualités’ of the Lumière brothers, creating this moment of ‘unrealization’ would have been all the more important. This is why, as John Frazer notes, ‘when the actors in A Trip to the Moon bow and recognize the audience, it is not, as has often been suggested, merely a naïve misunderstanding of the distinction between stage and screen. It is an explicit recognition and respect for the audience accustomed to the conventions of the popular stage.’ (Frazer 99) Méliès enjoyed the spectacle, but just like in the theatre he wanted to create a ‘relationship between spectators and the screen based on the recognition of the cinematic illusion.’ (Gaudreault 113) The basic understanding of narrative and discourse is that narrative is a series of events, and discourse is how those events are told. Metz’s final description of a narrative is a ‘sum of events’ (24). In fact, without events there would be nothing to create a discourse on, with no narration or temporality. A Trip to the Moon has no lack of events to choose from. Despite having 30 tableaux listed in the distribution catalog of Warwick Trading Company many of these, such as ‘In the Interior of the Moon. The Giant Mushroom Grotto’ (qtd. in Solomon 228) are part of the discourse rather than specific events. These tableaux link together multiple events and events such as landing on the moon and being captured by the Selenites are necessary to transform these tableaux into a narrative and there we see Metz’s list of criteria come to an end.

Christian Metz’s list of criteria is appropriate for assessing the presence of basic narrative within A Trip to the Moon yet there are features of film that do not sit perfectly within this structure, particularly aspects of early film. Narrative theory is deeply rooted in the literary sphere, encompassing novels, plays, poetry and more. The majority of criticism therefore relies on the written – or spoken – word. Film, as a comparatively new medium, is rarely thought of with the same criteria. This is complicated further by the fact film was silent until the late 1920s, years after Star Films ceased production; traditional narrative theory, then, was only applicable to intertiles – which Méliès notoriously refused to use – and the script of the distributors. As H. Porter Abbott claims in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative with regards to theatre, a lack of narrator is commonly compensated when ‘people on stage or in films talk, and as they talk we learn about events in which they are involved and which extend way beyond the boundaries of what we see on stage’ (18). In a film with no words or sound, then, the lack of narrator must be replaced in other ways. This is perhaps where Méliès illustrates his indifference to the narrative he is creating; he did not supply a script with the film, nor a score, thus giving a small amount of narrative control to the distributors themselves. This does not void the narrative Méliès has already created though it does create, as Gerard Genette coined, a ‘paratext’, providing a different discourse at each alteration. Méliès’s theatricality proves vital to this, when so much of the narrative sense-making is placed upon the viewer to make inferences based on what they see. Contrary to Porter Abbott, setting is essential to the narrativity of a piece; the almost mythical ‘storyworld’ of Méliès’s moon allows the audience to make sense of the text as it legitimises events which would be unbelievable when removed from this formulated location. Tom Gunning, for example, criticises Méliès’s preferment of a ‘burlesque’ rocket launch over ‘Verne’s detailed discussion of ballistics.’ (Gunning, Non-Continuity 71) As a modern audience we can agree with Gunning to some extent as we have the knowledge of real rocket launches to make comparison. Méliès’s audience, however, would not have had this frame of reference. Authorial choices like this, are one of the many indicators of the presence of narrative, as Charles Musser argues ‘the action in these scenes lampoons certain kinds of public rituals (such as ship launchings) in ways that cannot be fully appreciated if the intimate interrelationship between attraction and narrative action is not acknowledged,’ (Musser 395.)

Thanks to Christian Metz’s categorisation of a narrative, I have been able to illustrate the narrative practices that can be found throughout Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon as well as extra details that illustrate a story. It is undeniable that Méliès has had a profound effect on the film industry, by successfully introducing the idea of a fiction film into such a young industry and creating it to such a high quality. As Ezra says, ‘Méliès was able to tell stories within a single scene that most other// film-makers needed dozens or hundreds to tell. Yet, as we have seen, the narrative element of his work has often been overlooked.’ (33-34) Though many critics strongly assert the secondary nature of the narrative to the tricks and attractions, that acknowledges that a narrative exists, one which I believe is severely undervalued. Gunning and Musser on several occasions reach the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly separate the ‘trickality’ and narrativity of a piece, as if they are mutually exclusive; I argue that this is entirely unnecessary and in fact damaging to Méliès’s legacy. For while it may be that the tricks and attractions ‘are what the audience has come to see’ (Gunning, Trip 72), Gunning also begrudgingly points out that to a contemporary audience the ‘window dressing of plot may have seemed like a compelling narrative.’ (74) In an age of great discovery, exploration and innovation, I believe that Méliès has created a thoroughly engaging narrative that, although punctuated heavily by marvellous tricks of editing, has primarily fallen victim to the application of modern film theory on a ‘primitive’, ‘premodern’ film.

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A Trip to the Moon: George Melies Journey Into Narrative Cinema. (2021, Mar 26). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/a-trip-to-the-moon-george-melies-journey-into-narrative-cinema-essay

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