Extraordinary Voyage anything but ordinary

By Margaret Clayton

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story



Set up as a preface to a screening of the restored classic “A Trip to the Moon,” the new documentary “The Extraordinary Voyage” takes viewers for a 60-minute ride detailing the career of George Méliès, the mysterious figure played by Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” released last fall.

That award-winning film shows a deteriorating Méliès working at a toy kiosk in a Parisian train station after he has locked away all memory of his film career. Someone did their research, as all this and more is confirmed and explained in depth in “The Extraordinary Voyage.”

Playing locally at Amherst Cinema, the documentary opens with film reels whirring as the title credits run. It then delves into the history of Méliès and the film industry. Viewers hear about a time when a movie cost a nickel to see and was rarely longer than a few minutes.

Then viewers begin to hear about Méliès, who was influenced by magic shows in England and realized he could bring the illusion to Paris, where he opened the Hubert Rodin Theater. Not long after, he brought a world of fantasy to the silver screen.

The very first movie studio in Europe was in the backyard of his home in Montreuil, France, measuring 55 by 20 feet and constructed mostly of glass to stretch the amount of shooting time as long as daylight allowed. Méliès used stop motion photography to execute trick visual effects and hired workers to hand paint each 2 cm square frame to achieve color in his later films.

“The Extraordinary Voyage” is narrated in English with interviews and audio bytes of Méliès in French with subtitles. In it, Tom Hanks calls film “the most powerful medium in the world,” and we are treated to a series of explanations of how it is created, kept, destroyed and resurrected. The audience gets all this information from the mouths of notables like Oscar-winning writer Costa-Gavras (“Missing”), Oscar-nominated writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amélie”), Oscar-winning writer Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”), along with a few others.

At the center of the story is “A Trip to the Moon,” Méliès’ 1902 film about a group of astronomers going to the moon. The film contains the iconic image of the rocket landing in the man on the moon’s eyeball and squirting the malleable surface. It was a painstaking production, but only one salvageable version was discovered, but acidic crystals had formed on the chemically-imbalanced film stock. It took years to restore the 15-minute short, but cinephiles will be glad they did.

A couple of the interviewees describe Méliès as a “man of boundless imagination” and the “father of cinematic showmanship,” and not for nothing. He involved himself in every part of the process of creating a film from writing a song for the soundtrack to working on the special effects to being the cinematographer, editor, production designer and writer. He directed 555 films in 18 years, producing 72 of those titles and acting in 85 of them.

But when he closed his studio in 1913, Méliès burned most of his life’s work; it was an expression of artistic suicide. Retreating from the spotlight, he began selling toys in a kiosk at Montparnasse train station in Paris. In December of 1929, someone remembered his work and paid homage to him with a night of screenings of his films. Unfortunately, there were only eight films in good enough condition to show.

Méliès died in 1938; on his tombstone, rather than something like “beloved husband,” the appropriately grandiose attribution “Créateur du Spectacle Cinématographique” (“Creator of Cinematic Spectacle”) serves as his epitaph.

Following the credits, viewers get to see all 13,795 frames of “A Trip to the Moon,” lovingly preserved and restored. The result is humorous and innovative. It looks like the Power Rangers franchise could have stolen the prototype for their villains from Méliès’ moon aliens.

Méliès lived and worked in a world that had not yet dreamed of the power of cinema. His talent shines through in that seemingly primitive work of genius that Hanks says dreamt of the Apollo space program before NASA. Facing plagiarism and the changing tastes of audiences who, with the development of film, could see things like the real North Pole and no longer needed Méliès’ dream version, the harried artist faded unceremoniously into obscurity, but with this documentary and restored film screening, he finally receives the proper send-off he’s always deserved.

Margaret Clayton can be reached at [email protected]