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Non-Review Review: Hugo

I’m of two minds about Hugo. My inner cinephile loves it, soaking in Scorsese’s pure and unadulterated enthusiasm for cinema, finding a way to engage his audience with an adventure that literally branches through the history of cinema. On the other hand, it seems more than a bit disjointed, as if Scorsese knew the start point and the end point, but had a bit of difficulty synching it all up and getting it flowing organically. While I think Scorsese’s unbridled enthusiasm and passion edge out any concerns about the rather uneven feel of the finished project, I do wonder how the movie will play to younger audiences, or families who don’t have a long love affair with cinema.

Like clockwork...

I have to admit, I admire Scorsese’s sheer unadulterated enthusiasm. Ignoring the fact that a movie so thoroughly steeped in the history of cinema must have been a tough sell as a big-budget Christmas family treat, I think that the director strikes a delicate balance in recognising and indulging cinematic nostalgia, without wallowing in it. All too often, films exploring the history of cinema tend to look back somewhat mournfully, as if staring at a Hollywood that had great integrity or intelligence, implying that somehow those earlier revolutionary films were “art” in a way that modern films can’t even aspire to. Tackling a subject like that, it’s hard not to direct something that sounds like  eulogy for a film, a celebration of an early life with the implication that times were better then and are worse now.

Scorsese is having none of that, and I admire his outlook. He seems to realise that you can acknowledge and venerate the past without writing off the future. Though there’s a sense of loss and regret as Scorsese documents the death of imagination in the wake of the harsh realism of the First World War, there’s also a sense that he is as excited and as enthusiastic about what lies ahead. I’m a pretty positive guy when it comes to cinema, but Scorsese has even me beaten when it comes to optimism and energy – he seems far more secure about the future of cinema than I am, and that’s saying something.

Scor(ses)ing himself a nice cameo...

Hell, Hugo sees the director mount an enthusiastic argument in favour of 3D. While I’m still not convinced that the technique is or should be the wave of the future, there’s no denying that Scorsese is one of the few directors to approach the technology as an artistic tool rather than a cheap gimmick. Hell, when most movies can’t even use 3D successfully as gimmick (I think Fright Night was the last movie to even get “throw things at the audience” right), it’s reassuring to see that a classic and established director like Scorsese can make it work in broader sense.

It’s not just the fact that Scorsese seems to constantly justify the use of the third dimension – with snow flakes falling, gas seemingly exploding from everywhere, and Sacha Baron Cohen slowly leaning out of the screen. It’s the director’s wonderful choice of camera angles that exploit the depth. We stare down from the top of the train station clock tower. We stare up from the ground as Hugo works the levers and cogs. It’s easy to imagine such scenes being handled in a conventional manner, but Scorsese seems aware that he’s actually working with a different type of movie now, and a different experience. He’s not making a standard film with a layer on top, he’s building a movie that seems to have been designed for the format in the way no film since Avatarhas. He doesn’t win me over entirely, but I think that 3D would seem a lot more viable if every director attacked it with the same passion Scorsese displays here.

Investigating the history of cinema...

More than that, though, the film allows Scorsese to mount his own internal defense of this particular advancement – a bold attempt by the director to actually legitimise 3D as an artistic tool, rather than an excuse to hike up the ticket prices. Scorsese very shrewdly points out how immersive regular cinema must have seemed when patrons first watched a train pulling into the station. Hell, L’Arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat was itself an attempt to capture that third dimension on film, over a century ago.So Scorsese contextualises that within the history of cinema.

Perhaps modern audiences have somehow become numbed and jaded to cinema – something that, to quote the film, should be like “dreaming in the middle of the day” – and Scorsese seems keen to embrace anything that might add to the engagement and immersion. From that point of view, objects literally reaching beyond the screen at the audienceseems like a legitimate attempt to reach the audience and to show them something wonderufl again. Even if you are a bit cynical about the technology, as I freely concede I am, it’s hard not to get a little bit excited by the director’s sheer warmth and passion.

It's blooming fascinating...

Indeed, Scorsese recreates several iconic silent-movie-era set pieces over the course of the film, as if to connect modern cinema to its ancestors. In case we’re not all students of cinematic history, Scorsese is even kind enough to include those scenes in the film itself to make his connection obvious. It’s not an attempt to comment on one or the other, or to suggest either is better or worse, but an eager embrace of that magical sense of wonder that somehow links the past to the present and the future. It’s proof that the old movies still have relevance, and a demonstration of how newer movies have expanded from and grown from those early features.

At this point, it sounds like Scorsese has written a treatise on the history of cinema. To be honest, he has. And, to be equally honest, I love it. Scorsese seems like a guy who could just go on and on about the passion he has for film, and never once repeat himself. This is Professor Scorsese teaching Cinema 1o1, and I am very much in the front row. Hell, Michael Stuhlbarg pops up as a bearded cinematic historian, and apparently grew out his eyebrows as an affectionate little reference to Scorsese – a tacit acknowledgment that he’s standing in for the director in the midst of all these flashbacks to turn-of-the-century cinema with its marvellous special effects and seemingly limitless imagination. All of this is great. I loved this, as a movie fan, and as somebody who adores any sort of affection for cinema.

A bit of difficulty putting it all together...

However, there’s a weird bit of disconnect with the rest of the film. It feels almost as if Scorsese shoehorned a whole different movie into this one – treating his history of cinema as the second act to a film that starts out and ends as an endearingly quirky coming-of-age tale. It’s hard to think that Scorsese branches from his set up into a sixty-minute lecture on film and back out again. It’s not that the other section of the film is bad, either.

The story about the orphan living in the walls of a Paris station is interesting. As Scorsese handles it, it’s fun and it’s magical and it’s clever. It’s sort-of (yet not-quite) steam punk, with beautiful cinematography and a charming central metaphor about how we’re all “parts”in a bigger machine – that we’re all essential and somehow with purpose. Scorsese handles that metaphor with such deft skill that it fits naturally in, even with everything else going on. There’s a story about a young boy, the eponymous Hugo, coping with the loss of his father by concocting a fantasy involving a robotic automaton – itself a potent metaphor for the escapism of film. It’s touching, and clever, and affectionate.

Just hanging out...

Scorsese brings Hugo and his world to vivid life with a wonderful cast. There’s a grumpy old shopkeeper played by Ben Kingsley, a wounded war veteran who polices the station played by Sacha Baron Cohen, a bookseller played by Christopher Lee, a flower girul played by Emily Mortimer, and more. They all do good work, and they are all interesting characters – even if we seem sure of how they might ultimately fit together. Hell, even the dogs pair off. But that’s part of the magic, I suppose.

Cohen is the real revelation here, even if it’s great to see Kingsley given a chance to show his prowess. Between this and his role in Sweeney Todd, I could see Cohen earning a place as a quirky bit player, and I suspect that he will earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination in a few years for a similar role. I have no problem with his own projects, but he’s doing a wonderful job carefully and skilfully expanding his range. However, the problem isn’t in this aspect of the story, just as it isn’t in the exploration of cinematic history.

Hugo needs to copy himself on...

Scorsese shows wonderful sense of place and does some impressive work here. There’s an opening shot taking us through the train station that is just incredible and any number of sequences that would easily veer into cheap sentimentality from another, weaker director. I think that Scorsese is brilliantly and beautifully expanding his own horizons. He was never a director afraid to operate outside what might have been expected of him, but the past few years have seen Scorsese demonstrate that there are very places where he isn’t comfortable. I never really imagined I’d see a Martin Scorsese family film, but he proves perfectly adept at the genre. The problem lies with how Scorsese attempts to tie it all together.

The two elements don’t flow naturally into one another. The movie starts out with Hugo attempting to recover his father’s notebook from the grumpy old shopkeeper, but it soon forgets about the notebook completely. The movie then focuses on Hugo rebuilding the automaton, as if the notebook were only a plot token required to complete the robot and Hugo had suddenly found the answer within himself, rather than an item of significant emotional value of itself. It feels like the movie loses itself in the wonderful exploration of the history of classical cinema, before suddenly realising it needs to tie up all the loose ends in time for the finale.

More than just mechanical...

Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint. Scorsese has constructed a beautiful looking film is a superb ensemble cast and a catchy enthusiasm and energy that carries it across some of the weird tonal hurdles that lie head of it. I really enjoyed Hugo, even if I couldn’t bring myself to love it unequivocably.

8 Responses

  1. I think the real trick to Hugo lies in how Scorsese stitches the two halves of his film together, and I think the difference between falling in love with it and liking but not loving it lies in whether he’s able to put you under his spell in the first half. You can file me under the former distinction, but that’s not to say I don’t see issues with the narrative in that first hour or so. In fact I agree with your notions of the film’s disjointedness. But if the script has its issues, then Scorsese certainly makes up for them with his meticulous storytelling sensibilities and his filmmaking prowess, which I think is only appropriate for a movie about why we love the movies in the first place. Where Logan’s script is weak, Scorsese’s direction is uniformly strong. He knows how to overcome shortcomings in someone else’s writing.

    It’s an interesting experience, being totally in love with a film during a viewing and recognizing its “flaws” outside of the theater. None of those aforementioned shortcomings really matter (for me) because of how effectively it functions as a film despite its script-level warts. For my part, this is easy top ten material and one of the best “movies about movies” to come out in the last decade or so, if not the very best; Scorsese is reminding us of the reasons we love watching movies and why they captivate us, move us, delight us, and inspire us. It’s not so much about a filmmaker telling people why we should like the same things as he (though there’s certainly a touch of that), it’s about him making an exultation of cinema for everyone who’s ever been awestruck by moving pictures before. Sure, he’s also educating us about Méliès specifically, but I think he’s speaking about cinema as a whole through his examination of Méliès’ life and work and contributions to the medium.

    • Yep, I agree with a lot of that. I adore the passion Scorsese has for his medium. I’d be entirely honest and confess that he has made a misstep or two, but damn if he doesn’t always seem to care passionately about what he’s doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Age of Innocence or the pilot of Boardwalk Empire or this or Casino, you get a sense that Scorsese has a sort of unrefined joy in crafting these fantastical journeys.

      You are right, in that I think most of the blame lies with Logan for his script. I’ve always found Logan a strange beast. He tends to work better in an ensemble of writers, I think, and his solo work tends to be a bit all over the place. After all, he did give us Star Trek: Insurrection, which was mangeled in the editting room, but a lot of the problems stemmed from a script that seemed like extended fan fiction.

      However, I also think that Scorsese rises above a lot of the problems in the script, and I wonder if it might have been possible for him to cover for that disjointedness. I certainly don’t mean to detract from his work, but there’s probably a larger discussion to be had at where you can acredit blame and credit on a film – is it Logan’s fault for turning in what must have been an all-over-the-place script, or Scorsese’s for not managing to tidy up the lose edges.

      As I remarked, it’s a minor quibble, but it just feels like the movie takes two sharp turns that kinda jolted me out of the action a bit, shifting gears between two plot lines in a rather clunky fashion. I strongly suspect that I will see it again, knowing these flaws, and fall in love with the film (already harbouring sincere affection for it). If there’s one movie I regret leaving off my end of year countdown, hoping for a rewatch, it’s Hugo.

  2. What I found about this film is that it’s really an adult movie disguised as a “kids” film. The only reason that it’s considered a family movie is because it’s protagonist is a child and there’s no bad language, sex, or violence (just a few intense moments). It’s clean, but the subject is mature. We see cinema history through the eyes of a young person; however, I also wondered if kids truly would enjoy this movie. That said, I’m glad Scorsese never dumbed down the story to pander to kids.

    Regarding the story, the script is actually very close to the source novel. In fact, many lines of dialogue were taken directly from the book. Any weaknesses in the plot can be traced directly to the book, which is broken into two distinct parts. John Logan only embellished the character of the Station Inspector and the romance between the two people in the train station (there was also an unnecessary minor character deleted). This is probably one of the most faithful adaptations in movie history, and yet that’s where the biggest criticism comes from.

    I am glad that Scorsese made this film. It’s great seeing directors of his status stretching his creative wings and trying something outside of his comfort zone instead of being satisfied with resting on his laurels. I feel similarly with Spielberg making “The Adventures of Tintin.”

    • I have the same sort of joy in seeing film makers “outside their comfort zone”, to borrow a cliché. I’ll always admire ambitious failure more than modest success – it seems infinitely more fascinating. Not that Hugo or Tintin represent failure in any way shape or form. As I noted, I really liked it.

      I did not know about the faithfulness, but then I’ve never gauged a work’s success or failure of its faithfulness. I think the greatest weakness of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was its faithfulness, while Jaws and The Godfather were the stronger for their willingness to diverge from the source material.

      • I agree with that. As a screenwriter adapting a book, you need to be able to realize what is the story that needs to be told, and how to tell it cinematically. A novelist has the luxury of elaborating on details and subplots that aren’t germane to the basic plot, where in a movie, efficiency is the key. Steve Kloves recognized this with the Harry Potter films, and after the first couple were criticized for being too worshipful of the source material, he streamlined the other screenplays he wrote to where the only things he left in from the books were what was directly important to Harry’s plight. Of course, fans were upset that certain scenes or characters were missing, but movies are different than books and should be treated as such. What works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen. The best screenwriters understand that and know how to take the source material and re-work it so that their script captures the heart and soul of the book, but makes it come alive for film.

      • Funny you should mention the Harry Potter, I thought the last few films felt a lot looser, while the first two were almost suffocated by a need to include all these irrelevent bits and pieces.

  3. I loved it and loved all that you said along with the comments. I also read it differently, and wrote about it differently. Slantly.

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