This week I want to take a cue from Lauren’s piece “Becoming a Cinephile,” and wax rhapsodic about the films that led me to the scholastic study of those glorious things we call moving images. I saw these films in my first film class, as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts. I enrolled for the fun of it, but ended up discovering a personal passion. In our first few weeks of classes we delved into the early days of cinema, from the photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge and magic lantern shows, to the first cinematic shorts. It was a few class periods into the semester when we watched Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924).
Though these films are separated by 22 years of film history, they remain the two works that made me fall in love with the moving image. I have seen these films countless times, but my joy for them never wanes. Though they were created in the adolescence and awkward teen years of the film image, these works are beautifully executed, and illustrate the incredible potential of film, both as a mechanical apparatus and as an art form. They represent what I love most about the moving image.
As we all know, the Martin Scorcese film Hugo (and the Brian Selznick book upon which it is based, The Invention of Hugo Cabret) is a love letter to the early works of cinema, and particularly to Méliès himself. While both the original novel and Scorcese’s masterful adaptation discuss Méliès’ full body of work, A Trip to the Moon is posited (rightly) as his opus. As Hugo suggests, Méliès used the film camera as a means of creating new and exciting magic tricks–illusions only capable through the manipulation of the cinematic apparatus. In A Trip to the Moon we see everything from aliens and space shuttles, to giant mushrooms and grand explosions. We see the now iconic image of a space shuttle lodging itself in the gooey, cheesy eye of the Man in the Moon. We are in a land of make-believe and the unknown, where the impossible happens.
Though the plot of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. takes place solidly on human soil, rather than on the terrestrial planes of our solar system, it has a lot in common with A Trip to the Moon. Both feature a narrative structured by the occurrence of the impossible, using the cinematic appartaus to make a man go where he cannot–to the moon (an implausibility, certainly, back in 1902), and into the moving picture itself. A Trip to the Moon takes us not to the moon of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, but to the moon we imagined as children, full of fantastic creatures and unknown landscapes; meanwhile Sherlock, Jr., takes us (and its hapless hero) into a movie within another movie. We follow as the main character–a film projectionist himself–falls asleep at his post, and dreams he can walk into the very film he is projecting. In this film, “Hearts and Pearls,” our Projectionist becomes what he is not–a suave, skillful detective.
Our projectionist is, in fact, presenting us with a literal interpretation of what we as spectators do metaphorically when watching a movie: he interacts with it, and vice versa. He moves through an impossible series of locations–from arctic tundra, to desert, to an oceanic rock face–in less than five minutes. At the end of Sherlock, Jr. our hero, returning from his dream wanderings, is left back in his real body (as are we spectators, when the credits begin to roll). Through his interaction with the cinematic image, he finds the courage to woo his lady love. Like us, he learns from the movies, and revels in their ability to do the impossible; he dreams of doing the impossible himself.
When I watch these movies, I feel like a child. They fill me with a sense of wonderment and pure, unadulterated joy. Keaton was not a magician on the stage, but both he and Méliès created magic with the cinematic apparatus. These filmmakers tested the limits of the film camera, and rewarded us with extraordinary trips to impossible worlds. There is enthusiasm, wonderment, and magic in every second of A Trip to the Moon and Sherlock, Jr. These films are a joy to watch because they couple technical complexity with a sense of humor and fantasy. They represent all the literal and figurative magic of the movies; their plots are fantastic, the movement of the image is itself a trick, but my love for these movies is no illusion.