George Melies -- "A Trip To The Moon," limited edition (Flicker Alley)
Pronouncing a work "the most important movie ever made" might be likely grounds for lively debate, but I take no counter points in my declaration of Georges Melies' 1902 silent epic "A Trip To The Moon" as deserving of that title. It's just true; there is no argument.
"A Trip To The Moon" is probably the most famous 110-year-old movie in existence -- you know the one where the rocket ship pokes into the face of the Man in the Moon?
It's recently been unveiled to a younger generation through the book "Hugo Cabret" and the subsequent Martin Scorsese film, which not only features clips from it and other of Melies' work, but offers a pretty faithful, though fictionalized, biography of the filmmaker.
When I was growing up, "A Trip To The Moon" was often held up as an example of what silly things people used to believe about the moon. In my adult years, I realized that it was more an example of what whimsical and imaginative things people used to attach to the unknown and what amazing talent and effort it took to realize these far-out notions visually. In the era of digital effects, the effort that someone like Melies went to is hard to fathom -- and the notion that dancing girls fulfill the same humorous and no-more-silly punctuation to the his outer space tale as C-3PO did to George Lucas' -- has given the film the appreciation it deserves, finally.
As part of this new appreciation, the film was given the restorative treatment last year, with a Cannes debut for a new print -- in color. The film was originally presented in hand-colored form in 1902, and this restored version was the product of a meticulous process to bring back that beauty. To celebrate the update, the French music duo Air was commissioned to write a new score.
This release from Flicker Alley offers that restored version, with two other black-and-white versions given similar treatment, as well as two other films, interviews with Air and a documentary chronicling the Melies' original production and the current one to return it to its original form.
This latter bonus is a marvel, managing to wrap into one instructive package Melies' importance as essentially the inventor of special effects, how early forms of movie piracy practiced by Thomas Edison nearly undid him, as well as accepted plagiarism by rival film companies. It is also a testimony to the slow grind of the film production and post-production process in the silent era, to the way lost films are found, on the rigors of film restoration and on the hard work of digital production -- much more than pushing buttons -- and much, much more.
It's an invigorating hour that traces the technical history of film that every one should see.
The restored color version is the centerpiece, of course, and it deserves that honor. In representing the work, restorers haven't attempted to give the print a slick, updated coloration, just a vibrant return to the original, which means sometimes imprecise colors that burst with surrealism and provide an alternate action to the figures on the screen.
Air's soundtrack is unexpectedly perfect -- when coupled with the color, it transforms the film from an exercise in nostalgia to a vital and relevant bit of film experimentation. This is an art film through and through, before such a genre really existed, and the capacity for Melies' vision in both pre- and post- production to grasp something larger than reality is revealed in all its glory.