|Frank Beaver||February 13th 2012|
The recent holiday season offered three highly touted movies about boys caught up in exciting adventures: "Hugo," "War Horse" and "The Adventures of Tintin." Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" was also one of several "reflexive" films—movies about the movies. Other reflexive films included "The Artist" (about a silent screen actor at the onset of "talkies") and "My Week with Marilyn" (about Marilyn Monroe during the 1956 filming in England of "The Prince and the Showgirl").
Each of these films is built from an excellent script, and each has a strong, distinct style. Of them, only "My Week with Marilyn" could be regarded as rather traditional, unembellished film-making. "The Artist" returns to the glittering black-and-white palette of the silver screen era and unfolds almost entirely without spoken dialogue. "War Horse" and "Hugo" are gloriously colorful period films. Impressive digital technology and motion-capture techniques (a la "Avatar," 2009) were the basis of Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin"—shot in 3-D, as was "Hugo."
In 'Hugo', Martin Scorsese's camera pays loving attention to machinery, gadgets and clockworks, which become the embodiment of human ingenuity and creativity.
Of these six films, "Hugo" was the most compelling, even ingenious, in its creativity and emotional effect. With the skillful and restrained use of 3-D imagery, Scorsese draws us into the poignant 1930s world of 12-year old Hugo Cabret. After the death of his clockmaker father, Hugo must live with his alcoholic uncle, who tends the clocks in a grand Paris train station. When the uncle goes missing, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), fends for himself in a Dickensian existence, snitching food and milk from station vendors, and constantly on guard against the station gendarme Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), who is out to capture him and ship him off to an orphanage. "Hugo" is a wonderful tale of youthful need and unfailing resolve. It's also film fare for the entire family.
The major plotting device of the film involves a defunct automaton, left to Hugo by his deceased father (Jude Law) along with an incomplete book of instructions on how to make the thing work again. Hugo's determination to fix it leads him to a station toy booth where he steals toys for their mechanical parts and uses them to tinker with the innards of the automaton. Part of Scorsese's cinematic genius comes through the way he uses 3-D to explore Hugo's relationship with the objects in his life. The clichéd 3-D shot is of some pointy object jutting into the viewer's space.
But Scorsese more often uses 3-D to create depth, to take the viewer into the complex machines that Hugo and his father so love: the gigantic gear-wheels that turn the station clocks—their movements silent, balletic as Hugo dutifully oils, winds and adjusts their timing; the tools and mechanical parts that the boy employs in an effort to bring the automaton to life; and the automaton itself, with a heart built of springs and plates and cogs—an ever-present, mute figure that even in its inertia seems to possess the aura of a sacred diety.
The iconic image from Georges Melies 'A Trip to the Moon' becomes a crucial piece of 'Hugo''s puzzle. Some critics thought Scorsese's careful perusal of the material world in which the young Hugo functions was overdone and slow-moving, but I found it one of the most engaging aspects of "Hugo"'s altogether mesmerizing mise-en-scene.
Scorsese has spoken in interviews about the important role of objects in "Hugo," a reminder of the tremendous possibilities of inanimate objects in cinema expression. Siegfried Kracauer, a greatly admired film theorist, wrote in 1960 in "Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality":
Since the inanimate is featured in many paintings, one might question the legitimacy of characterizing it as a cinematic subject. Yet it is a painter—Fernand Leger—who judiciously insists that only film is equipped to sensitize us… to the possibilities that lie dormant in a hat, a chair, a foot.
Scorsese's "sensitizing" us to the inanimate in "Hugo" was a huge part of the joy and magic one feels in watching this boy's unusual environment come to life. The camera loves these mechanical objects just as Hugo does, and this admiration for gadgets and tinkering will prove crucial in the latter half of the film.
Ben Kingsley plays Georges Melies as a man whose lost dreams are restored by Hugo's persistence and imagination.It's during that second half that Scorsese turns on the "reflexive cinema" magic. Hugo's thefts at the toy shop culminate in his being caught red-handed by the gruff proprietor Georges (Ben Kingsley). The encounter leads to a friendship with Georges' goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Monetz). The two embark on an adventure which eventually takes them to the film section of a Paris library. There they are introduced to the turn-of-the-century film work of Georges Méliès. Méliès was a Paris stage magician who turned to filmmaking when he saw opportunities for fantasy in motion pictures. His contemporaries, the Lumiere brothers, made "actuality" films of everyday life (a train arriving at a station, workers leaving a factory, both shown in "Hugo"). Méliès by contrast aimed for "other world" screen experiences that were born of the imagination.
His most famous early fantasy was "A Trip to the Moon" (1902)—a sci-fi tale in which scientists are at work to put a man on the moon. Delightfully, the space capsule (launched by chorus girls) smashes into the wincing face of the man in the moon (enacted by Méliès himself). The face of the moon becomes a key element in "Hugo" and allows Scorsese to resurrect and extol the importance of Méliès' genius. "A Trip to the Moon" is shown along with other of Méliès' optical trick fantasies, many of which were thought lost forever. (Here "Hugo" seems to be making a case for film preservation, a particular personal concern of Scorsese's).
In flashbacks the film returns to Méliès' glass studio, meticulously recreated by Scorsese in order to display Méliès' creative methods as the medium's first cinemagician. Scorsese lingers on the special effects techniques, the mechanics of old cameras, and the scenes of Méliès' productions become paeans to tinkering, resourcefulness and creativity.
Reflexive cinema, done well, offers any number of narrative and thematic possibilities, including commentary on the art and history of movies themselves. The Hollywood-in-transition classic "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) displayed a deluded silent film actress as a metaphor for the demise of film's "golden age" and its faded star system. "Hugo"'s celebration of the innovative work of Méliès honors the magical power of movies and the joy they have brought to audiences. As the film puts it, "movies are like dreams in the middle of the day."
Who but Georges Méliès and Martin Scorsese to better corroborate that notion. What a sharp and surprising artistic turn from the director of such dark urban dramas as "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas," and "Gangs of New York"!
Frank Beaver is a film historian and critic, and professor emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.