Melies and the LImits
Taking A Trip to the Moon
Part 1: Melies | 2: Sex Slaves | 3: Marienbad | 4. The Krell | 5. Citizenfour
By Dan DeWeese
Because this speculative component of film is bound up in its very technology, it was taken advantage of almost immediately. Melies may have discovered how to make something disappear only through the accident of his camera jamming, or he may have made that story up to exoticize an idea he realized would occur almost immediately to anyone playing with a camera. That trick, and its offshoots, apparently led Melies away from magic and theater and into a career of exploring what an exuberant imagination and a camera could concoct together (with magic and a theater).
The Melies film people look at most often now is A Trip to the Moon, from 1902. Here is the most recently restored version, with a soundtrack by Air:
The plausibility of Melies’ story isn’t why we still watch A Trip to the Moon, though. We watch it to see what he was doing with the technology that was cinema in 1902. (If you didn’t find it watchable, maybe try again after midnight.) Though the invention of movie-making may have created a medium that loosened or transcended the perceptual limits of space and time, the medium did not transcend space and time entirely. Film was still limited by its own physical qualities. Melies’ camera would have been big, heavy, and almost entirely immobile. He could not record sound. The camera could only be placed in certain safe spots. (Melies, for all his inventiveness, explores camera placement almost not at all. He places the camera in what would be roughly a front row seat at the theater, and that’s where it stays.) Only certain kinds of lighting would result in exposure of the film, there were budgetary limits to how much footage could be shot, and the film could only be edited through certain kinds of splices. The act of dealing with the limits of filmmaking was inextricable from the act of making a film.
Literature does not have these limits. A writer can write a sentence as long as she wants, and paper is cheap, so there’s nothing stopping anyone from writing a novel thousands of pages long. A writer can change point-of-view as many times as she likes. She can reveal one character’s thoughts, then another’s. She can describe any part of a character or setting in as much detail as she wants. Fiction—at least before consideration of “official” publication enters the picture—is almost entirely liberated from material constraints. Film is, in comparison, exceedingly limited. And yet its powers, because they are visual, are formidable and immediate, despite limitations.
Is it possible that in the previous sentence, the word “despite” should be replaced with “due to”? Think, again, of fiction. If a writer presents us with a character who has no limits—a character who is omnipotent—what story is possible? If the character wants something, he gets it. If something goes wrong, he goes back in time and undoes it. When there are no limits, there are no obstacles, when there are no obstacles, there are no vulnerabilities, and when there are no vulnerabilities, there is no story.
In A Trip to the Moon, Melies has presented characters who can be shot to the moon. They don’t have to wear masks. Their parasols make moon-men disappear in a puff of smoke. Where is the dramatic tension?
The tension is visual. One reason A Trip to the Moon remains interesting—a dramatic tension that it continues to possess, and will always possess—is the tension of a filmmaker working with the physical limits of the camera. The camera was not portable, so Melies built a studio and poured astonishing energy into sets and costumes. The camera could not move, so his actors did—they are costumed, expressive, and acrobatic. Working before an era of digital effects (or even controllable versions of slow- or fast-motion), Melies uses chemical tricks, carefully-positioned actors and props, puffs of smoke, and editing. The dramatic tension in A Trip to the Moon isn’t “How will they get to the moon?” It’s “How will Melies film a trip to the moon?”
Martin Scorsese made a film tangentially about Melies. Here are the opening shots of Hugo, made in 2011:
The dramatic tension that remains in A Trip to the Moon is the dramatic tension that results from the limits and (we may as well use the word, since cameras can break and film can decay) vulnerabilities of the technology. In Scorsese’s film about Melies, the technology, no longer physical, possesses no physical vulnerabilities. So is there any dramatic tension?
That can be left, for now, as an open question. There is a link between the technology of film and the nature of the stories it tells. Melies tells the stories it is possible for his camera to tell, and we are, at some level, drawn into his battle with the limits of his technology just as we are drawn into battles with the moon-men. When we watch an invulnerable digital camera that has no battles because it can do anything, filmmakers must find other ways to draw us in. The dramatic tension inherent in the use of a physical camera evaporates.
What a film camera could do was, for Melies, a matter of speculation. Speculative stories allowed exploration of filmmakers’ speculations on what film technology itself could do. Invulnerable digital filmmaking now offers filmmakers the ability to create any image. When the camera becomes a virtual camera, it suggests virtual stories. If speculative lenses are different from virtual lenses, and therefore tell different stories, is speculative cinema different from virtual cinema?
Melies didn’t create a virtual experience of going to the moon—that wasn’t possible for him. He created a speculative experience, the science and technology of which are now decades outdated. And yet A Trip to the Moon possesses something Hugo lacks. And always will.
Dan DeWeese is the author of a story collection, Disorder, and a novel, You Don’t Love This Man. He went to film school.