Friday, May 27, 2011

The First Auteur, Part Two

Tom Hanks in one of his introductions to
"From the Earth to the Moon"
Before he shepherded the World War II mini-series “Band of Brothers” and “Pacific” for HBO, actor Tom Hanks conceived and executive produced a mini-series of twelve individual films, each with their own style, approach, and perspective, on the entirety of the Apollo Space program, the endeavor that took man to the moon.  The series, titled “From the Earth to the Moon,” premiered on HBO on April 5, 1998.

Produced by Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the series strove for honesty and accuracy in telling what Hanks has described as “an evolutionary moment in our species.”

The filmmakers faced a challenge similar to that which NASA had faced.  The dramatic climax of the Apollo program occurred when the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.  This was Apollo 11; there would be six more trips to the moon before the Apollo program was starved of funding, partially from waning public interest, partially to fund the Vietnam War.  Each of these excursions had their own stories, their own drama, and their own interest.  But NASA was unable to keep the public involved and enthused.  The story of Apollo 11 is told in episode 6 of “From the Earth to the Moon.”  The filmmakers had four more episodes to construct following what might be thought as the story’s climax.  They too needed to find ways, emphases, structures and techniques to keep public interest.

Thus, rather than homogenize the series, each episode has a unique approach and style.  Using a variety of writers and directors, episodes focus on the political atmosphere of the time, on specific technology (the development of the lunar module), on events from the perspective of the media and the astronaut’s wives.

When Apollo 17 launched, it was known that it would be the last of the Apollo missions, and that, perhaps, man would never walk on the moon again.  This final episode of the series would by necessity be melancholy.  In previous episodes we have seen NASA succeed spectacularly and begin to train astronauts in science so that the benefits of the program could evolve.  It would al end with Apollo 17.

Tom Hanks took particular interest in this final tale.   Episode 12, "Le Voyage Dans La Lune," is the only episode in which he acts, and the only episode in which he receives sole writing credit.  And he manages to anchor the story of Apollo 17, and the enthusiasm, joy and sorrow of the astronauts involved, to another story of great discovery, excitement and birth.

And that second story is the tale of Georges Méliès envisioning and creating his cinematic masterpiece, “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902.

"Le Voyage Dans La Lune,"  Episode 12 of "From the Earth to the Moon"  
Thus the story of the ending of the Apollo program is bookended and crosscut with what might be considered the popular origin (or at least “A” popular origin) of man’s greatest voyage.

Hanks takes on the subtle but important role of a fictional assistant, what would eventually be described as an assistant director, to the great Méliès.  It is his character who, as an old man in a faux interview, tells the story.

Here, in two parts, is a condensation of Episode 12 of “From the Earth to the Moon,” focusing on the Méliès’ segments, with additional footage from Méliès’ film included.

Part three of "The First Auteur" to come.

Dan North, in his blog "Spectacular Attractions," has been posting some very thoughtful and insightful work on Méliès.  His post on "From the Earth to the Moon" is here.

You can buy From the Earth to the Moon - The Signature Edition at

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The First Auteur, Part One

Georges Méliès. More than anything else, when I think about Georges Méliès, I think of joy – the joy of discovery, the joy of experimentation, the joy of play, the joy of filmmaking.

Between 1896, when he shot his first film, and 1902, when he created what most consider his masterpiece, "A Trip to the Moon," Méliès produced more than 280 movies. They were among the most innovative, creative and groundbreaking films ever made. Take a look at this sampling:

Georges Méliès: The First Auteur, Films 1896-1902, by Edward Bowen

Méliès was bitten by the moviemaking bug early, not early in his own life, but early in the life of the medium itself. He was almost 35, a successful professional magician who had developed over 25 major original stage illusions, and the owner of the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin, when he and 32 others paid one franc each to attend one of the first public exhibitions of projected motion pictures in history.

It was December 28, 1895. The place was Salon Indien, an empty basement beneath the Grand Café, a gathering place for cultivated Parisians to discuss art and literature and politics near the famous Paris Opera House. Méliès was invited by his friend Antoine Lumière, whose sons Auguste and Louis had developed the technology and produced the simplistic films projected there. "You who amaze everyone with your tricks,” Antoine Lumière told Méliès, “you must come and see something which might well amaze you."

Amazed Méliès was, and amaze he would.  In 1896, Louis Lumière was famously quoted describing motion pictures as “an invention without any commercial future.” Méliès, convinced of the potential of the medium, launched into one of (if not the) greatest periods of inventiveness, creativity, innovation and enthusiasm in motion picture history, producing over 500 movies before he “retired” in 1912.

Drawing on his background as a magician, Méliès invented motion picture special effects – mechanical and optical. He built the most sophisticated film studio of his time, with elaborate and complicated scenery and props. He incorporated complex color in his films, the hues individually painted onto each frame by hand in an assembly line process.

While the Lumières and Thomas Edison and Robert W. Paul, among the earliest motion picture producers, were creating short, narrative-less actualities, one shot films involving trains pulling into stations, or bicycling, or walls collapsing, or workers exiting a factory, or boxing matches, or vaudeville, carny and circus acts, Méliès was staging extravagant cinematic illusions and developing the motion picture as a complex story-telling medium. In 1899, he produced eleven short films on the Dreyfuss Affair, a recent political scandal in France. Separate, they are a kind of serial; strung together, they are an early example of a multiple-scene movie. That same year he produced a version of “Cinderella” which was a staggering six minutes long and contained an unprecedented 20 individual scenes in four settings. It was not until 1902 that Edwin S. Porter, often credited as the first to string movie scenes together to tell a narrative, would do the same in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Méliès’ greatest achievement, the whimsical, irreverent and technically sophisticated “A Trip to the Moon" (1902), with seventeen shot/scenes in fourteen minutes, was released a year before the “groundbreaking” work of Porter in “Life of an American Fireman,” and “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903.

But it remains for me the sense of joy that pervades his work. Since he performs in almost each of his films, you can see first hand how much fun he is having. His enthusiasm and energy on-screen are mirrored by his zeal and élan behind the camera.

“A Trip to the Moon” would prove to be his greatest victory and his most shattering defeat. The popularity of the film led Méliès to be one of the first whose career was victimized and subverted by movie piracy.

But more on that later …

Michael Brooke is in the process of a staggeringly detailed study of the extant works of George Méliès. Visit his website here.

Buy Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)