Hey everyone, welcome to what is going to serve as a supplement to a prior Directed Viewing. Early last year, I wrote a long, multi-part series of articles on Martin Scorsese (parts one two three four and five) that served as the first attempt at what is now my ongoing series of movie-specific director projects. Looking back, it was probably my first really serious attempt to get complicated with this movie-writing thing, and it remains one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on.
Fortunately, Scorsese is still making movies and I’m still seeing them, so this is the kind of project that continues on. It is the best part of catching up on working directors, going into their new projects with a firm sense of what they’re about and where they’re headed. It also means that if I’m going to keep my writing about a director comprehensive, I’m going to have to crack back open the tome written about them and add films as their released. Hence, Directed Viewing Redux, meant as a sort of ongoing coda, both about new films as they come out and how they reflect on the director’s filmography at large.
And in this instance, a bit of a justification of why one of my favorite movies of 2011 didn’t make it on my favorite movies of 2011 list. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get to it.
The problem, from the beginning, has to do with vision. No, I’m not referring to the 3D, which is by and large eye-opening to the possibilities of a format everyone had already written off and which feels like a small miracle. I’m talking instead about the story itself, sold on the idea that it’s about a boy in a train station and a mystery of a dead father’s last secret to his son. I’m talking about a movie that is actually about something else entirely, only tangentially related through plot convenience with said boy. I’m talking about the fundamental problem of Hugo: it’s wildly mis-sold from the trailers to the movie itself, that simply isn’t sure what it wants to be.
Hugo is two movies. One of them is about the boy Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a magical unreality where he has hidden away as the clock-keeper of the Montparnasse station in Paris in the early 1930s. He resolutely avoids an evil stationmaster (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and steals mechanical pieces when he can from around the station to finish an automaton in the shape of a boy his father left him before he died. In the course of doing this, he meets a young girl (Chloe Moretz) who has a key that unlocks a secret stored in the mechanical workings of the metal boy.
The other movie, the one this message kicks off, is the story of a man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an old man who works a run down toy shop in the station and who harbors a hidden past as one of the forefathers of cinema, a man who directed hundreds of some of the first, most important in the world before the first World War bankrupted him and exiled him into obscurity. This story is one of rediscovery, of redemption, and of the enduring legacy of cinema as expressed from its early, silent, black and white origins to the newest technology in modern film making, both CG and 3D being brought to bear on the work of a century earlier.
The problem is that only one of these movies is truly great; I’m pretty sure you can guess which one. The story of Hugo Cabret is charming and interesting enough, with some solid comedic beats and an eye for the wonder of childhood. But it’s not that inherently different than a dozen films about orphan children and their private, magical worlds, from The Secret Garden to The Fall to Indian in the Cupboard. It’s well-trod cinematic ground, certainly smarter than most kids movies but hardly earth-shattering even when Scorsese brings his considerable talents to bear. He makes it look fantastic, but there’s a sense he doesn’t particularly offer any nuance to the story.
On the other hand, Méliès’ story is so obviously Scorseseian it hurts. A man driven to achieve at any cost, a man more of dreams and ideals, driven to ruin by the limitations of his own ambition in the face of an uncaring world. It’s a story of redemption, as all Scorsese’s pictures are, and not only does he make it the heart of the second half of the film but he also uses it as the vehicle to indulge in what is essentially both a love letter and crash course in early silent cinema to an audience that I can only imagine is mostly ignorant of it.
Of all the things Scorsese is and does, the one that probably gets the least attention is his vast knowledge and appreciation for film history. He’s made several documentaries on the history of film, and works extensively with film preservation and advocacy. You get the sense from the man, outside of his movie making, that he’s seen nearly everything and loves the medium more than anything else on Earth. So turning him loose on the fertile ground of Méliès’ extravagant and amazing filmography is like watching magic happen in front of your eyes.
Méliès made fantastical films, the most famous of which is undoubtedly La Voyage dans la lune. There are countless others, of course, many of them referenced explicitly in the movie (and some of them only slyly referenced by Scorsese. A list of many of them that you can watch free, including La Voyage dans la lune, can be found here). But Scorsese gives them a new life, presenting them as audiences in 1930 must have seen them, not as dusty and damaged throwbacks, preserved only through great effort and seemingly inaccessible to most audiences, but as the poetry put on screen that they were. They were wonders the likes of which nobody had ever seen and which film making didn’t get back to portraying for decades. Yet here they’re vibrant and immediate, dreams made reality, brought to life through the original films and Scorsese’s smart use of 3D and CG to merge what one sees on the screen and what one sees in the story into one unified, perfect reality.
And that really becomes the final message of Hugo–films bring us our dreams, and in them we find all the magic of art and humanity. It’s an amazing message, one that moved me to tears in the theater and one which I continue to think is amazing. The final 10 minutes of Hugo are undoubtedly some of the best film Scorsese has ever made.
Which is why it’s heartbreaking that looking back on it the film seems so split, so driven by dual purposes, and so burdened with the unremarkable plot that got us to these moments of cinematic catharsis. I don’t know how much of it to lay at the feet of Scorsese and how much to lay at the feet of the author of the novel the movie is based on. Both, probably. The dual-narrative would certainly work better in a book, but it struggles to translate well and ends up damaging both stories. And Scorsese, if he wanted to make a story about the power of cinema, should have just told that story without the burden of the other tale that he seems only marginally interested in telling.
Maybe I’m wrong. I’ll admit to being far more interested in Méliès and his films than I am Hugo Cabret and his adventures. I had even seen a few Méliès films on the big screen a few months ago when I went to see a silent film exhibition at my local art theater. For me silent films, and film history, are the story. It’s what I cared about the entire time I watched the film, and what left the most enduring impression. For someone without my background, coming in to this story and relating to this world with the wonder and newness that Hugo does, perhaps his story of mystery, discovery, and learning plays better. But when I consider Hugo, I see a film that is at odds with itself, greatness and ‘good enough’-ness battling it out. The highs are amazing, don’t get me wrong, and I walked out of the theater buzzing with excitement. But the lasting impression is one of overambition and fleeting genius, not of a masterpiece.
Which is why I love Hugo, but it didn’t make my list for 2011. I still consider Scorsese the greatest working American filmmaker, and I cannot wait to see whatever he makes next. Personal misstep or not, the man simply does cinema better than anyone else.