Film Appreciation, by Scott Nye
Much has been made of how Hugo is “a huge love letter to cinema” or somesuch, chiefly because of the third act celebration of the work of Georges Méliès (and certainly the last third is the kind of explosion of cinema that could happen by few other means than his films). Incidentally, the narrative shift has also caused some unfortunate backlash from those who felt that the latter end of the film has so little to do with the first two-thirds, but that apparently comes from people who are unable to read or comprehend the images that are being projected right in front of them. From the opening, mesmerizing shot, Scorsese’s latest film is all about the pleasure of cinema, camera movement, depth of field, color (oh my, what color), faces, buildings, and landscapes. His vision of Paris in the early 1930s is one that could have never existed, but thanks to the magic of cinema, now does. It’s by far the most fully the master has yet embraced CGI, but the impact of its use is almost unparalleled, recalling indeed to the filmmaker on whom the film will increasingly focus – Georges Méliès. That, coupled with his emphasis on silent (that is, dialogue-free) storytelling, makes this a love letter to cinema in its very essence, and one need only look at the great swath of modern cinema, so uninterested in its own medium, to feel the truth of that statement.
But it’s also a great deal more than that. The titular character is one of those great children’s-lit constructs who is all the more compelling for it. An orphan who runs the clocks at the Paris train station, which also doubles as his home, Hugo has long been on a quest to finish a small automaton (one could also say “robot”) that is the last link he has to his deceased father. He’s worked out a system to survive in the train station by blending in with the crowd and grabbing a stray croissant when possible. In a larger sense, he’s really searching for companionship, which he will naturally find, though not in the places he might expect. It’s not a terribly complex nor dynamic narrative, but it’s a nonetheless charming one, aided greatly by a longing, woeful lead performance by Asa Butterfield (who’s emotional journey is arrested when he’s unable to create, and unleashed with the slightest chance to do so) and his very game companion, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). In him you see Scorsese’s own childhood, shut up in his New York apartment, watching the world through his first frame, and finding a lifelong companion at the cinema. As for Isabelle, she’s another literary construct – the over-eager, well-read, impossibly adventurous girl who will draw our protagonist (almost literally) out of his shell – but Moretz is the kind of ever-winning performer who isn’t terribly concerned with realism.
Better, too, as Scorsese’s film is defiantly theatrical. Directing his entire cast towards a more classical form of performance, they are all – to the one – more than willing to go big or go home. Sacha Baron Cohen has often seemed like a man out of time, too expressive and caricatured for a modern film scene in which even comedies must give us characters who feel like they live next door (resulting in a cinema that is at once “relatable” and stiflingly familiar), and here, as the station inspector, he is given the kind of free reign in which he thrives. He’s a bit of comic relief (and he and Scorsese craft one gag in particular that’s so good, so unexpected, you’ll die of laughter and joy) that can also be unbearably imposing one minute, and incredibly sweet the next. Emily Mortimer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, and Jude Law all follow suit.
But it is Ben Kingsley’s performance that steals the show. As Méliès near the end of his life (he died in 1938), Kingsley brings all the sorrow befitting the great director’s tragic end, after all his films were stolen and his studio ran to ruin. Yet his redemption is never out of reach, and although he is hesitant in trusting Hugo in their initial bond, you can also see a small bit of hope he takes that, finally, he has found a kindred spirit. When we finally see a flashback to his heyday, we get a glimpse of the pure joy of creation (and by what better avenue to explore that than Méliès? Seriously, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, it is among the most adventurous and daring cinema you’ll ever see; Scorsese is good enough to give us a glimpse at but a few of the magic tricks he invented for the cinema, but they are just the tip of the iceberg), and Kingsley’s spirit is infectious. And how could it not be? Méliès’ studio was the true dream machine, and just the vision of this space brought to life in 3D is enough to inspire legions.
This is Scorsese’s first 3D film, and it’d be tempting to say it revitalized him if he hadn’t only last year made one of the most vital works of modern cinema with Shutter Island, though that hardly takes away from the mastery of his work here. One must attribute his monumental success equally to Robert Richardson, his occasional cinematographer (they’ve worked together on Shutter Island, The Aviator, and Bringing Out the Dead, though Richardson’s work is frequently worth seeking out on its own, regardless of the director with whom he’s collaborating), also working for the first time in 3D. What will undoubtedly arrest your eyes immediately is the tremendous depth of field and complete lack of artifacts that, up until now, were assumed to be an inherited side effect of the new technology. What will next hit you is the way Scorsese and Richardson don’t shy away from it, as so many 3D films do (if I have to hear another critic go on and on about how 3D’s only good when it’s not being shoved in your face and should just represent depth, I’m going to strap them down and make them watch, on an endless loop, that part in Beowulf where Zemeckis shoves a spear in your eye), but instead found its storytelling and aesthetic capabilities should extend well past the first few rows of the theater. In one particularly tense moment, in which we’re worried the station inspector has found Hugo out, Sacha Baron Cohen’s face gradually moves closer and closer and closer to you until you can barely breathe. It’s not a wholly convincing effect as “realism” goes, but it’s so disorienting and claustrophobic that it’s effective nonetheless. 3D has yet to become particularly “realistic;” its strength is in representing a new vision of cinema (and thus of the world) that creates a new and different, and yes-I’ll-say-it magical cinema. And Hugo is nothing if not a bit of magic.
I should also note that this is the closest I’ve seen 3D cinema come to feeling like film. Most live-action 3D films are restricted to a totally dry, lifeless digital color palette, but you could put this alongside any of Richardson’s other recent work (which also includes Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, and The Good Shepherd; seriously, the man’s amazing) and it would fit nicely. He and Scorsese especially have been striving towards a sort of “new Technicolor” that is as arresting as the golden age of color cinema, and this is every bit as good as those pieces. I don’t know what Richardson figured out that has eluded so many other cinematographers, but he deserves twelve Oscars for his work here.
See Hugo this weekend. See it on the biggest, most enveloping screen you can find. I know I’ll be returning for a second trip. How could you not? Hugo is the kind of film you dream of seeing, so wrapped up in the joy of cinema (and not just because it’s part of the plot, dummies) that every second feels of prime import. I’ve heard some doubters and naysayers and rather close-minded individuals insist that only cinephiles could love this film, and I say thee nay. I’m not particularly well-versed in classical music, but I love the celebration of it in Amadeus and The Soloist (yeah, everyone who’s too cool for good movies, The Soloist is awesome). I know even less about dance, but Pina and The Red Shoes impart the enormous value of it without fail. Anyone who loves art (which should be everyone) could love Hugo. And, hey, if it gets them to see some Georges Méliès, then all the better.