Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) -- B

Any viewer that has an invested interest in the future of cinema, as it becomes obfuscated with television, digital media, and assorted forms of technological emergence, must view Martin Scorsese's Hugo with equal parts enthusiasm, apprehension, and castigation. Let's parse through the film's outwardly jejune interests (Dickinsian abbreviation, wonderment, isolation) to Scorsese's core interests, as artist and filmmaker: the emergence of technology, a nostalgic view of the past, and, ultimately, synthesizing the two using altered apparatical forms (3D) with classical cinematic mise-en-scene (deep focus, tracking shots), to explicitly reconcile the early days of sound (the contemporary parallel obvious) as progenitor of progression and inhibitor of expression - in other words, a reductive, derivative view of history and technology that filmmakers have been grappling with for the better part of the last half century. Moreover, in Scorsese's first attempt to confront these apparently engrained emotions, he does precisely what a thoroughly modernist filmmaker would: instead of anything slightly askew or avant-garde, he makes an accessible film, a potentially simplistic one, though beautifully rendered and played, in the traditional sense.

Here's how we know Scorsese has devolved into a filmmaker that's merely a level or two ahead of someone like Tarantino (a back-handed compliment) in terms of text: he likens his use of 3D in Hugo to the emergence of technicolor in the 1940's, an aesthetic tool that has no explicit ties to theme or form (color does not alone comprise form), much like 3D simply tightens the frame, but provides very little by way of altered affect, at least in how contemporary Hollywood is using it. Meaning, Scorsese's awe at the new technology (he has since claimed he wants to do every subsequent film in 3D) reflects his artistic regression, wishing to engage an inherently consumerist cinema that offers little by way of depth, personality, or subversion. Sure, there's potential subversion in the way Scorsese reintroduces silent cinema, in 3D, full clips from A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery, but only in the sense that it reinvigorates the potential for interest in repertory cinema. Hugo is not a political, personal act. It may reveal Scorsese's unfortunately nascent state of filmic adoration (much like Shutter Island merely afforded Scorsese the chance to make a film noir, devoid of conviction), where the enchantment, the awe, supersede the desire to engage pure expression without didacticism, which Hugo nearly packs to the brim in its lecture-heavy second half.

Furthermore, there's something purely middlebrow about screenwriter John Logan's situation of personal failure, particularly in Papa George (Ben Kingsley), whose ultimate dissatisfaction lies in self-pity, that his illusions and predilection for performance are no longer valued by a rapidly evolving society. Logan purposefully seeks to induce empathy via isolation and Scorsese misinterprets Jacques Tati by turning rigid artistry/satire into sentimentality and lament, stuck in a psychological stasis, unable to move past his debilitating focus on the past, in both form and content. Critics and others can claim Scorsese has done that by embracing 3D, but that's little more than wishful thinking; those who view cinema-love through a Spielbergian lens are very likely to hail Hugo as a masterpiece; actual cinephiles, who view the cinema as more than simply a facilitator of child-like awe, will smile sporadically throughout, but on the whole, be left with more than a slight sense of suspicion at Scorsese's aims, dubious of his CINE 101 historicism.


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  2. A fantastic film that perfectly explains what I love about the movies. Also, great use of 3-D. When used to contribute text and depth, it can go beyond mere eye-poking and theme park ride thrills.

    And maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time in projection booths, but when I heard the clacking of the movie projector, my heart swelled.

  3. When I go to the movies, I go with the adult that I am and the kid that I used to be. The two will never be separated.

    I view cinema as an artistic vehicle for attaining a better understanding of myself as well as the world I live in. But even then, I still allow myself to be manipulated, enthralled, and mesmerized just as I was when I saw E.T. at the age of three. As Hugo demonstrates, the roots of filmmaking sprang from old carnival magic shows. To vaccinate one's consciousness so that it's immune to the emotional magic of visual storytelling (i.e. actually caring, even crying for people who do not actually exist) seems debilitating.

    How do you view cinema?

    Also, when you say the film reintroduces SIlent Era Cinema in 3-D that you thought the archive footage was unconverted to 3-D?

  4. The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review.

  5. The reference to Silent Cinema in 3D had nothing to do with conversion, but a recognition that a 150 million dollar picture reintroduces George Melies and other canonical film history bits, something which could potentially lead unaware viewers to some investigation of their own.

    I would never say I have tried to become immune to visual storytelling. You have misinterpreted my point; take a film like The Tree of Life, which is purely visual, montage like. It communicates with sparse dialogue, prizing editing over explanation. Yet, there's a textual depth always present - I'm not sure Malick would ever make a film explicitly about the cinema, because he isn't so obvious. Hugo and The Artist (which I'm seeing tonight) claim cinephilia by virtue of their content, but I would argue they are fairly literal in their inherent conceptions, explicitly dealing with cinema to address technology, at least in the case of Hugo. I think with most great cinema, there isn't such a purported grandiosity in the scale - incredible moments are found in humor, irony, human relation - but also a sharper sense of the micro. E.T. is a fine example, still likely Spielberg's best film, but my central argument is that in becoming a big budget filmmaker, Scorsese has forsaken much of his earlier roots for an imitation of Spielberg and a type of cinema that loses much sense of the personal, the small. His current explanation of cinematic love is ultimately pretty literal and simplistic (sitting wide-eyed in a theater), much like I often find Spielberg's to be.

  6. Eh. Give the man credit where it's due (He made the film because his child asked him "why don't you make things people like?") Also, you're pinning the Melies angle on Logan solely ignores the facts that Hugo is based on a literary work, which took its basis from the very real events of the the discovery of Melies working as a neglected toy-maker in the Montparnesse train station. Sure, you can psuedo-intellectualize interpretations onto it, but the matter that it is based on real events negates the need to do so. That part of the story is true, making the need to analyze the "meaning of it all" a pointless exercise.

  7. You are right in pointing out the film is an adaptation, which I neglected to mention. I also am not familiar with the literary material, so I cannot speak to it in that regard.

    However, as with any adaptation, what appears on-screen is ultimately the decision of screenwriter/director, who are under no obligation to adhere to any particular story elements (as far as I know). I'm more talking about the way in which Melies' loneliness is played than the facts, as it were.

  8. I saw Hugo for what it was, a family film, and a great one at that. And yes, it's an adaptation of a very good book told primarily through visuals, much like a picture book, albeit with the length of an epic novel.

    You have to review films for what they are, not for what they aren't. Saying a film isn't great because it isn't like "Tree of Life" (a movie I love as much as you do) misses the point. If "Hugo" was just like "Tree of Life," it would not only make the film unwatchable for the many children who are falling in love with this movie and thus being primed for a love of cinema and maybe even Scorsese in their later years, but you also lessen the impact and importance of "Tree of Life."

    Also, I disagree that the script makes George empathetic via isolation. We see him as a curmudgeon. A hateful, bitter old man. It's not until we know the story behind this man that we understand his meanness and begin to empathize with him for losing the version of himself that he used to be.