Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excursion En La Luna (Segundo de Chomon, 1908)

Segundo de Chomon is one of cinema’s true originals. At the beginning of the twentieth century, working for the Pathe company, de Chomon turned out a highly inventive series of spectacles that pushed the boundaries of the medium in ways that surpassed even the efforts of Melies and Zecca. De Chomon eschewed any kind of traditional narrative structures in his films in order to offer a heightened sense of spectacle. His work lasted well into the first decade of the twentieth century, and seem to be very much the kinds of films that Tom Gunning had in mind when he coined the term “Cinema of Attractions” to describe this period of filmmaking. Above all, de Chomon’s work is marked by a high level of inventiveness and originality, even when compared to the work of his contemporaries Melies and Zecca, both of whom worked in the trick film genre so popular at the turn of the last century.
It was a surprise, then, to come across this film by de Chomon which is a blatant copy of Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”. Dating from 1908, it came a full six years after the Melies film, and is startling in how blatantly it follows the Melies film, right down to movement of actors and the placement of scenery and props within the frame. Like the Melies film, de Chomon’s “Excursion en la Luna” reflects the influence of 19th century literature on the choice of story, borrowing (by way of the Melies film) from Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and H.G. Wells’ “First Men on the Moon”. This narrative impulse, borrowing from the 19th century novel, stands in sharp contrasts to the moments of spectacle which borrow from the stage traditions of the period.
De Chomon’s film begins at night, with a group of astronomer’s gazing upon a full moon neatly placed in the night sky. The costumes, the gestures, and the comic personalities of the astronomers are borrowed directly from Melies. De Chomon frames the image so that the spectator can appreciate the painted scenery representing the outside of an astronomical observatory. With the actors in the foreground, the building mid-plane, and the cloudy night sky with the moon in the full background, de Chomon achieves a sense of depth missing from most of the Melies’ films, which tend to frame their subjects in a very flat space. In this original, hand-tinted print, de Chomon uses a blue tinting to indicate nighttime. The astronomers, excited about the idea of traveling to the moon, dance about merrily. As with many films of this period, the lack of intertitles makes it difficult to follow the action precisely.
We then cut to the interior of the observatory, very reminiscent of one of the similar observatories seen in numerous Melies films with an interplanetary theme. Here, though, the viewer may be struck by the smaller scale of de Chomon’s set. The great hall at the opening of Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” suggests a giant structure, even if it’s all paint and plaster. De Chomon, however, keeps the set smaller, revealing only part of the observatory’s dome open to the sky. There is a large, Meliesian telescope pointed upward. The head astronomer, dressed like a wizard (identical to Melies’ Prof. Barbenfoullis in “A Trip to the Moon”) sketches out the logistics of the voyage on a blackboard, while the other astronomers sit and listen impatiently. Before long, the other astronomers rise, seize control of the blackboard, and without further ado, don their astronomer’s garb and exit the frame together.
We are next in the casting works, in a scene so strikingly similar to that in “A Trip to the Moon” that it could have been borrowed from Melies’ film. The bullet-shaped capsule is pounded out, and some comic mayhem ensues when one of the astronomers gets his belt loop hooked on the arm of a crane that lifts him off the ground (replacing the gag in Melies’ film which features the astronomer tumbling into a tub of nitric acid).
The astronomers’ ascend to the top of a platform where a giant cannon waits to shoot the capsule off into the stratosphere. The capsule is loaded into the cannon in a shot extremely similar to the corresponding one in Melies’ film, except there is no chorus line of girls to see the astronomers off.
De Chomon next rips off Melies’ most famous and iconic image, that of the rocketship making contact with the moon, although instead of kissing the moon’s eye, de Chomon’s rocketship flies directly into the man in the moon’s mouth, whereupon the man in the moon belches forth flames, hand-tinted yellow against the blue-tinted outer space background. This scene fails to achieve the iconic level of imagery that Melies created, and reminds the viewer that this but an imitation of a far more original work.
As in Melies’ film, the astronomers bed down for the night before awakening to snowfall. In the moon’s interior, they are almost immediately confronted by the moon men, who proceed to take them before their king. In the king’s chamber, consisting of a throne set against a cavernous backdrop of painted stalactites, they are treated to a line of dancing girls in hand-tinted dresses who perform a show for them. This is a perfect example of de Chomon’s willingness to pause the narrative for spectacular effect. The dance number goes on for quite a while, and both the number of dancers, plus the elaborate choreography, suggests the kind of music hall influence that was so prevalent in the early cinema. Before long, the king becomes irate, beckoning forth a small army of moon men who give chase to the astronomers. De Chomon switches gears back to a narrative mode on a moment’s notice, barely even providing motivation for the king’s sudden change of temperament other than to provide an excuse to move on to the next scene. Unlike Melies, de Chomon provides no sense of thrill or suspense in the form of a chase sequence. In Melies’ version, the astronomers make a daring escape, with Melies himself wielding an umbrella at the moon men, striking them and causing them to burst into puffs of smoke. De Chomon completely eschews the chase structure, instead bringing the astronomers directly back to their ship, followed by only two moon men, in the next shot.
Finally, the astronomers arrive back at their ship, resting precariously on a cliff, in a shot composed with exact precision of the corresponding shot in Melies’ version. It falls through a painted night sky, and bursts into flames (yellow-tinted), as fellow astronomers watch from the ground, in the same setting that we saw in the first scene of the film. The capsule lands on the ground right in front of them, still flaming, as the astronomers emerge, apparently unharmed. Also emerging from the capsule is one of the dancing women from the moon! De Chomon ends on this shot, with the astronomers, and the moon woman, in full frame.
De Chomon’s film is an audacious piece of plagiarism, of course. It’s almost difficult to be able to enjoy on its own terms, especially considering how devastating the effects of imitation (and outright piracy) were on Melies’ company financially. It’s interesting, though, to see how another “trick” filmmaker of this period handles the same subject matter. Ultimately, the film is less satisfying than the one Melies gave us. Melies was fully enchanted by the idea of filmic spectacle, and in “A Trip to the Moon”, was able to weave such moments into a wholly satisfying narrative. De Chomon, on the other hand, seems to move less freely between the two approaches. The film is heavy on narrative when it should be light, and conversely, the dance sequence brings the action to a noticeable halt just when events should be building toward a climax. Melies was a master of pacing, and even though his work is most often (and rightly) noted for its moments of highly stylized spectacle, he was also quite innovative at developing longer and more complex narrative structures within the fantasy framework. De Chomon is at his best in films consisting of pure spectacle, such as his “The Red Spectre” (1907), and the delightful “Danses cosmopolites à transformation” (1902), which fellow film blogger Tom Sutpen has written about on his blog (Show and Tell: Segundo de Chomón's Danses cosmopolites à transformation ([1902]). When he moves into these more complex narrative forms, one is given the impression that he’s rather bored with the story, and doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors in this “downtime” from the spectacle. Strangely, though, when the appropriate moments for spectacle do present themselves, de Chomon seems to stop short of taking advantage of their full potential, instead preferring to keep things moving on to the next scene. As a result, the film is over before it’s really had a chance to display any particularly memorable moments of spectacle (the few that are present are rather half-hearted imitations of moments stolen from Melies).
The tension between narrative and spectacle in the early cinema is one that demands further examination, and the emphasis on one element over the other can be seen as a result of stylistic choices on the part of individual filmmakers, as well as part of larger historical and cultural discourses of the period.
I will presenting a paper on this topic, titled “Narrative and Spectacle in Early Cinema: ‘The Cinema of Attractions’ in Silent French Film”, at the 2010 NYU Graduate English Organization Conference on April 2nd. The paper examines this issue in the broader sense of literary and theatrical influences on the early cinema, contrasting the approaches of different filmmakers to represent the full artistic diversity of the French cinema in the early period. For more information on the conference, visit:

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