As a TV ad or sneak preview, Martin Scorsese's Hugo comes off as more forced family fun; holiday razzle dazzle designed to fill the time between opening presents and returning them. If you watch the trailer for Hugo it will give you no sense that the film is anything other than Home Alone in a train station, featuring the occasional mermaid or fire-breathing dragon. And, oh yeah, a train crashes through a station, big time.
For those familiar with Martin Scorsese and his passion for the history of cinema, you might have glimpsed the small flashes of what really drives him to make a film like Hugo, adapted from the novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick. Of course, we expect Scorsese to veer from the mean streets every once in a while, venturing into musical territory (New York, New York, 1977), period piece adaptations (The Age of Innocence, 1993), or even a biographical history of the Dalai Lama (Kundun, 1997). Looking back from the vantage point of Hugo, as well as his underrated psychological thriller from last year, Shutter Island, it is perhaps unfair to keep associating Scorsese's "core" aesthetic with his gritty New York-based films. A quick peak at the Scorsese filmography will reveal that Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas, although among his finest work, are perhaps outnumbered by his rather disparate genre explorations and documentary preoccupations, from his early experimental shock piece The Big Shave (1967) to his varied work with musical icons, including The Band, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and The Rolling Stones. In this light, it makes perfect sense that Scorsese would make a film like Hugo, which only seems like a departure for Scorsese by nature of it having to be translated into a mass marketing campaign, which unfortunately reduces the appearance of it to harmless, indistinct product. In reality, Hugo is consciously working with some of those "family film" tropes, succeeding with some better than others, but ultimately couches those tropes in a film that is essentially an education in and celebration of a significant chapter of film history, and a rather emotional gift for the cinephiles.
I am continually flabbergasted by how uniform cinema offerings have become in the multiplex world. Theater to theater, town to town, one finds nearly the exact same films, as if the public were incapable of experiencing anything in the cinema that had not already been relentlessly marketed to them for, at least, two months (not to mention the precedent setting, super-arc campaigns of Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Harry Potter franchise). What Hugo so playfully reminds us of is precisely what we have lost in the cinema. It has been happening for a long time, since after the first major period in cinema history that Scorsese is paying homage to in Hugo, but in our particular age of capitalism gone awry we have lost the very thing that made cinema exciting in the first place: an appreciation for the moving image itself, and a sense of the "new." As I have tried to explain to a number of Cinema 101 students over the years, the modern movie business is least interested in the "new." The more difficult point to get across, and perhaps the greatest triumph of the industry financially, is that we as a movie going public are no longer interested in the "new" either. Frequently, my students would reply to this idea, sometimes defensively, by asserting that they were always going to "new" movies, and always with the dire stakes of having the film be "spoiled" looming over the experience. Of course, if there were something more at stake in the majority of movies than a narrative element so contaminated with frailty that it's reveal would spoil an entire film, then we would not only have more films actually worth paying for, but we could potentially replace value for using the cinema as escapism to using it as a place where culture is enriched and ideas are thoughtfully exchanged and challenged.
|Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in Hugo|
How we get to a place like this can be narrated through the periods of transition in movie history. In The Aviator, Scorsese dealt with the transitional period from silent to sound pictures, as well as the onset of the production code and the Hays Office. In Hugo, Scorsese deals with that transitional period between the first major period of cinema that straddled the turn of the century, dominated by Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, and Georges Melies, and the period within which the film is set, the 1920's of narrative cinema, defined no longer by the magic tricks of Melies, but the invention of Fritz Lang. But we may need to look at another transition in cinema history to understand where we are with movies and marketing now, which coincides with a film that is now a landmark in advertising film on TV, Jaws (1975). The lessons that were learned in the long arc of movie marketing that began with the invention of the "blockbuster" at Jaws and continued through Saturday Night Fever and the Star Wars franchise were followed to an absurd and damaging degree. The mid 1970's, a time just following an era of cinema that would allow a hands-off production like Mean Streets to be made, began the long arc of displacing the value of actually experiencing a film to the purchase of products/music/wind-up toys surrounding a film, some of which were beginning to yield more money than the films themselves. One way in which this marketing displacement has manifested itself today is the phenomenon of selling overpriced DVD's with the promise of "Extras," which will often serve the opposite of their intended purpose, accenting the ineptitude of many involved (the Onion AV Club has a whole segment dedicated to this called "Commentary Tracks of the Damned"). The state of the movie preview itself seems to be one that sells an experience that collects on its investment regardless of the quality of the actual product; the preview becomes the product itself. How many times after a preview have you thought to yourself (or said out loud to the person next to you) "it feels like I've seen the whole movie"? The playwright Edward Albee once said, "If a play can be summed up in one sentence, that should be it's length." In this case, the movie preview can be substituted for the sentence, and the same can be said. In actuality, the people who sell movies want to make sure that you undoubtedly know you are getting nothing new. The new is too hard to sell. The work of the movie marketing industry in America over the last 35 years has been honing the ability to minimize risk by repackaging anything that works once, and optioning anything that has mass nostalgic appeal (hence, Rubik's Cube: The Movie). A movie preview is not doing it's job unless you know exactly what you are getting into, beginning to end. In some extreme cases, if a movie doesn't fit any marketable category, studios will pull off daring feats of re-authoring, my favorite example being Columbia Tri-Star's attempt to market Todd Hayne's rather important film Safe into a horror/thriller, and doing a pretty good job of it given what they had to work with.
Hugo comes to us not only as a product re-authored for marketing purposes, but in a format that has been a recurring marketing tool since the 1950's, 3D. Hugo is one of the few recently emerging examples of 3D being used to a pretty effective end, along with Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders' Pina. Unfortunately, Hugo is not as successful as those films in it's use of 3D, as it occasionally employs rather gimmicky uses of sparkly, float-y things as a way to keep the spectacle level high, but the 3D feels entirely germane to the themes and design of the film, as well as a commentary on where we are historically with cinema technology and marketing. Hugo's release coincides with what seems to be a significant push by studios to re-release films that have been reformatted for "Real D" 3D viewing, like The Lion King and Titanic. Once again, the rampant unoriginality of Hollywood rears it's ugly head, using a truly unique literary adaptation like Hugo to market lesser films they have only to spend the re-processing fees on, and which will ultimately benefit from the 3D process in ways that will wear thin by the end of the first reel. Meanwhile, where are the multiplexes that are reviving Raging Bull or The King of Comedy? Couldn't great films such as these be at least a small part of what the multiplex world has to offer? Couldn't the industry at least pretend that it gave a shit about the quality and history of movies, in hopes that it might spark deeper insight and interest in some portion of the movie going public, particularly the younger generation who have little big screen access to films of the past?
Kingsley's performance alone is a great reason to see Hugo. Even though we have come to expect that Kingsley's performance skills are at the level of elevating material that is beneath him to a watchable level, Hugo reminds us of his ability to amplify his craft within films finely crafted. In fact, Kingsley's character is the heart of the film, and the most interesting part of the narrative. Asa Butterfield as the titular character is quite good, but has to do a lot of heavy lifting. Hugo puts a lot of demands on such a young actor, and I think that Scorsese's risk in doing that paid off, although maybe not as successfully with Chloe Grace Moretz, a young actress that I have been unwittingly following through her last few films. An unfortunate case for Moretz, she garnered attention with her performance in Kick-Ass (a film that might fulfill it's own aspirations of being offensive if it weren't such a tired and misguided piece of detritus) and then moved into the dark casting shadow of the actress Lena Leandersson, having to reprise an already perfectly cast and played role in one of the most unnecessary remakes in recent memory, 2010's Let Me In (preceded by an adaptation of the same novel, the Swedish Let the Right One In, 2008).
In Hugo, Moretz doesn't seem to quite match the naturalistic acting abilities of Butterfield, although the questions of how to play some of this material must have been puzzling, as the film attempts to create some genuinely emotional results from inside a fairy tale world. On that note, and to Butterfield and Moretz's credit as actors, I loved the subtly played moments of their burgeoning romance, which Scorsese seemed to link up so delicately with their discovery of the cinema, suggesting an emergent sexuality that is so entwined with all of our cinema-saturated origins of desire.
With his latest film, Scorsese has opened up the idea of how closely the experience of cinema becomes linked with our actual lives, in the same way that we carry the delight or horror of a dream with us through a day, a year, or a lifetime. In the world of Hugo, the idea of cinema is tied closely to the phenomenon of movement, and all of the primary characters in Hugo are affected in some way by movement; either fascinated by it, in search of it, or slave to it, all of them living under the ominous movement of time. In a time when the marketing machine has whittled it's audience down to throngs of bored teens, out of touch with the "new," but financially dedicated to whatever's next, it's no wonder that the majority of movie goers have become similarly bored with the magic of motion. In Hugo, Melies is haunted by his denial of the magic of cinema by the constant click of shoe heels made from the melted down remnants of his life's work. For us now, the consequences are not those of disappearance, but rather, that all we create is going to stay with us.
|Todd Haynes' Safe|
I am increasingly impressed by the technology at commercial cinemas, but it needs to be said that it is an insult to dedicate so much of it to movies that in no way need to be seen on a big screen in the first place (as I look at the local listings, the current offenders at the time of this writing are Adam Sandler and Gary Marshall), while works that were intended to never be shown otherwise languish in the digital fuzz of You Tube. In Hugo, Scorsese depicts one of my favorite tales of cinema history, as he shows us Melies being drawn by the sound of a Lumiere projector into a tent where the Lumiere film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) is being screened to an audience of unsuspecting customers. As the train hurdles toward the audience over the course of the film's 54 second running time, the audience ducks wildly out of the path of the oncoming train. But Melies, having entered just behind the projection, has a much less severe reaction than the rest of the audience, instead mesmerized by the curious clicking mechanism being hand cranked at the back of the tent. Setting aside that this famous story of the Lumiere screening is most likely an invention itself, Scorsese embraces the beauty of this oft-told tale, crafting a scene where we see the birth of one of the greatest dichotomies in movie history, between the ability of cinema to show life as it is (the Lumiere Borthers), and it's potential to show life as it is not (Georges Melies). Or, as Godard restated it at a Cinematheque Francaise Lumiere retrospective in 1966: "...what interested Melies was the ordinary in the extraordinary, and Lumiere, the extraordinary in the ordinary." Hugo is a film where these two opposing artistic worldviews collide fantastically, reminding us that there is a reason we gather together under the wide screens and flickering lights of the cinema, and that it is perhaps a sacred place that has recently left the lovers of magic, like Melies in the film, embittered.
|Ben Kingsley in Hugo|
|Chloe Grace Moretz in Let Me In|
|Lena Leandersson in Let the Right One In|