This Saturday night Vivian and I had dinner with Adam, Spencer, and Sarah at Spencer and Sarah’s place. Dinner was delicious grillins: salmon, portobello mushrooms, prawns, and asparagus, with chocolate dipped strawberries, pears and cheese, and a lovely salad.

Spence then treated us to three super-eight silent films: Charlie Chaplin’s early “Easy Street“, in what I believe to have been an untrimmed Blackhawk release of the film; the late George Méliès feature “Conquest of the North Pole“, which felt a bit choppy and I suspect was missing scenes by the time Blackhawk struck the print of it that Spencer has (real media clips: one, two); and what appeared to be an early seventies print of a film likely intended for educational distribution, “Apollo 11 Man on Moon”, which was as tersely subtitled as it is titled.

While I was unable to find a specific reference to this super 8 film on the web, I did find this interesting page on the Apollo era.

Spencer accompanied each film with an appropriate soundtrack; in the case of the Apollo film, he chose the complete “Lux Aeterna”, which was also employed by Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the scene in which the lunar monolith emits a loud radio signal in the presence of an investigative team of spacesuited Americans.

The film print was very faded, gone to oranges and reds, as color stock from hat period is wont to do, and additionally had the wear of many years on it. The footage shot on the surface of the moon itself is already of a grainy texture (the cameras and gear employed were primitive solid-state video gear, and the visual quality is rough, very primitive in appearance). Employing “Lux Aeterna” as the soundtrack of the film enhanced the odd, alien quality of the film: it was like observing a transmission from a culture of the distant past, lost down the ages.

Watching, it seemed truly impossible that less than forty years had passed since that day in July of 1969. For many years I had identified my memory of watching the moon landing on our 12-inch back and white television in Valaparaiso, Chilé as my first memory. Of course, the events we were watching occurred well within living memory. Yet, it seems as unlikely today as it did in 1947 that we will ever again see humans setting foot on the soil of other worlds. That is simply a shame, and a failure of the mechanics by which we maintain culture and commerce.

2 thoughts on “Dinner, space, and the past

  1. Actually, I’m fairly certain the print of “Conquest of the North Pole” is complete. Most of Melies’ films have fairly choppy narratives. When he got started at the turn of the (last) century, this wasn’t a big deal — in fact, in many ways he was ahead of the game. For example, contrast his 1902 magnum opus “A Trip to the Moon” (“La Voyage dans La Lune”) with other films of the same period — on the whole, cinema of the period was only just moving beyond the “actualities” (static shots without edits of street scenes and other real-life views, typically lasting perhaps a minute or two). Not only was La Lune practically an epic at some 20 min., it had an actual narrative and editing — the much-ballyhooed narrative breakthrough film, “The Great Train Robbery,” would not be made for another 2 years. (Indeed, Melies was making narrative films — albeit phantastical ones — two to four years prior, earlier than almost any other filmmaker that I’m aware of.) And not to mention, of course, the special effects that remained cutting edge for at least another 10-20 years.

    Alas, Melies the auteur did not evolve much beyond the simple trick film. “Conquest of the North Pole” (1916) is really not very dissimilar from his works of 15 years prior. By this time, of course, cinema had evolved considerably in terms of editing, storytelling, and camera placement. After all, the year prior had scene the release of D.W. Griffith’s monumental (albeit racist) “Birth of a Nation”; even his fantasy film cache was slipping as early versions of “Der Golem” and other phatasticals were being produced by numerous others. Meanwhile, Melies was still relying on his stagey, proscenium-style staging and eschewing cross-cutting.

    The result? Melies became increasingly passé, fewer tickets sold, and fewer distributers could give a damn. In 1915, Melies had to sell his own theater. By 1917 or so, he was completely out of the game and effectively vanished like one of his own fantasy creatures. Legend has it that he resurfaced ca. 1938 when someone spotted him selling toys in a Paris market. The story goes that he had no idea that he was remembered at all, and was unaware of the crucial impact he’d had on cinema. Like so many important geniuses, he died penniless.

  2. In my (much) earlier comment, I stated I thought the aforementioned print of Melies’ “Conquest of the Pole” was complete. I was mistaken.

    (Another correction is warranted: “Conquest of the Pole” [À la Conquête du Pôle] was actually released in 1912, one of four he produced that year (three of which survive).

    In fact, my Super 8 print is the US version which, while the most commonly seen, is indeed shorter than that originally released by Mssr. Melies.

    True Melies geeks will be interested, if not jubilantly astonished, to learn that a tinted and toned 31 minute print (!!) with German intertitles was discovered ca. 2000 at the Filmarchiv Austria. This is far and away the most lengthy and, certainly, authoritative print of “Conquest of the Pole” known to exist. Alas, the chances of seeing this print are pretty slim for us common folk. (It will also be joyous news that still more prints of films hitherto thought lost were discovered in 1999 at Moscow’s Gosfilmofond. This means that about 40 percent of Melies’ 510 films have been recovered — a true miracle given that Melies himself burned all of his negatives in a fit of depression and anger ca. 1924, not to mention that 80 percent of all silent films are believed lost. For more info, see )

    But there is a so-called “French version” that is more available that includes an additional 2-3 minutes of footage not seen in the US version. The longest sequence shows several other polar craft being wheeled out for our viewing pleasure. A few of these craft are then shown attempting to begin the voyage to the Pole, all crashing, exploding, and failing spectacularly. There are a few other additional shots scattered throughout, most notably a slightly extended treatment of the man who clings to the rope attached to an ascending balloon (from which he falls only to explode after being impaled on a church steeple — a bit that survives in the US version). A few additional shots are also included the actual journey to the Pole.

    The US and “French” versions of the entire sequence at the Pole itself does seem to be roughly the same (despite some odd jump cuts that may or may not be due to damage incurred in the decades since the film’s release). However, the French version includes a slightly longer version of the expedition’s triumphant return, very much harkening to Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” made some 10 years prior.

    For those who may wish to see the surviving “French version,” I suggest seeking out the excellent home video anthology, “Ballerinas in Hell” (Unknown Video), which also includes the only home video editions of several other landmark Melies films. It was originally released on VHS, but can be found from a few purveyors in a DVD edition — get ’em while you can!

    For those interested in renting or owning a 16mm print of the French version, visit the EmGee Film Library/Glenn Photo Supply at — but activate your pop-up blocker before you do. Carpe diem — word has it the place is going out of business sooner rather than later. A tragic thing: EmGee/Glenn has the largest and widest-ranging 16mm film rental/purchasing library on Earth. They seriously rock.

    (And no, I get no kickbacks on any of that — I’m just a film geek like you.)

    If anyone cares to read about Georges Melies, I recommend the following books:

    “Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Melies” by John Frazier (G.K. Hall & Co., 1979). The grail. Hopelessly rare, but absolutely superlative. It never even shows up at (which is saying something), and I only found a copy thanks to the Univ. of Washington graduate library. The first half or so is finely written bio-history. But the real treasure is the last half-plus, which consists of a film-by-film chronology of dang near every film he made, providing detailed scenarios, production details, and even info about which film archives have the surviving prints. Amply illustrated throughout. +/- 240 pp.

    “A Trip to the Movies. Georges Melies, Filmmaker and Magician (1861 – 1938)” by Paolo Cherchi Usai (International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1991). Hideously expensive if you can find it (especially since it’s only 185pp.). But Signore Usai is one of the foremost silent film scholars in the world. As in Senior Curator of the Motion Picture Dept. at the George Eastman House. That said: I’ve never actually held one of these in my hands. So okay, caveat emptor.

    “Marvellous Melies” by Paul Hammond (St. Martin’s Press, 1975). Despite some weaknesses, probably the best of the more-available (and affordable) Melies books, it is a somewhat rambling bio/history of Melies and his works. Includes a selected (though extensive) filmography (albeit with titles and years only). Does include some misconceptions resolved by later scholarship, though that’s not really the author’s fault. Extensively illustrated throughout.

    “‘Georges Melies, Mage’ et ‘Mes Memoires par Melies'” by Maurice Bessy and Lo Duca (Prisma Editions, 1945). Another expensive one, alas, but the other grail for Melies freaks. Published only en Francais, it consists of writings by the aforementioned authors, as well as lengthy excerpts from Melies’ own memoir. Fortunately fer us dum Inglish talkerz, it is profusely illustrated throughout with stills, very rare original sketches by Melies, and other fine treasures — which is what makes it worth the steep price you’re likely to find. The editions I see around online are all very expensive (tho lovely) hardbounds, but I know a softcover was published (because I’ve seen in the Univ. of Washington library).

    Fwiw, I do not recommend the recent Elizabeth Ezra book, “Georges Melies: Birth of the Auteur” — unless you really like ponderous, Masters-thesis-type film crit yammer.

    Okay. Enough. Go outside and play.

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