Georges Méliès at Pacific Cinemathèque: A Trip to the Moon and The Extraordinary Voyage
When Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opened last Christmas, it managed to do a few things surprisingly well. It seamlessly integrated 3-D technology without compromising storytelling. It pulled double-duty, appealing equally well to both parents and their children. Most remarkably, though, it framed at its center a high-profile characterization of Georges Méliès, the great showman and innovator of early cinema and a rather unlikely choice to anchor a big-budget kid-friendly holiday film. However improbably, Hugo, along with recent Oscar darling The Artist, has helped to usher in a wave of renewed interest in Méliès and the entire era of silent cinema.
Beginning May 21, Pacific Cinémathèque offers the perfect compliment to these nostalgic crowd pleasers with a lovingly restored version of A Trip to the Moon, Méliès’s greatest and most imitated work, and The Extraordinary Voyage, an engaging documentary chronicling the film’s storied past and recent history.
Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange’s Extraordinary Voyage is perhaps best described as two smaller documentaries under one banner. The first focuses on the A Trip to the Moon’s production in 1902, while the second half details the contemporary efforts to preserve and the digitally restore the film. Bromberg and Lange fashion a documentary ambitious in scope, one that simultaneously examines Moon, recounts the story of its creator Georges Méliès, and then further frames them both within the larger context of early cinema’s evolution. While all this might seem like the makings of an over-stuffed, underdeveloped film, Voyage is surprisingly trenchant, especially given its brisk running time (the film clocks in at a little over an hour). Beyond a broad strokes summation of George Méliès’s roller-coaster life and times - the famed technical inventiveness, the pre-war popularity, the dismal post-war lows working in Montparnasse train station, the eleventh-hour rediscovery by critics – Voyage is also rewarding in the time it finds to turn an eye towards the culture surrounding early silent film. Conversations with contemporary directors (Michel Gondry, Costa-Garvas), performers (Tom Hanks), and industry professionals neatly contextualize shifting moods in audience tastes throughout the start of the 20th century, surveying early attempts at achieving a colour film process, and the resulting vogue in frame-by-frame colour hand-tinting. Mostly, they speak with great respect and admiration about Méliès, his legacy, and the seemingly boundless innovation and showmanship that were his stock and trade in the early years. Bromberg and Lange pick up on this thread too, more often than not turning Voyage’s screen time over to its greatest strength by far, the short films of George Méliès.
The Extraordinary Voyage is equally deft in its chronicle of A Trip to the Moon’s restoration, framing the work not only as an isolated case study, but also as a window into how lost old films, when rediscovered, can be saved. Voyage’s second half opens with co-director Eric Lange’s felicitous acquisition of a hand-tinted version of Moon, a rare find considering Méliès famously burned over five hundred of his own prints as his fortune turned in twenties. Add to this The Film Foundation’s staggering statistic that 90% of all cinema before 1929 is lost, and it’s a minor miracle. What begins as Lange’s commitment to preserving the print soon balloons into an almost decade-long transatlantic, multi-organizational commitment to restoring the film.
While divergent in tone, Voyage’s two halves are ultimately flip sides of the same coin, both starring slavishly devoted innovators using cutting-edge technology to bring A Trip to the Moon to the big screen. Unquestionably, the result is a marvel. Moon overflows with Méliès’s spirit of extravagance and showmanship. The hand tinting elevates the film to new heights, infusing iconic images with a breathtaking vibrancy and movement in colour. The only minor misstep is the newly commissioned - and frequently obnoxious - soundtrack from electronic duo Air. But it hardly matters. A Trip to the Moon is at once a relic and a recollection of a bygone time, a period when cinema was still a young upstart art form, dizzying in its potential, the playground of dreamers.
For showtimes, please see: http://www.cinematheque.bc.ca