HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2011, 5)
If the credits were removed from this movie, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Un Film de Steven Spielberg, what with the state-of-the-art special effects, the daddy abandonment issues and the combination of Jude Law and robots. (Spielberg IS releasing a 3-D movie based on a beloved piece of kid-lit set in a retro French environment this Christmas, isn’t he?) Jokes aside, what makes the first half of HUGO so dire is that feels like a mere entry point, Scorsese going through the motions to get to what he really cares about (and if you know what the second half of the film is about, the wheel spinning becomes actively painful). Scorsese is too much of a sheer cinematic virtuoso to produce something literally without merit, but the first hour of HUGO comes pretty doggone close. Practically the first thing written in my notes is “trying so hard to be ‘magical,’ just coming across as bossy.” The next thing is “oh no … grumpy adult meets cute moppet, why O Lord.” And finally “a key hole (on a broken robot, vjm now) in the shape of a heart, WHY O LORD!!!” And there were plenty more examples of plot points and (especially) dialog that was so on-the-nose, underlined, highlighted and with arrows-pointing that all I could do was snort in disgust. In the worst bit, two kids, the titular Hugo and his adventure-seeking Girl Friday discuss his obsession with clocks and robots: “I’m sad looking at machines that don’t work … it’s like they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” (by this point, the conversation subtext is perfectly clear) / “maybe people are like that” (vjm starts to groan) / “like Papa Georges” (vjm tosses head against back of his seat in disgust). At the very end of the film, for the really really REALLY dumb, Papa Georges credits the boy “who saw a broken machine and fixed it” (vjm throws popcorn at the screen; or would have if he’d gotten any).
There are other problems with what we might call the “human” stories surrounding Hugo, apart from minor annoyances like French signs while everyone speaks British English, even when reading aloud from a book whose French words we can see on the page. More importantly, there are just too many cinematic allusions here, so that you feel exhausted even before you actually get to the Georges Melies Film History Lecture. The magpie-written script steals from everything from THE 400 BLOWS and UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS to GRAND ILLUSION and THE RULES OF THE GAME; and those are just the French talkies. And it’s all in service of a “human” story that is hackneyed and uninteresting … just warmed over tropes from hundreds of better kids films, such as the Spielbergian Absent Daddy.
Sasha Baron Cohen’s bumbling French railroad inspector is potentially a fun character. But the leg calipers and war wounds wear too heavily on a role that’s basically a John Cleese imitation of Inspector Clouseau (at one of Cohen’s metronomic interrogations of Hugo, I wanted to interject “this parrot has ceased to BEEE”). And his comic broadness also works against his scenes courting a flower girl, which I think are meant to be poignant on account of being a homage to Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS or something.
So Scorsese failed to create characters and situations that matter, but what he HAS done that merits the mixed 5 grade, beyond the Melies homage, is make the first film to give me a half-second’s pause about my ideological opposition to 3D (even Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS used 3D to take full advantage of a pre-existing world, not to create a fictional one from scratch). Partly, it’s that Scorsese uses the process not for loud action but for some lovely and magical effects — the ashes from the burnt notebook, the floating of Melies’ sketches throughout his bedroom. But it’s also that he integrates it with conventional cinematic grammar and directorial stratagems, making 3D seem more like a tool than a mere gimmick. A simple focus pull within a shot acquires 10 times the force when the newly-in-focus object pops out the screen at you as well. Scorsese also uses every angle in the book, especially overheads and low-angle shots. The multiple planes and internal spaces that 3D accentuates acquire a prominence beyond “look what I can do,” becoming instead a bid to create the comprehensive space of an entire world. And while Cohen’s leering face was an obvious effect, his Doberman pinscher’s much less comic snout and teeth were thereby not.
Scorsese also picked — segue alert — a subject more ideal than you might have thought for a 3D homage. It’s not just that Melies was an inventor and a mechanical tinkerer, but also that his films, with their tableaux stagings, artificial sets and fantastical storylines profit handsomely from Scorsese’s 3D re-creations of the films and the Melies studio near the end (aquarium lobsters FTW!!). He also uses the most-iconic, if possibly apocryphal, story of early audiences’ reactions to movies and re-creates it for us, translated into 3D that even in 2011 we’re also still only semi-used-to. Though I think it was a little much to use the SAFETY LAST shot in the same movie in which the character in question had watched the Lloyd film, Scorsese does get away with a separate cheat (and then a double cheat) thanks to a line about the nature of the movies from earlier in the film.
I also noticed (and noticed nobody else noticing) how Scorsese got right something about Melies films that must have been a bear to reproduce — their color schemes. Melies hand-tinted many of his films but the resulting look was nothing like hard-edged, realistic color photography, but had the texture of castor sugar. The films thus more resembled chalk drawings in various pastels, as though objects or clothes or backgrounds were bonbons or various flavors of ice cream.
I do think, though, that Scorsese way overreached in one respect of his cinema history segment. I am a huge fan of silent films and Lord knows I’d love to see 1/10 of HUGO’s audience be sufficiently intrigued to check out Melies, some of the other silent films Scorsese referenced, and then branch out into others. So this error does not detract from God’s work. But Scorsese is simply not correct that World War I gave people so much reality that they weren’t interested in Melies’s magic any more. First of all, his studio went bankrupt in 1913, before the war, squeezed out by bigger more factory-like studios in France and abroad. Second of all, it was the war mobilization and the post-war depression that REALLY damaged European film industries (not a shifting audience). And even those non-film damaging factors merely created a vacuum that, because they left the US relatively unscathed, Hollywood was able to fill and become dominant by decade’s end and ever since. Third, the early-1910s were also a time of great strides in the cinematic art — films began telling sophisticated stories, directors like Griffith and Sjostrom began to use editing and closeups to create great performances, Italians like Pastrone began to make lengthy super-spectacles. Melies’ short magic-stage acts simply got left in the dust. And lastly, it is simply inaccurate (and hard to see how soneone familiar with 20s movies could think it IS accurate) to suggest post-WW1 audiences had no taste left for fantasy. To see this claim in a movie that also name-checks, among others, Douglas Fairbanks, is embarrassing special pleading. Don’t misunderstand me … Melies was a pioneer and his films really do stand up today as entertainments without historical affirmative action beyond the unavoidable. But he was a pioneer who got left behind by the state of the art and his poor business skills. It’s happened many times since.