Films about Filmmaking, Part I: Hugo (2011)

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Over the next week (or so), I’ll look at three films that explore the magic of filmmaking, with old-looking cameras and projectors in the spotlight, so to speak: (1963), Cinema Paradiso (1988), and Hugo (2011). Unlike previous features, I’ll break this one up into three parts, starting in reverse order.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is set in 1930s Paris and explores the later years of film artist and technical innovator Georges Méliès. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), Scorsese’s adaptation focuses on the relationship between an orphaned boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who winds all the clocks in Montparnasse train station, and Méliès himself (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toyshop in the same station and has become embittered by the modern world’s neglect of his artistry.

Hugo had the aim of celebrating movie “magic,” of seeing movies from a child’s perspective. And I commend the intention, though not all of the results. In particular, the dialogue gives the impression that the audience cannot be trusted to work out the movie’s central themes. For example, the recurring images in the movie are broken toys or unused parts and the people who fix them or put them together; the machines, such as Méliès’s automaton, turn out to be metaphors for the toughest puzzles of all: humans. Despite all the hints, we have this bit of dialogue from Hugo (which is delivered in Butterfield’s characteristic wooden tone): “It’s like with people: if you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.” Perhaps Scorsese wanted to play it safe, talking down to children to avoid speaking over the heads of those not bookish or bright enough (like Isabelle, played effectively by Chloe Grace Moretz)?

The movie’s tendency towards the mawkish is most obvious in the character of Hugo, who is a destitute orphan given to long, articulate speeches that add to the film’s didactic tone. (As Jason Anderson notes, in his Cinemascope review, “Kids reared on the Potter movies may be bewildered by Hugo’s sudden transformation into a film studies lecture.”) Of course, Butterfield’s performance, melodramatic though it may be at times, frequently lacks drama or emotion; we see the tears, we watch the lamentations, but we might not believe they are genuine. Is it appropriate that Butterfield’s acting is so mechanical? Maybe. The tension in the movie between the mechanical and the human might offer one explanation for the sometimes stiff and deliberate delivery of lines: Hugo has a nightmare about being an automaton, and yet, in his waking life, clearly celebrates the notion of automation, and of everyone having a “purpose” in this post-WWI industrialized Parisian society. Is it that he wants to be useful to machines, but does not want to become one himself?

Peter Bradshaw offers a convincing analysis about this tension in his Guardian review. He argues that the many Fritz Lang allusions in the movie suggest that Hugo celebrates the humanity in cinema—the heart, or the kind and charitable component within humans that is the “mediator” between the head that thought up the machine and the hand that operates it. According to Bradshaw, Hugo embraces this utopian belief, celebrated in Lang’s Metropolis (1927), that “the technology, mass-production and grinding commerce which exploded in the 20th century would also facilitate the growth and vitality of the cinema itself.” This growth has certainly occurred (though we can acknowledge the detrimental effects of technology run amok —and that’s a topic for another feature, probably on science fiction).

The focus on that magic of novelty and invention creates a sort of Disney-esque world we’ve come to expect of Spielberg, not Scorsese. (See Bradshaw’s piece, which mentions the Spielbergian elements.) But, for all that, I’ll give the man his due: he makes a staggeringly gorgeous picture, and that’s what Hugo is all about. (And I’m not forgetting that Spielberg has done things like Schindler’s List and A.I., where the potentially mawkish moments—the girl in the red jacket, the “Blue Fairy”—allow the director to reinforce the bitter-sweet process of coming to knowledge, of growing up, of learning about human frailty and the nature of evil. Very mature, excellent films, for which I’ll always be grateful. Clearly, Scorsese, for a variety of reasons, did not want to go down that route in Hugo.)

There’s many a breathtaking scene in Hugo, as when we’re ushered in, at breakneck speed (like a train), right through the middle of the train station: we have Scorsese’s DP Bob Richardson and VFX man Rob Legato to thank for this (and Legato actually took home the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 2012). But the picturesque pageantry of the old style filmmaking is something to behold: the painstakingly painted sets, the intricately tinted frames (when no “colorization” was available), and the hand-cranked projectors (which required some torque in the forearms, and not just a good eye). Méliès was the genius behind it all. (Please check out what CreativeCow.com has to say about Melies’s artistry and Scorsese’s impressive homage to it.) Indeed, though we might expect a little more emotional response from Hugo, his frequently bedazzled expression is the appropriate reaction to awe-inspiring technical wizardry.

And this is what makes Hugo a gem, if a slightly tarnished one: Scorsese uses digital to get nostalgic about film. We’re reminded of the genius of filmmakers like the Lumiere brothers (Louis and Auguste), as well as Georges Méliès himself; but we’re also made to realize the ways in which digital has helped to restore film. Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) is, in a certain sense, “restored” by film critic and Méliès fanatic Rene Tabard when it’s shown to the captive audience at the movie’s conclusion; but the film was actually digitally restored in its entirety—that is, all of its 13,375 frames—between 1999 and 2011. So, I suppose I can forgive Asa Butterfield for looking so star-struck throughout the movie (something he does well): I get it, and I got it watching Hugo.

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