' ' Cinema Romantico: Hugo

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


At the conclusion of grandmaster Martin Scorsese's enchanting little (but extremely big) 3D tale of a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives with the clocks in a 1930's Paris train station I stayed to watch the credits. The screenplay was by John Logan, and that made sense because Our Man Marty has never written his own stuff, but then the following credit says the movie is based on a book called "The Invention Of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick. This floored me. It shouldn't have, of course, since I knew going into the film that it was based on this book but as the movie unfolded before me I got so lost in it I became convinced that it would have a "Story By Martin Scorsese" credit. No wonder he was drawn to making this book into a film. I just called it the "tale of a boy named Hugo" but that's actually wrong. "Hugo" is the tale of Martin Scorsese.

The Hugo of the title is essentially an orphan, having lost his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, in a fire and then taken in - as into the actual walls of the train station to tend to the clocks - by his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) who eventually wanders off and disappears. Hugo remains alone, making the clocks run, stealing food, evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), comic relief, and repairing a mechanical automation, which is essentially all that remains of his father.

Hugo earns the wrath of the station's toymaker (Ben Kingsley) which leads to Hugo forging a friendship with the toymaker's goddaughter Isabella (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is desperate for an adventure and gets one when she and Hugo unwittingly unlock the mystery of the automation and, in turn, unlock the mystery of her godfather. He is none other than Georges Méliès, a real life cinematic pioneer who, tragically, in the early cutthroat supply & demand days of the medium was tossed aside when people no longer went to see his films. And it is here that "Hugo" takes an unusual detour.

It sort of shifts the story from its title character to Méliès, taking an extended portion of time to literally sit the characters down and explain to them (and us) who he was, what he accomplished, what happened to him, etc. It's a history lesson in the midst of a rolling, rollicking 3D adventure and while this little boy in whom we have invested our collective emotion gets sent to the sideline, well, does he really?

The Scorsese story is a long and detailed one and if you're searching for all of it, all of the gritty details, I would direct you here. But if you're looking for a condensed and romantic version I would direct you to "Hugo." Its auteur, as is well known, was crippled by asthma from an early age which prevented him from partaking in many activities and turned him into a watcher of the movies. How does "Hugo" open? With Hugo himself watching over the expansive train station from varying vantage points, the trademark Scorsese moving camera moving like kids at a college campus after spring finals. And in the film's second half, upon the introduction of Méliès, he sits back and watches some more. I wouldn't necessarily say the film chooses to switch protagonists midstream and/or momentarily move its current protagonist for the sideline for a flight of fancy. I would say the film specifically chooses to turn its current protagonist into, shall we say, a member of a movie audience. It's kinda bold and it admittedly kinda blunts the narrative impact which, up until then, had been steady like a train. But that leads directly to the ultimate auteur question - as in, if that hadn't happened, would Scorsese have made the movie he wanted to make?

In a sense, the automation is what saves Hugo once his dad dies and the automation is what leads him to Méliès and Méliès and his movies. Hugo and The Automation. Scorsese and Raging Bull. Same diff.


Andrew K. said...

This is such a difficult film to write on, or even evaluate in your head. Probably more difficult for me because of overzealous appreciation for Scorsese. I like that you touched on the way the film of switches protagonist, and the importance of Georges relative to Hugo was something which I found rather interesting about the film. Perhaps reading one or two disparaging reviews after seeing it jaded me, so I sort of like it in parts more than as a whole but then I do like it as a whole a whole lot. So...*shrugs*.

Nick Prigge said...

It really is an interesting film to think about in retrospect, isn't it? Scorsese's got so much on his mind and he tries to pack it all in and I actually think he does a commendable job of doing so and yet.....by doing so much I think he misses the euphoric feeling that you can get from cinema, which, oddly enough, is one of the points he's trying to make.

It's all so confusing.

Anonymous said...

I kind of think Scorsese wants to have the cake and eat it too... he wanted a story about this poor kid, but he also wants a movie about film-making. Fortunately in the end the two collided nicely but the beginning part felt rather tedious for me. The visuals looks spectacular though, great use of 3D!

Castor said...

I, for one, didn't think this movie worked all that well. The odd tonal and character shifts keep you at a distance and it felt a bit emotionally cold to me. Plus, you have to wonder whether this really hits the mark for younger audiences, since it is marketed as a family film.

Nick Prigge said...

Ruth: You're totally right about the visuals. It is a beautiful looking film, but you're also right about how Scorsese just tries to get too much in there.

Castor: It's interesting that you say it was emotionally cold. Scorsese's films have always, I think, had that kind of emotional coldness about them, partially because he often makes films about "bad people" but also because - and I fear possible reprisals for saying this - he's always been a much more skilled at the technical aspects of filmmaking than the narrative aspects.