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Shooting the Moon
By Brian Willems
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Brian Willems
All rights reserved.
Le Voyage dans la Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902)
[Blackboard] The first time the moon appears in Georges Méliès' classic Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) it is a small, white circle drawn in chalk on a blackboard. The leader of a group of astronomers, Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès), explains his idea of how to get to the moon; his theory is that a large cannon on the earth will propel a capsule to the lunar surface. The trajectory of the capsule is represented by a slightly convex dotted line, perhaps indicating the pull of the dense gravity of large celestial bodies. At the end of this line the capsule is depicted going "face-first" into the moon, indicating the crash landing that is, strangely enough, shown twice in the film: first in the eye of the Man in the Moon and then again on the fantastic lunar surface. While the moon on the blackboard is depicted as a small white mass (perhaps with the face of the Man in the Moon drawn on it), the earth is different: it has a number of geodesic lines which indicate an understanding of its curvature. Looking like a basketball, these lines point to a number of differences in how the earth and its moon are understood in the film: Earth is an entity which scientific understanding has encircled, while the moon remains a fuzzy blank mass, waiting to be filled with knowledge.
[Telescope] While the blackboard shows an image of a "fuzzy" moon, a prominent prop in the first shot of Le Voyage indicates how this fuzziness can be "filled in": a large telescope is pointed out of one of the windows in the background of the astronomy hall, indicating what Marjorie Hope Nicolson calls "the telescopic moon," referring to the shift in literary representations of the moon after Galileo first saw and described the lunar surface with something to aid the human eye. The connection between the moon and the telescope is also made by the composition of the shot. Both the trajectory of the capsule on the blackboard and the body of the telescope point from right to left, going out the window. Thus it could be argued that a comparison is being made: the telescope is a means (like the rocket ship) for seeing the moon more clearly. Or, because the moon had already been observed by telescope for centuries, yet still remains "fuzzy" on the blackboard, the rocket ship is poised to continue where the telescope leaves off, creating a "rocket moon" to replace the "telescopic" one.
[Gun] When the launch of the capsule eventually takes place, the extension of telescopic vision into rocket vision is manifest in the shape of the gun used to fire the bullet-shaped capsule to the lunar surface. The images of the telescope and gun are connected in that both take the form of a diagonal rising from left to right, both are seemingly made from a similar metal, and both have been constructed out of multiple sections. Thus both telescope and gun can be read together as inventions which extend the limited range of humanity's visual power, the former through magnification and the latter through projection. However, as these two inventions are read together an important difference between them comes forth: the shape of the telescope widens, from smaller to bigger, meaning that the eye-piece of the telescope is smaller than the other end, while the shape of the gun tapers, with the end for inserting the capsule into the chamber being "large" and the end aimed at the moon, through foreshortening, being considerably smaller, almost coming to a point. Although the extreme foreshortening of the gun is a part of the film's style (because in a literal sense the barrel would have to be the same size as the chamber in order for the capsule to exit), the image of the gun could be said to form a counter image to the telescope.
This argument can be supported by a more abstract difference between the inventions in the film. The telescope is connected to the fuzzy image of the moon which appears on the blackboard in the astronomers' hall. The astronomers have presumably already used the telescope to observe the moon and what is on the blackboard represents the limited nature of their observations. Therefore, a rocket has been built to improve them. This line of thought is supported by the image of the moon which appears in the launch scene, for it is depicted with a similar "fuzziness" to the moon on the blackboard; thus the rocket is aimed at obliterating a lack of understanding. However, connecting the telescope to limited knowledge and the trip to the moon to improving what is known by direct observation brings forth one of the paradoxes of the film, a paradox which will never quite be absent from the history of the moon on film, for landing on the moon is very often about the loss of knowledge. In this sense, as the astronomers get physically closer to the moon they lose sight of it, as seen by the film's (and maybe cinema's as a whole) most famous image — the Man in the Moon. Thus the images of the moon in Le Voyage are most accurate when the moon in shown from a distance, although this is a "fuzzy" kind of accuracy. At the same time, the trip to the moon does not resolve this "fuzziness," in fact it increases it.
[Approach] On the one hand it is naïve to state that because for most of its history humanity has known the moon from afar, film presentations of the "far away" moon will be more accurate than the lunar surface seen from up close. However, despite the surface validity of this argument, fictions which take place on the moon often surface a certain kind of truth (and a lot of hooey) that direct observation misses. This truth is due to the fact that because for so long it was impossible to see the moon "up close" multiple strategies for lunar representations had to be developed. Some of these strategies contain "lunar truths" in themselves. Once humanity landed on the moon the situation did not change; in other words, just because the surface of the moon was recorded from the surface of the moon, this did not mean that the use of multiple representational strategies together came to an end. In fact, it only increased.
The initial example of how such truth gets located in fiction can be see in the approach to the moon, which is shown from the point of view of the capsule coming in for a landing. There are three main elements in the representation of the moon in this scene: at first it is shown in a fuzzy manner, meaning a mainly white disc with a few marks roughly indicating what can be seen with the naked eye from Earth; then, as the capsule approaches, a dissolve replaces the fuzzy moon with one with a visible face; then the capsule is famously shown landing in the Moon Man's right eye.
While in general the progression of these images can be seen as a "loss" of realism, there is also the chance that when taken together they can be read as an indirect approach to picturing "lunar truths." This is because getting closer to the moon in the film does not bring about any attempt at showing a "true" moon. Rather, its face is a piece of theatricality (not an attempt by Méliès to show what he thought the surface of the moon really looked like). Yet it is through such theatricality that differences between a fantastic moon and a real moon become more apparent. In other words, the fantastic makes the real more visible because it becomes so apparent that the real is missing. This brings us to a discussion of the role indirectness plays in bringing about a kind of truth that direct observation misses.
[Indirectness] The moon is not just seen in one way but rather it undergoes a number of different presentational strategies. So far, inLe Voyage the moon has been put on screen in the following manners: a fuzzy circle on a blackboard; a fuzzy circle in the sky;and as the face of the Man in the Moon. What will be added to these is of course the actual landscape of the moon seen after landing, which in the case of Le Voyage takes the form of a fantastic stage set.
In other words the moon is represented as: a) an unclear scientific drawing; b) an unclear object seen in the night sky by the naked eye; c) an unreal moonscape when seen from close range; and d) a fantastic moonscape when seen from on the ground. This multiplicity of approaches indicates the structural nature of indirect representation: a single object, the moon, is presented through different strategies in the same film, in this case Le Voyage. Most important, however, is that this multiple presentation becomes an issue. These multiple strategies actually bring about a tension or conflict between the object of the moon and its own qualities. This was seen above in how the absurd Man in the Moon begins to indicate what the moon actually is (meaning, in the very least, that it is not a literal human face). This approach can be called indirect because the same object is shown in different ways (a-d above) in the same film. When the conflict between different presentations becomes an issue it can indicate some features of an object because, as Graham Harman argues (using a boat as his example), "This forces us to confront the tension between the unified haunted boat and its multitude of shifting features. Let 'confrontation' be the name for those sporadic cases where we come directly to grips with the difference between a thing and its slippery sensual traits."
Although Harman uses a number of terms in this quote which are developed below, here it can be said that he defines a number of different strategies for bringing about such an awareness throughout his work, but there are two which will have the most bearing on Le Voyage: a "vertical" strategy and a "horizontal" strategy. The first, in short, brings about a tension between an object as it is used "unthinkingly" in an everyday manner and the real, contorted, always-beyond-our-reach object hiding underneath the surface of everyday use. This gap is "vertical" because it is found between the way an object is experienced and the "real" object that forever lies veiled. In other words, it is present when "real objects forever withdraw behind their accessible, sensual presence to us." In Le Voyage this kind of indirectness has been termed "fuzzy."
The other kind of gap Harman denotes is a "horizontal" gap in which the hidden or veiled "real" object does not come in to play; instead, there is a tension between an "everyday" object and its own "everyday" qualities. This can be seen, for example, in a cubist painting where an image of a face is in tension with its cut-up and rearranged image: there is no "real" face involved here, everything takes place on the surface. For Harman this gap exits "between the relatively durable objects of our perception and their swirling kaleidoscope of shifting properties." In Le Voyage this strategy has been seen in the multiple presentations of the moon taking place together: in other words, representations of the moon are put into tension with other representations. Horizontal gaps are important because theatrical representations of the moon, through their mere absurdity, have the potential to indirectly, or horizontally, indicate where gaps in lunar understanding lie.
Horizontal confrontations have been noticed in Méliès' work in a number of ways, for what is traditionally called his "magic" (in distinction to Lumièr's realism) actually stands for a gap between fantasy and reality. As André Gaudreault argues, "Méliès' filmic system [...] almost always establishes a relationship between spectators and the screen based on the recognition of the cinematic illusion." For Harman, Martin Heidegger is a key figure in this recognition: not only is his thought important in becoming aware of the mechanism of a vertical confrontation of elements but it is also key for understanding the tense gathering of qualities in a horizontal confrontation; thus a brief tour through his thought and some of those who have thought after him becomes necessary.
[Gathering] Heidegger calls the horizontal structure of a confrontation of multiples das Geviert, meaning a quad or fourfold, and it plays a key role in "Building Dwelling Thinking," a lecture he gave in 1951. Heidegger names the four elements of his gathering earth, sky, divinities and mortals. However, the details of why each of these terms is important for his thought are not germane here. Rather I am interested in the reason why he thinks that an experience of different elements together can allow for an indirect or horizontal experience of an object. Harman calls this experience a horizontal "confrontation" in that different aspects of an experience of an object are allowed to reside alongside each other in agitation or conflict, just like how the different cubist representations of a face are allowed to remain in conflict with the "everyday" experience of an image of a face. Thus for Harman there is a sense of violence attached to the fourfold. Heidegger, on the other hand, sees this relationship as something more reserved, calling the relationship between the four dwelling [Wohnen],indicating a kind of "living-with" rather than a struggling-with. However, the reason Heidegger is being brought in here is that this "fourfold" way of being with an object (through multiple representational strategies, for example) becomes a means of accessing a kind of truth about the object itself. One of the tasks for this book is to develop how this happens. While Heidegger calls horizontal tension a "building," for Harman it is a coming to grips, as quoted above, "with the difference between a thing and its slippery sensual traits."
The difference created by the horizontal tension of multiple representations is a different way of having access to the totality of things: "we are left to encounter a realm of phenomenal presence, entirely different in kind from the underground zone of concealment. Human life is adrift in a sensual realm." This horizontal tension is sensual, meaning it is removed from the realobject, yet it is also a kind of "realism" because "Realism does not mean that we are able to state correct propositions about the real world. Instead, it means that reality is too real to be translated without remainder into any sentence, perception, practical action, or anything else." In the context of the films under discussion here, contact with the moon comes about in the way the moon is always more than the presentations of it, a point which is forcefully made with the appearance of different presentational strategies gathered together in the same film.
[Attractions] One way to understand the position of Le Voyage in a discussion of a horizontal or indirect approach is to see how this reading of the film is both similar to and different from a "cinema of attractions" as developed by Tom Gunning. His classic essay from 1986, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," is first and foremost an attempt at reading cinema in a non-narrative manner. Gunning aims at restoring early silent cinema to an "exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption." This confrontation is reminiscent of Harman in how it aims at showing the integrity of the multiplicity of elements which make up a film, rather than focusing on their subservience to an overall narrative. This can be seen in Gunning's discussion of close-ups in early cinema, which "differ from later uses of the technique precisely because they do not use enlargement for narrative punctuation, but as an attraction in its own right." However, Gunning's reading of early cinema diverges from an indirect approach in a major way: Gunning insists on a more traditional subject/object relationship when he states that "Every change in film history implies a change in its address to the spectator, and each period constructs its spectator in a new way." While Gunning's comment indicates an important gain in film studies (the work done to create a spectator by the structure of a film), when he locates film and spectator in such a web it denies a place for the object (a film, the moon) to exist apart from its observer. A similar criticism is leveled by Harman against New Historicism: he states that by taking context to be of foremost importance New Historicism is "turning everything into an interrelated cosmos of influences." While New Historicism and a Cinema of Attractions are very different beasts, the criticism lodged against them is similar: it is not "enough" to locate a work within a network of influences, instead what needs to be shown is how the multiplicity of a network provides a separation from and thus access to an object. This train of thought can initially be developed through looking at the multiple landings which take place in Le Voyage.
[Landings] In Le Voyage this kind of "tension" or "confrontation" is seen in the fact that the landing is shown twice, and in two very different manners. This indicates one of the contributions that "filmic moon studies" can offer to a theory of indirect access, because we can map out a number of different ways in which an object is experienced.
Excerpted from Shooting the Moon by Brian Willems. Copyright © 2014 Brian Willems. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations viii
Introduction: The First Men in the Moon 1
Part 1 Early Films 5
1 Le Voyage dans la Lune/A Trip to the Moon 6
2 Frau im Mond/Woman in the Moon 20
3 Kosmicheskiy Reys/The Cosmic Voyage 35
Part 2 Camp 49
4 Radar Men from the Moon 50
5 Cat-Women of the Moon 58
6 Nude on the Moon 73
Part 3 Almost There 89
7 Destination Moon 90
8 Countdown 99
9 2001 107
Part 4 Close-Up 117
10 Moonwalk One 118
11 From the Earth to the Moon 131
12 Was It Only a Paper Moon? 142
Part 5 After the Fact 153
13 Space: 1999, Manhattan 154
14 Apollo 18 159
15 Transformers 3, Iron Sky 166
Conclusion: Moon 175