Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: George Méliès’s Trip to the Moon

Matthew Solomon (ed.),
Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: George Méliès’s Trip to the Moon
Albany: SUNY Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4384-3580-0
$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by SUNY press)

George Méliès has always figured as a term in larger debates: as a fantasist in opposition to the realism of the Lumières, or as an early narrativist in Sadoul’s teleological history of narrative development. More recently he has been invoked as a purveyor of attractions, which is the primary way that he figures in Matthew Solomon’s new anthology. Rather than deal with the entirety of Méliès’s career, this collection focuses on a single film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), using it as a site of intersection for many of the issues currently in play for the study of early cinema. Solomon has brought together some of the major figures in the field, including Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, Paolo Cherchi Usai and Richard Abel, so that this collection provides a valuable resource, not just on this film, but more broadly, on the research questions that are now motivating the study of early cinema.

The importance of this field has been well established for some time now. Following the 1978 FIAF Congress in Brighton, historians and archivists produced massively important work that reinvigorated film studies by combining close textual analysis with a strong sense of social context. Not only did this provide a framework for revisionist evaluations of film practices, but it also provided the site for historiographic considerations, as the question of how film history had been written, and might now be re-conceived, became central issues. The failure of the postmodernism paradigm then led to an emphasis on modernity as an alternative epochal term for which more coherent theoretical positions might be developed. However, as film studies thrives on novelty, the issue now is how to find ways of keeping the concerns of early cinema studies fresh, as what was once revisionism has itself become orthodoxy.

All of which brings us to Méliès’s film. Solomon (who teaches at City University of New York at Staten Island) introduces the collection by giving an overview of the life of the film from its initial release in 1902 to its (and Méliès’s) disappearance and re-discovery at the end of the 1920s, its passage into the international canon in an incomplete version collected by the Museum of Modern Art, and its subsequent archival restoration in the past fifteen years. (The book handily comes packaged with a dvd with two versions of the film, both accompanied by commentaries.)

Several of the chapters reprint older material in new translations. These include Paolo Cherchi Usai’s brief introductory notes for a 1991 Méliès exhibition at George Eastman House and Gaudreault’s 1981 essay on ‘Theatricality, Narrativity, and Trickality’. The importance of the anthology lies in the shifting ways that connections emerge between the chapters. Gaudreault’s essay along with Viva Paci’s deal with the film as an attraction, the term applied by Gaudreault and Gunning to what they saw as the predominant mode of film practice in the first decade of the cinema. The cinema of attractions involves the display of the cinema as a technology of wonder and spectacle, rather than as a transparent mechanism for narration. A widespread cinematic practice that did something other than narrate was an enticing proposition for those invested in theories about the supposed absorption and positioning of the spectator in later narrational practices. Subsequently many people have chafed under the historical limits of the initial periodisation of the “cinema of attractions,” with Viva Paci being a good case in point. She is keen to use Méliès’s film to argue for the persistence of attractionality in a range of work including MGM musicals, Busby Berkeley’s work, avant-garde filmmaking and contemporary video clips. This tends to abstract the formal properties of these forms of filmmaking from their placement within wider social and cinematic formations.

The bulk of the authors however, look backwards rather than forwards, attempting to locate Méliès’s film within a web of other works from which it draws. Foremost among these influences are Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la lune, as well as the rides at various expositions and world’s fairs taking place around the same time in France and the United States. Rather than anachronistically invoking science fiction, Frank Kessler locates the film in the genre of the féerie, a theatrical form of the period that fixed fantastical plots with mixed modes including music, ballet, stage trickery and whatever else came to hand.

This notion of the film as a hybrid that involves mixed modes of spectacle and address is an idea extended by Tom Gunning. No one is more closely associated than Gunning with an emphasis that links modernity and vision. His essay here deals with Méliès’s film in terms of what he calls “modern vision.” He is quick to point out that this term is not a biologically based one, but rather a system-based abstraction heavily influenced by the thinking of Dziga Vertov, which identifies the eye, its relation to the objects of vision, and the range of adjacent technologies that exist to augment human vision. These include the camera, the telescope, the x-ray and so on. The result is “a modern hyperstimulus of vision and its abstraction of space” (108). Gunning is interested in what he sees as the ways the film demonstrates the exploration of space, just as the characters in the film are also explorers of outer space.

Murray Pomerance picks up this ball and runs with it. Pomerance’s central claim is that A Trip to the Moon is concerned with the elimination of space. Like Gunning, he argues this case by the familiar tactic of reading the film’s narrative as a metaphor for its own construction. The spatial incongruities and inconsistencies of the mise-en-scène suggest abstract ways of overcoming the bounds of spatial distinctions. Méliès as filmmaker conquers space, just as Méliès as Professor Barbenfoullis in the film conquers space and space creatures. On page 92 Pomerance writes:

Is not Méliès signalling us to consider the moving point-of-view as prototypical…he is showing us the abstract idea of a moving point-of-view, in order to suggest, perhaps, that all of the film is to be conceived in this peripatetic way.

Rather than Méliès signalling anything like this, it strikes me that Pomerance is the one doing the signalling. This notion of the text as a space for the play of the analyst is one that Victoria Duckett explores. Her central contention is that the film contains (or rather, can be made to contain) a satirical feminist distance. In her essay, the film becomes a starting point for a chain of associations. She ends with the rhetorical question, “To what extent might I actually be inventing feminist agency?” (177).

Apart from the unbounded play of references, early cinema history has also grounded itself in more material questions concerning the industrial circulation of films. Thierry Lefebvre makes the point that the scale of the film was exceptional for Méliès at this point in his career and that the film’s primary intended market was the United States. This is an insight taken up by Richard Abel, who has a long-standing interest in the marketing and reception of French films in the U.S. He traces the way that American audiences were more likely to see A Trip to the Moon as an Edison film rather than a French one. This has a special resonance in Australia where the French film components of the Salvation Army’s Soldiers of the Cross program were the basis of Australian nationalists’ claims to have produced the first long-form feature in the world.


Mike Walsh,

Flinders University, Australia

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →