Have you seen the new-ish restored and hand-colored print of George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la lune yet? I’m doing something stern with my eyebrows at the thought that you might be shaking your head no. When it played here recently (at Lincoln Center in February), my friend and I bought our tickets on the internet well in advance because we were thinking “what sort of foolish fools would not want to go to this?” There turned out to be about eight people in the theater. I suspect that all other screenings but for the one I attended were crowded to the bursting point with delighted New Yorkers sitting on each other’s laps three deep, such that everyone who wanted to see the film on the big screen had a chance to. If you live elsewhere you may have a chance yet because it’s still making the rounds of a handful of U.S. cities: It’s showing in L.A. right now, Minneapolis next, then D.C., and so forth. The schedule is here and you should definitely go if you can. The restoration’s terrific, the color makes my lo-fi-DIY parts tingle, and there’s a new soundtrack by Air, who in my opinion were the perfect guys for the job. Here’s a clip:
The color print was discovered in 1993 but it was such a crumbly, brittle mess that it couldn’t be fed into even the fanciest high-tech mechanisms used to restore shabby old films at that time. Look here, you can see what a crumbly mess it was. All sorts of things were tried — including a risky chemical bath, followed by a time-out in what sounds like a deluxe humidor, where the film might unstick its stuck parts from itself — but the restoration couldn’t be completed until 2010, when the right technology made its way into the hands of the right people. Specifically, the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and Lobster Films. If you have a chance to see the film in a theater you’ll learn more about all this because it’s shown with a documentary about the restoration. One interesting tidbit I can show you in the meantime: The restoration resulted in such a pristine and complete version of the film that for a few seconds of it we can now see something no one had noticed before, a key hanging on the wall at the very edge of the frame, in the scene in which the projectile is launched. Méliès’s studio was in his garden and this is believed to be the key to it.
I can’t remember when I first saw the film but it definitely would have been before 2002, when a print complete with the long-lost ending was discovered in a barn in France: instead of a murky, moody splashdown in the ocean, it now ends with a parade for the moon-goers and the unveiling of a statue of their leader. During these festivities the adventurers wear big paper moons around their necks, Flava Flav-style.
You know what my favorite part of the film is? Surprisingly it is not the part with the mushrooms.
No, my favorite part is just before the capsule lands in the moon’s eye. There’s so much emotion in it, far more emotion than anyone has since expected of the moon. How lonely he must be, to look as thrilled as he does when he first notices visitors approaching. How strangely moving it is when he’s struck, becomes weepy, and blubbers something to himself. To see a human face emerge in place of an assortment of fuzzy craters and transform an entire set of disparate feelings into something almost knowable to others in the space of just a few frames is as magical as anything else we might hope to see in a film, then or now.
Does the film represent some of the best or some of the worst aspects of science and exploration? People have noted, over the years, that the things Méliès’s heroes find on their 1902 moon are more enchanting than the rocks and other dusty inscrutables that we know to be knocking about our present moon. They’ve noted, too, that the green guys inhabiting Méliès’s moon aren’t treated well by their visitors, who see them as a nuisance to be conquered. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view the film as poking at least as much fun at the conquerors as it does at the moon-natives. When they land on the moon, for example, the very first thing they do is stretch out their blankies and take a nap, as cozy in their obliviousness as any French colonials wandering around Djibouti in search of a decent vigneron.
They’re celebrated when they return home, but we the audience know that they were chased off the moon in slightly-less-than-glorious circumstances.
Related reading and listening: There’s a nice interview with Air in The Quietus about the film, their album, French colonialism, Jules Verne, Jean Claude Vannier, and what kind of guys from the future they like best. You can and should listen to the soundtrack album here. Thoughtful scene-by-scene commentary on the film and lots of promising links to additional info on Spectacular Attractions here.