Review: ‘To The Moon’ (2020), dir. Tadhg O’Sullivan

by Ruairí McCann

One of the most iconic images of early cinema, from Georges Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), depicts a cylindrical rocket ship lodged in the eye of a personified moon. From this cast-iron splinter flows a gaggle of scientists with wizard-like abilities and appearances. Once they have bored their way through the great stony grimace, they find not a dead rock but another world, teeming with phantasmagoria. 

This strange alchemy: earth matter perforating the aether, rationality rushing headlong to meet fantasy and an object of scientific inquiry engulfed in myth, is a profound concision of the vast number of characterizations that have been imposed on Earth’s familiar. Humanity has made it into an almighty sponge, dripping with societal, spiritual and cultural notions, and Tadhg O’Sullivan’s new feature, To The Moon (2020) sets out to unfurl and eulogise this dense layering of associations. A poetic accounting of the many lenses through which humanity has perceived the moon, as depicted through cinema. 

Drawing from archives across the globe, O’Sullivan edits together a wide range of film scenes and shots, across a hefty span of time—though favouring the medium’s first seventy years—and from American, French, Japanese, Russian, German, Iranian, Indian, and Latvian cinemas, to name a few. The scenes are arranged in chapters, constructed according to a set of detectable but loose themes: romance, madness, sexuality, death, ritual, sleep, and astronomy. The resultant collage constitutes not only the spoils of numerous deep dives into a vast cultural memory but is interspersed with new footage as well. 16mm shots of the moon, up close, or hanging from its invisible perch over an array of striking vistas: plains, mountains, and cityscapes. These sequences not only serve as convenient stitching but are placed in reaction to the archival footage, creating timbres of cross-cultural connection and a film that moves at a narcotized pace and effect, though with intention, under a tightly and smartly constructed framework. 

True to the moon as a looming constant: a fixture in every country’s sky and cultural and spiritual consciousness, this is a truly internationalist and collaborative work. Not only in the archival aspect, but the aforementioned 16mm footage is the composite of a multinational team too. The credits list 14 cinematographers including O’Sullivan himself, Scott Barley (a suitably cosmological and elemental filmmaker), Margaret Salmon and Fearghal Ward, one of O’Sullivan’s frequent collaborators in his other line as a sound recordist. 

Other mediums are sluiced into the spell. The soundtrack is a melange of ambient, electronic, classical, folk and rock tunage and each section is preceded by a line of prose or poetry. Other literary quotes are heard, voiced by a range of performers, along with dialogue excerpts in a soundtrack that is just as kaleidoscopic and evocative as the images at play. It’s in the realm of song and song where the film is at its most Irish: with vocal contributions from stage veterans Olwen Fouéré and Raymond Keane, reading from the work of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. 

The unification of sound and vision, pointedly and not just on separate planes rolling back and forth over each other, comes at some very revealing, even didactic, moments. An excerpt from a Swedish film includes a potent bit of speculation on the fear the church authorities who condemned Galileo must have felt, on the prospect of actually looking through the telescope and being proved wrong. An outcome of worldview shattering proportions, not unlike if another person, as bound by secularism and rationality as they were by Christian cosmology, were to be confronted by a ghost. One of the interstitials is driven by the cracked voice of Brazilian actor and playwright Grace Passô, who delivers a direct to camera monologue taken from the Clarice Lispector short story ‘Another Couple of Drunks’. An elucidation of the awe and anxiety she feels when gazing at the moon, for it makes her think of deep time. The eons before and after the expiration of our miniscule allotment of consciousness. 

This pushing and breaking of the limits of perception is at the heart of O’Sullivan’s investigation of the moon and its relationship with cinema. Centuries of being the harbinger of scientific investigation and myth and metaphor has made the moon both a tangible and a supernatural object. Cinema also has footing in two worlds. It’s a product of a century marked by mechanization and a longer period where humankind, armed with modern science, had become the great dissembler, yanking down the veil held up by holy writ and superstition. And yet moving images often function closer to ancient icons than mathematical equations, imbued with and inciting magical thinking. 

With this in mind, the moon on-screen and the rough, little illustrations that front each section of the film start to resemble those ‘lunar maps’ discovered near the town of Knowth, Ireland. Carved five thousand years ago, they had been placed in passage tombs at the boundary between this world and the next. It’s on a similar dividing line where O’Sullivan finds his moon, glowing between the photographic image as tied to the real and as the stuff of dreams and fantasies.

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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