Monday, February 6, 2012

Martin Scorsese | Hugo

fixing things by Douglas Messerli

John Logan (screenplay, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick), Martin Scorsese (director) Hugo / 2011

 Scorsese's 3-D Hugo begins in Paris' Gare Montparnasse with the camera, slightly above the actor's heads, speeding through the crowds. It is a slightly dizzying and cinematically impressive start that also made me fear that the movie was going to be closer to animation than human drama. But, in the end, after the very satisfying human drama that Hugo is, one realizes that that first scene was simply presented as a kind tour de force, as Scorcese's way of showing off: "Look what I can do now that I'm filming in 3-D." Indeed Avatar director James Cameron has been quoted as telling Scorcese that Hugo represented the best use of 3-D he had ever seen.

     One might argue that that first rush of filmmaking is part and parcel of what the movie celebrates. Like Michael Hazanavicius' The Artist, Hugo concerns itself with the history of silent film, but while The Artist can be said to truly celebrate the form, Hugo, even in its devotion to the films of Georges Méliès, uses that history as a celebration of cinema in general and, by extension, a hurrah for directors like Martin Scorcese. As Scorcese has admitted, the father-son relationship in Hugo reminded him of his own childhood experiences with his father sharing films.

      Well, why shouldn't Scorcese celebrate himself? Although he has never been my favorite director, for years he has produced some of the most watchable movies of male vulnerability, from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, After Hours, to Good Fellas, Cape Fear and Shutter Island. In Hugo he has marvelously worked against that type of film to produce a lovely fable that both children and adults can admire.

     Young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield)—a kind of 20th century Oliver Twist—due to the death of  his mother and beloved father (Jude Law), as well as, as we soon discover, the drowning of his constantly drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), works as an unknown employee in the train station. His father, a museum worker who died in a fire, was a tinkerer who restored toys, clocks, and other machines, and, just before his death, attempted to bring to life a marvelous metal automaton which he had rescued from the museum's vaults of unwanted art. With his father's death, Hugo is literally whisked away to the clock tower of Gare Montparnasse by his uncle, where the uncle works as the official clock setter, winding up the huge clock and others each day at certain set hours. As we enter Hugo's world, the uncle has disappeared, and the boy has secretly taken over his position, stealing pastries and milk from the shops of the station in order to survive, living in the now-forgotten rooms originally provided for station employees.

     The problem is that he has also been stealing bits and pieces, small mechanisms and springs, from a station toy shop owner in order to repair the automaton, and the shop owner (Ben Kingsely) is out to entrap him. Yet the major villain of Hugo's world is far more vengeful: the dreaded Stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) whose central activity seems to be running down homeless urchins who frequent the station, so that he can deliver them up to the orphanage, where he suffered much of his own childhood. The Stationmaster has his eye on Hugo as well, and some of the most remarkable scenes of the film are their amazing chases.

     One day, however, Hugo is caught by the toy shop owner, and made to empty his pockets, which contain not only the pieces of metal he has stolen over time, but a fascinating book, which we soon discover must have come with the automaton. Papa Georges, as the toy shop owner is known, seems more upset by the discovery of the notebook—which the child insists he return to him—than he does with the loss of metal parts. Georges announces to Hugo his intent to take the book home with him and burn it.

     Why, we can only ask, is he being so vengeful to the boy? And what possible satisfaction might he attain by the destruction of this fascinating notebook? Like a forlorn puppy Hugo follows him home, continuing to demand the book's return, Georges attempting to rid himself of the nuisance. Once inside the house, Georges discusses the young annoyance with his wife. Hugo and the audience also discover in the house, a young girl, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), whom Hugo lures outside into the cold, pleading with her to help him regain his treasure. Isabelle agrees, at least, to keep the old man from burning it.

     But the next day, the toy shop owner hands Hugo a small folded towel in which are only some ashes, evidence, presumably, of the book's obliteration. The child is in tears, and in some recompense, is offered part-time work in the shop. Georges is impressed as Hugo quickly fixes the mechanism to a small wind-up rat.

     Reencountering Isabelle, Hugo discovers that the old man has not truly burned the book, and a tenuous friendship evolves between the two children. She is the more educated and forceful of them, he remaining, out of need, more secretive and fearful; yet they both gradually share their private worlds, Isabelle taking Hugo to a bookstore, he illegally entering a movie house with her through the back door. She has never been to a movie before, refused permission to attend films by Georges and his wife, her godparents, who have taken her in after the death of her parents. It is a day of great adventure for both; as they slip inside the movie house, Isabelle whispers: "We could get into trouble." Hugo declares, "That's how you know it's an adventure."

      Yet when she demands to see where he lives, he backs away, forced to be protective of his hideaway and self-imposed job. That is, until he sees a necklace she is wearing: a piece of metal, shaped like a heart—the very "key" he has been unable to replicate in order to start up the automaton! Hugo is convinced that whatever the automaton might write will have a link to his dead father, revealing his course of life.

     The boy can no long resist in showing Isabelle his clockwork's abode, as he brings her to his small room and to the automaton, the two of them putting the key into place as the machine rattles into motion. At first the metal man writes only a few unrelated scrawls in various positions on the page, a code that is impossible to crack. The child's disappointment is palpably displayed; after all, the hope of its message has been the only link he has left to his father.

     Soon, however, the machine starts up once more, quickly composing a series of lines and images that reveal that the automaton does not write words but draws a picture: the very image which his father mentioned seeing as a child, a black and white version of the famed scene of a rocket crashing into the moon of  Georges Méliès' 1902 film, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon).

     The automaton even signs the piece with the name of the film's director, Isabelle's godfather. What, they can only wonder, is the meaning of it all? How has Hugo's automaton known anything about Isabelle and her life?*

      That first half of Scorcese's film, filled with mystery, wonderment, and adventures, is, frankly, the best part of the movie, and the heart of its charm. The second half, filled with sometimes flat-footed explanations and historical recountings is less convincing, as we gradually discover that the bitter old man in the toy store is actually the great early filmmaker, painfully hiding out from his own past life after having been rejected by the post World War I generation, his over 400 films having all been destroyed, some of them melted down for their cellulose.

     Scorcese's attempt to educate both the audience and the children about Méliès and his films is exemplary, and the images from the films themselves are, as always, a wonder to behold. But this section is overlong, with the morose tone of the disillusioned filmmaker dominating the work. Only the continued energy of its young actors and the frantic chases of the Stationmaster after Hugo keep the movie going. Having met up with a Méliès' historian, who has, perhaps, the only copy remaining of the great filmmakers' A Trip to the Moon, Hugo is determined to play the film again in Méliès' own home, hoping to reveal to Papa Georges that he is not forgotten and his work is still beloved, at least by a few. But his dreams of the night before are horrific, as he, discovering the automaton's key on the railroad tracks, jumps down to retrieve it while a locomotive comes barreling forward, and, unable to stop, plows through the station, mowing down numerous travelers, diners, and workers in its path—a reference to the horrendous Gare Montparnasse train derailment of 1895, which, in actuality, killed only one person, but injured hundreds of the train's passengers.

     At first, the intrusion into the Méliès' home is unsuccessful, as Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory) attempts to protect her husband from further piquing his long heartache and disappointment. But finally, the film historian convinces her to view, once more, the copy of the film, which so delights her (and the children who also recognize Jeanne as one of its actresses), that the room is transformed into joy, Méliès himself coming forth after having apparently having watched from the hall, to answer some of their questions. Hugo, who sees himself as a fixer, has mastered a kind of transformation, as the old man recalls his wonderful life of the past. As Jeanne summarizes it:

                   Georges, you've tried to forget the past for so long, but it has caused
                   nothing but unhappiness. Maybe it's time you tried to remember.

Kingsley himself has described that transformation as being something like a young boy dragging an old and embittered man back to life.

But Hugo has yet one more great gift to bestow upon the old director. He returns to the station to bring back the marvelous automaton. This time, however, the Stationmaster discovers Hugo before he can return to his secret rooms, following him, as the young child is forced to hide outside the window, hanging from the face of the giant clock, much as  had Harold Lloyd in the movie he and Isabelle attended. Unable to find Hugo, The Stationmaster turns back, while the boy grabs up his treasure and runs; but this time, through the Stationmaster's maneuvers, the metal man is thrown into the air, crashing down onto the tracks. Hugo's attempt to retrieve him echoes his dream, as a train bears down upon the trapped boy, pulled to safety at the last moment by the Stationmaster. He hustles the boy away, determined to finally send him off to an institution, just as the Méliès', Isabelle in tow, enter the station, claiming him as their own!

     The story's ending is truly a kind celebration of all that has come before, as Méliès is inducted into the French Film Society which, after having tracked down and reclaimed 180 of his films, presents a retrospective, the family and Hugo in attendance.

     So has the film successfully embedded a real story—almost everything about Méliès is true—within a fable. But I must admit, although I love Méliès' magical art, in this case I prefer the magic of the fable!

*Although Méliès did experiment with automata, the one used in this film, I have read, is a kind of hybrid of two famous automata by the Swiss-born clockmaker, Pierre Jacquet-Droz.

Los Angeles, December 22, 2011
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (February 2012).


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