Friday, January 21, 2011


It’s winter in New York. That means grey snow against grey sidewalks, set against grey buildings and a grey sky. It’s sort of hard to walk, honestly. The only two great seasons in New York are spring up to about June, and fall until New Year’s Day. Everything surrounding those two points in time really just stinks. I bring this up because I’m about to tell you another great thing about living in New York, and I don’t want you to feel bad.

Today I spent the afternoon at the recently reopened Museum of the Moving Image. It looks great, and they’ve managed to curate up a fantastic program of films and educational programs. If you’re in the area and you love movies, check it out.

As part of their inaugural month the museum presented a collection of four films by the legendary Georges Melies accompanied by live music performed by similarly legendary New York musician Sxip Shirey ( Sxip’s music, like Melies’ movies, explode with innovation and virtuosity. Shirey used train whistles, surgical tubing, bells, whistles, synthesizers, and a host of other objects to give Melies a sound mix proper to his groundbreaking films.

An amazing afternoon was had by all, followed by dinner, the Jets/Pats game, and a surprising number of burgers at a joint in Astoria. The topic of conversation was this week’s classic film:

1902’s A Trip to the Moon.

Melies most famous film is pretty much as classic as classics go when it comes to the history of film. According to legend, Melies saw some of the earliest films as projected by the Lumiere brothers and immediately wanted to make them himself. While using his first camera he managed to get the film stuck. After developing the footage, Melies marveled as images jumped and created strange and magical effects. Melies realized that he could manipulate film in order to create fantastic effects. And classics were born.

At the beginning of every medium it’s pretty easy to create classics. A classic requires some combination of virtuosity, novelty, and entertainment value. If a movie is overwhelmingly and perfectly entertaining it doesn’t necessarily need to be all that novel, and if it’s genuinely and completely novel it doesn’t actually need to be all that entertaining. True virtuosity trumps everything, of course.

A Trip to the Moon takes Melies early experiments in special effects and uses them in a feature about a bunch of scientists who shoot themselves from the Earth all the way to the moon. Like, in a big bullet. Then there are big lizards and stars that look like hot 19th Century chicks and scientists engaging in mortal combat with umbrellas.

Instant classics are few and far between. They require skilled innovation, entertainment value, or sheer wild talent, and none of that comes along very often. When it does, it creates the kind of impact crater on history made by the films of Georges Melies.


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