Much like the birth of Christ, film buffs just can’t agree on when it happened (the birth of cinema, that is). I’d argue that it’s more of a paternity case, anyways. And yet, no matter who’s the rightful, geographic daddy of film — Lumière, Murnau, Eisenstein…err…D.W. Griffith — one fact about its origin remains clear across the national board: it was, in fact, a silent birth. If radio had delivered the psychologically bewildering disembodied voice (cf. sound sans source), the early motion picture proffered something even more mystifying, at least physiologically — that source devoid of sound. The Actor may be “talking,” yes, but he’s still painfully inert. Mobile, yet mute nonetheless. Going to a silent movie was a decidedly phantasmagoric experience, almost comical even. Perhaps this explains why some of the medium’s first stars — the Keatons, the Lloyds…umm…Fatty Arbuckle — appeared so often as buffoons. But even here, in its fledgling state, it was decided by industry and consumer alike that image alone would not suffice. Enter down the aisle, then, these rois de Versailles with their score for Georges Méliès’ fin de siècle tour-de-force.
Sure, it’s been done before. Queen landed first in ‘95 with their “Heaven for Everyone" vid; Corgan & Co. hit it up big only a year after for “Tonight, Tonight” (though, to be fair, a decade before Hot. Chelle. Rae.). And must we even mention Scorsese’s Hugo? Air have long been surfing on a rocket, and divorced from Méliès’ digi-restoration here, their latest moon safari floats somewhere between waking and sleeping — a universal traveler, if ever J.F.K. actually put man on the moon. For references, Hawkwind-ed steampunk and the more Gallic lushness of Gainsbourg fave Jean-Claude Vannier immediately come to mind. Moreover, in some of the best mise-en-scènes, nods to Jean Michel Jarre’s oxygenated keywork succeed because their dated, playtime sound let’s us make up our own sci-fi story. True, I’ve perpetually hated on Au Revoir Simone’s plied ether, but after Erika, Annie and Heather’s cuddly coos on “Who Am I Now,” I found myself begging the same inquiry. For once, their collective song is just that strong. Alas, I cannot say the same for Victoria Legrand from Beach House and her contribution, “Seven Stars.” Michel Legrand, her fêted composer uncle, she’s still not. C’est la vie, amirite?
Listening while watching, though, really reveals how great a job Air have done with this one. Like those two Pierres before them (MM. Schaeffer and Henry), Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel deftly manipulate every bell, every whistle to truly make lead astronomer Barbenfouillis (portrayed by the magical Méliès, himself) concrete. In one of my favorite moments, Barbenfouillis’ lady servants from the Folies Bergère are seen thrusting a rather phallic WMD into, what else, a pink-hued cannon. Well, as you can tell from the cover above, the girls then drone this throbbing missile directly into the moon man’s right crater. Le ouch! How G&D score this one scene — sly, subtle humor with just a whiff of French insouciance — is how they handle the entire reel. It’s a thing of beauty, for sure.
Of course, as they tell in Tinsel Town, a good film score is one that’s never really heard. With the great ones, the audience doesn’t know it’s there at all. And in the days before the talkies, when the accompanying score was as much the theatre’s problem as it was the studio’s, effective cues from down in the pit served mostly to mirror the action on-screen. Thankfully, Air are way too smart, too unabashedly français, for mere Mickey-Mousing. Like Professor Barbenfouillis in space, we’re light years removed from how we want our music in our movies. Years from now, with any luck, Air’s music meant for the movie may soon become the music from the movie. Ultimately, what you see here is indeed what you get: amour, imagination and rêve from two men who fell to earth...from the dark side of Méliès’ moon.