What is Phoebe doing on the moon?
I know the association is obvious. It makes sense for the goddess of the moon, the grandmother of Artemis, to be here. Try to move past associational thinking for a second, though: the first people to worship her thought that she was the moon. She floated through the sky on a slowly changing course every month, shedding silvery light on the rabbits and werewolves. But for the movie to work, the moon needs to be a place, not a person. In only 67 years, people will go there and find desolation. What is a goddess doing there?
The astronomers are dreaming, of course, stretched out in their scratchy frock coats like country tourists after a long lunch, and dreaming means thinking by analogy. But Phoebe is not a projection of their dream. In a second she’ll create a blizzard that will drive the astronomers underground, into the grasp of the crablike Selenites. We have to assume that she really is there, along with Saturn and the mysterious nymphs the film program calls the “Twin Stars.” She has appeared, like the gods in the Iliad, to comment on the action below and nudge it towards completion.
The world was still lousy with goddesses and nymphs in 1902. They had actually proliferated since the end of the Middle Ages: the sculptors and architects of the early Florentine Renaissance valued spare geometry to an extent that was almost Islamic, but by the late nineteenth century there was divine froth all over everything. The Grand Palais, a steel-and-glass basilica on the Champs-Elysées, was completed only 2 years before Méliès made A Trip to the Moon; it hosted strenuously modern events, like airplane exhibitions, a World’s Fair, and a hospital for men wounded on the Western Front, but the north and south ends of the building are each topped by a bronze quadriga, a four-horse chariot that, according to the Bronze Age herders who first worshipped Phoebe, the sun drove across the sky each day. Picasso painted with the deified king Saint Louis rising up behind him on Sacré Coeur, and Nietzche had his famous run-in with the horse, at the south corner of Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin, in sight of the allegories of (no bullshit!) Independence and Martyrdom.
In some cases, they were there to conceal, because leaving the deities off of a piece of art would have meant exposing its flesh. The flesh of a building or a painting, like the flesh of a person, doesn’t have the articulate, sinuous beauty that the fin-de-siècle artists prized; its salient characteristic is rather its sheer uniform expanse and, depending on material, its pastiness. This terrified people, even when they insisted it did not—Swinburne, for example, was ostensibly a devotee of pagan desire, but his poetry doesn’t leave the house without a paisley shawl-lapel waistcoat. Whence a desire for goddesses, like underwear, to cloak our abjection.
Phoebe is not like that, though, not a lacy petticoat on the movie. Her inclusion might be de rigueur, but the tableau around her is very clear and very detailed. This is possibly because Méliès had neither the resources nor the technical ability for things to get out of control; if so, it’s lucky for us. The gods depicted are absolutely consistent: all are celestial deities; the two that we have names for are Titans, not Olympians. Each entity represents a celestial object the Greeks would have been familiar with: a pair of fixed stars, a wandering planet, and the inconstant moon. There’s a division of the frame between human (bottom third) and celestial (top two thirds) so clear that El Greco would admire it. And there’s the lordly sweep of Phoebe’s arm as she calls Saturn’s eyes to the men below.
Intelligent viewers in the 15th century would look at this gesture and understand it immediately: the gods, looking down on the poor humans and their dented tin rocket, remark gently on the futility of human endeavor. In the composition of the divine figures—discrete groups laid out in a line—they might also see an inversion of Botticelli’s Primavera: instead of a right-to-left movement transforming earthly into divine love, we have a left-to-right movement transforming youth (the Twin Stars) into old age (Saturn), with maturity taking a commanding central position. The Primavera announced a civilizational spring; in A Trip to the Moon Phoebe sends a blizzard. A large wheel has revolved three quarters of the way.
Who knows if Méliès intended it to be that kind of rebus; he had both the cleverness and the deep pessimism to come up with it, but if he did, nobody noticed. Whatever he wanted, he managed to create an image—the moon on the moon—that fits two worlds into one frame.