George Méliès’ most popular film, and likely for most the earliest film that has images still haunting our collective consciousness—thanks in part to a Smashing Pumpkins music video—is Le Voyage dans la lune (1902). Only within the past five years did this seminal work burst out of its dusty cocoon with color treatment thanks to the uncovering of a hand colored print, with a cinematic reemergence to rival the restoration of missing scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), uncovered in Argentina in 2008, as one of the most important rediscoveries in recent cinematic history.
When film was still a new medium, back when it lacked the quality of speaking parts, narrative relied on the succession of images. Images not being as direct as words, their slippery substance sometimes veers off into thematic elements, perhaps unintentionally for the filmmaker. And since most early films weren’t hand colored like some of Méliès’ works, exploration of themes involving light and dark contrasts could occur in front of the audience’s eyes, and sink deeper in the individual for more toying around with mythic meaning, like, for instance, when the somnambulist in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) steals the girl away from her slumber in an image that looks like light being sucked into a black hole. Maybe this light and dark contrast is why moon imagery worked so well on the silver screen, or maybe there’s an alternative narrative being told by silent filmmakers, or by the films themselves, imbedded in an occult understanding.
Arthur Edward Waite, the brains behind todays most popular tarot deck, describes The Moon Arcanum by claiming that, like the moon’s reflection of the sun’s light, our human intellect “is a reflection and beyond it is the unknown mystery which it cannot shew forth. It illuminates our animal nature, types of which are represented below—the dog, the wolf and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower than the savage beast.” This ‘hideous tendency’ is represented by the crayfish at the bottom of the card, retreating back into the pond, much like adherents of the intellect afraid of leaving their comfort zone into less structured areas of consciousness. The image of The Moon also represents the “life of the imagination apart from life of the spirit,” accenting the creative impulses we have based on the materials we come into contact with, as opposed to a more intuitive drive that doesn’t rely on our outward senses. In between the distant moon, which holds a struggling and contemplated face, are a dog and a wolf, which signify “the fears of the natural mind in the presence of that place of exit, when there is only reflected light to guide it,” ‘the place of exit’ being that area beyond the reflected light of intelligence, beyond imagination, into the deeper areas of our nature where too few strive hard enough to enter, or as it’s referred to in stoner terms, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’
In the darkness of night the full moon, among the stars, is the largest focal point that draws our gaze. Like a visualization of the creative process, our attention hones in on the distinct contrast, the object of seeming light that, in reality, is more of a natural screen for the sun to shine on, yet comes across as a hole for escape. The idea of yearning toward this light is expressed in the beginning of Kenneth Anger’s film Rabbit’s Moon (1950), when the Pierrot character sees the increasing cartoon moon, which reappears over and over again in a set visual rhythm, as he hopelessly reaches for it or gets a running start to attempt jumping for it. When the character gives up, he’s left only with the possibility of his own reflection, given to him by a child holding a mirror, symbolizing the inability to get beyond the self. But again, this light that he desires is not in reality a source of light, but a projection. Soon enough a Harlequin comes to taunt him, juggling fake balls in the air amongst other actions. Finally he points to the earliest form of projector, a magic lantern, an invention which in its earliest uses in the 15th century conjured images of demons and ghosts. The lantern, to the amazement and enchantment of Pierrot, projects an image of Columbine, his object of affection, who dances around on a flowery stage. Forgetting about the moon, Pierrot settles for the projection of the magic lantern, mimicking Columbine’s dance moves, and motioning for her to pause, now having an image he feels he has some control over to manipulate, feeling he’s been provided with something at least as good as what he yearned for earlier. However, as we find out, the image is fully under the control of the taunting Harlequin, as Columbine dances with the Harlequin in front of Pierrot, who looks up only to find a crescent moon, and winds up falling down dead by the end of the film.
The narrative of this mythic film suggests that film attempts to make up for our inability to reach the moon’s light by bringing us a mechanism for reflected light right before us. But who is in control of the images that generate meaning for us, the images that usurp our desirous gaze? The earliest filmmakers, the Lumière brothers, the ones credited with discovering “cinema’s alchemy,” created a lineage of French filmmakers in the 1920s, mostly surrealists, who subscribed to the photogénie theory – that film had an automatic engine to it for conjuring its own images, that if the camera were allowed to direct itself it would reveal the symbols, metaphors, images that it wanted to show us about itself, its true nature. According to Robert B. Ray, who wrote the article “How a Film Theory Got Lost,” this practice of letting the camera speak for itself lost the theoretical and historical battle against Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of directorial control, and the will to “transform the reality serving as its raw material.” More modern examples of the photogénie method can still be found in practice—for instance in Louis Malle’s nine hour documentary work of his voyage through India, recounted both in L’Inde fantôme: Reflexions sur un voyage (1969) and Calcutta (1969)—but it’s safe to assume that most directors (or producers) like to exercise their control of image creation these days.
So, to get back to topic, one of the earliest remembered films, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902) visually narrates a story about voyagers reaching the moon, by means of scientific advancements (thanks to the intellect), and damaging the moon’s surface in the process. The voyagers quickly find out that they have reached a place already inhabited, when some creatures that resemble the crayfish crawling away on the tarot card confront them. These creatures though, are like figments of the imagination, perhaps only reflections of the voyagers’ fears, vanishing into dust with the slightest bop on the head. By being confronted with these imaginary creatures, the voyagers act just like the retreating crayfish and head back to earth, only minutes into their arrival; they don’t get beyond the moon that they’ve reached, don’t get beyond imagination or the intellect that got them to that point.
In a way, the film as medium is a character itself, as a culmination of intelligence and imagination that found its limits early on, its inability to go beyond the moon, so to speak. Like the quick cuts in images from Un Chien andalou (1928), just as the moon gets obscured, the eye gets sliced—you’re watching a film; your vision has been damaged. In the words of the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, referring to the crayfish in the card, “instead of going forward and elevating itself towards God, it retreats into matter,” back into the profane human world, where film will always remain, never able to reach beyond the swirling cemented faculties of human intelligence and imagination that make it possible. Was all this early cinematic moon imagery, then, a thematic and visual narrative—a revealing of itself—that film is a misdirected stagnation point on a spiritual journey, only signified to us by the natural moon and its occult meaning? Like all artistic mediums, film can only point beyond itself, instead of going beyond itself, if it’s pointing anywhere at all.