Monday, December 05, 2011

Hugo (2011): The Late Films Blogathon

(Note: The Siren herein discusses Hugo in great detail, so if you haven't seen it yet, you are warned.)

Certain superficial elements of a film can predispose you in its favor, and so it was for the Siren and Hugo. She hasn’t read Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But Mr. Selznick is first cousin (twice removed) to the great David O. And because the Siren has an overactive fantasy life, she can daydream of playing that Selznick opposite a contract director named Martin Scorsese, or Marty as she would never have the nerve to call him: “I want two children just like my twins--a gentle, sensitive boy and a girl who’s book-addicted and loves to try out big words. I want an old-movie theme and an impassioned plea for film preservation...Got all that? Because I can send a memo...OK then. Paris, snow, trains, cafes, late 1920s fashion, croissants, a good look at Johnny Depp without any fright makeup, an old-fashioned soundtrack and a bookstore with leather-bound books and a sliding ladder...I think that’s it...No, I guess I can live without a production number or an ocean liner, thanks for asking...WAIT! Don’t go! I forgot. Dachshunds. My favorite dog breed. See what you can do.”

Given all these elements, Scorsese would have had to put conscious effort into making a film that didn’t appeal to the Siren. Thanks be to Thalia, he did no such thing. Instead, Hugo is a gorgeous example of a Late Film, which is why the Siren is writing it up for the Late Films blogathon conducted by that magnificent classic-film blogger, David Cairns of Shadowplay.

Scorsese has just turned 69 years old, which means he’s about to kiss 70 right on the mouth. Age 70 is big stuff, your Biblical allotment “all used up,” as the Gypsy Tanya would say. Though Manuel de Oliveira inspires us all, there is no kidding yourself about 70. Two years ago, when the Siren was having the conversation with David that prompted the Late Films blogathon, one question that came up was that of how a filmmaker approaches advancing age. They often seem to go one of two ways. Option One: Sour. Let all the old preoccupations come storming back in a torrent of pent-up bile. The ne plus ultra of that approach would be Frenzy. Option Two: Mellow out, at least a bit. Realize that while people are no damn good, hey, you’re a director, and you can make them act any way you want in your movie. As Glenn Kenny observed after seeing Le Havre, “Aki Kaurismaki’s transformation into an old softy is a wonderful thing.”

Scorsese is still Scorsese, and he hasn’t become an old softy. Still, Hugo glows with the deep love that comes from cherishing one thing or one person over the lengthening years. More than that, it’s about age and youth reaching out to each other. The film flatly rejects the notion that movies cease to speak to us after the passage of too much time, even after more than 100 years. In doing so, Scorsese also answers anyone who was wondering why, after making so many films depicting adults at their harshest, he would suddenly tackle a kiddie movie.

The orphaned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) leads a precarious life in a Paris train station, tending the clock, stealing food and trying to stay one step ahead of the stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) who would send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s sole legacy from his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is an automaton, and Hugo has been trying to repair it with parts stolen from an embittered old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the station. In doing so, the boy befriends the old man’s chatterbox niece, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). What neither child realizes is that her Uncle Georges is actually film pioneer Georges Méliès, broken and forgotten, convinced that the movies he made with such joy are gone forever, melted into chemicals and turned into shoe heels.

The Siren is no great fan of 3D. She doesn’t actively hate it, but up to now she just hasn’t seen the point. Wall*E and Up, two of the best movies of the past five years, are not much diminished, if at all, by 2D. She appreciated Avatar for reasons that had little to do with the 3D effects. The Siren dislikes the way 3D privileges the foreground of a shot, making whatever happens to be in your lap the thing that you’re focusing on. 3D, in terms of offering the rich, multiple details of a scene and letting the eye discover some brilliant piece of marginal business, hasn’t been a patch on what Gregg Toland or Rudolph Maté could do on an average day on the backlot.

Comes now Scorsese (and cinematographer Robert Richardson) to take 3D’s oddities, laugh at them, and use them more intelligently than ever before. There’s such mischief in fitting a newfangled technique to a movie that pays tribute to the earliest days of film; it’s on a level with Billy Wilder, assigned to write a vehicle for Gary Cooper, the most notoriously laconic actor in Hollywood, and making him a professor of linguistics in Ball of Fire. Scorsese frequently sticks something in front that’s cute but irrelevant, like the camera crew at the Méliès studio who barely distract from the Andy Hardy energy of the people putting on the show in the back of the shot. Dave Kehr said something about Raoul Walsh that stayed with the Siren--that Walsh was a master of suggesting there could be a whole different movie going on in just one corner of his frame. So Scorsese’s camera dances around designer Dante Ferretti's vast train station and the 3D, for once, adds to the sense of all the corners of the shot, as the passengers and the workers merrily play in their own movies.

And the fullness of the images fleshes out the themes as well. Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all, a fact thrown into vivid relief when the film shifts from the yearning gaze of Butterfield and his ghostly blue eyes, to what he yearns for: the world as expressed in a panoramic shot of midwinter Paris at night. The city looks so beautiful in that moment that the Siren felt bereft when the camera cut away. But Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the street. His drunken uncle drops him off at the station and goes out on a permanent bender; no truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.

Hugo returns again and again to impermanence and loss, and yet it uses 3D to show delight in the solid, tactile feel of physical objects. The Siren has seldom seen a film that takes such relish in filmmaking’s paraphenalia, the reels, the canisters, the props, the camera. “I would recognize the sound of a film projector anywhere,” says Méliès.

As omnipresent as the stuff of movies is, though, there is a secondary presence almost as important, that of books. Words are Isabelle’s favorite toys, her refuge and her first resort in trouble, as when she staves off the stationmaster with a determined recital of Christina Rossetti. And Hugo mourns his separation from books too; witness his pained reaction when they visit that gorgeous bookstore and its benevolent monarch of a proprietor (Christopher Lee). Later, when the bookseller gravely hands a beautiful copy of Robin Hood to Hugo, and tells the boy that the book is meant to be his, that’s the moment that reconnects Hugo to humanity, the thing that prepares him to perform the same service for Méliès.

It’s all storytelling in this movie, you see. There is so much insistence nowadays on the primacy of form, the constant reaffirmation that film is a visual medium. Yes, yes, yes--no one needs to remind Martin Scorsese of that. Hugo is as lushly visual a picture as any he’s ever made, and it isn’t as though he had been in the habit of neglecting the look of a film before. But story counts, too. Audiences hunger for it, they try to construct one even when the film insists on withholding it. Méliès’ movies told fanciful whirligigs of stories, and Hugo says that is a fine and noble thing.

Scorsese, it’s always said, obsesses over sin and salvation, though his characters indulge in the former far more than they receive the latter. Redemption is Pyrrhic for Travis Bickle. It stays out of reach for Jake La Motta, is never even sought by Henry Hill, is thrown away with both hands by Newland Archer. Even in the warmly affectionate Hugo, the happy ending comes with qualifiers. Isabelle’s parents are still dead. Hugo’s father still died horribly. And Méliès has had 80 films come back from the dead, but 420 are gone for good. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that when Scorsese makes a movie about the love of film, it’s then that he tells us that the imperfect can still be quite, quite beautiful.


D Cairns said...

Beautiful! Thanks so much for this. I'll try to add my own thoughts later in the week.

Chris Edwards said...

Splendid as usual, Farran.

HUGO was a giddy pleasure for me. It seemed made for me and the things I love. When I was a kid, I used to feel that way all the time--whenever the toys I played with showed up in a movie or cartoon show on Saturday mornings. New season, new toys to sell, but the cynicism of it was lost on me back then. Thank god.

The Siren said...

David, thanks! I want everybody to go over and look at the blogathon. Loved the Cukor post in particular.

Chris, I couldn't believe the massive ten-car pileup of Things the Siren Loves Past All Reason in this movie. But I've seen movies that had everything I should love, and didn't; even wrote a whole post about them. This one delivers.

Karen said...

The book isn't, sensu strictissimo, a "graphic novel," as it has vast stretches of prose punctuated by clusters of lushly pencilled images. It doesn't really fit into any known format, and I was happy to buy it--and Selznick's newest, Wonderstruck, as well--for our graphic novels collection, just to make sure it was in the library.

I bought it for my mechanically-inclined nephew Mikah when it came out four years ago, and he was entranced. I knew I had to read it as soon as I discovered that Selznick had included this celebrated image in it. The trailers and promos for the film surprised me with their lush evocation of the book--but especially with those almost frighteningly luminous blue eyes--and I have been tempted. Very tempted indeed.

I have so much difficulty with 3D in theatres, though. The glasses are uncomfortable, the focus never quite works, I get a headache. Do you think Hugo will work in 2D?

Lee Price said...

Much as I still wish for a hasty 3D demise (one of my eyes is very weak—-it begins tearing up the minute I put on the glasses), I appreciate Scorsese’s remarkably clever use of it. My favorite 3D moment was the discreet drawback on the Lumiere train arrival that suddenly sends an audience rushing toward the viewer. I instinctively ducked--a physical response just like that first audience!

whistlingypsy said...

Although I have read the book, I have not yet seen the film, my hesitation due largely to the 3D element. Your review is, in a word, lyrical, striking all the notes that remind one of the anguish and the beauty of the creative process and the life of the imagination. On a more practical level, your review has also made my concerns seem a bit pointless; I enjoyed the book and looked forward to the film and I wouldn’t turn down cake on my birthday simply because it wasn’t in 2D (no, I would not).

The Siren said...

Karen, HA! I get a rather rude message when I click on your link, btw. Honestly, the 3D isn't headache-inducing at all. I really think you will like this movie.

Lee, that's a wonderful moment. And I loved the spooky 3D-ization of that newsreel clip of French soldiers returning from the front.

Whistlinggypsy (are you related to Tanya, I hope?)--thanks so much. I hope you do go to see Hugo. It faces a tough competitive slate at the moment and while I almost never get worked up over the vagaries of the box office, I do hope it sells tickets, because it's so good.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lovely post, Siren. And I'm sure he'd have no trouble with you calling him Marty.

Very astute yor noting the parallel between Hugo in the station, unable to leave and Marty home with Asthma, also unable to leave -- except when his parents took him to the movies.
Clearly Hugo is his least psychologically-troubled protagonist since Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

it's agreat film for children and the child-within in the tradition of The Kid, Mon Oncle and The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Vanwall said...

So many quotable gems in this one, reading it is, dare I say it, like a kid in a candy shop. I loved the book, and it seems the film will live up to it. I'll comment here later when I've seen it.

Karen said...

A rude message? Quel horreur!!

Try this one, then.

I suspect you're right that I will love it. The massive ten-car pileup of Things I Love you mention is right in my wheelhouse.

The Siren said...

David, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you so much. I shook hands with Scorsese once, but it was Mister then. :)

Vanwall and Karen, thanks too. Go, go.

Paul Dionne said...

I saw Hugo yesterday in an empty theater (of course) though there was a street parade going on outside. It was much more than expected (though I expected nothing) and so much more rewarding than I could believe (since I haven't felt much towards Marty Scorsese in a long time, or even movies in a theater in a long time). As far as the 3D, once the movie started, the glasses were forgotten, and that also had not happened before the few times I've tried to experience modern 3D.

Noel Vera said...

Lovely review, Siren. I'm frankly jealous.

Eddie said...

Beautifully done, as always, Siren. Yours words about the film made me tear up just as the film did. Bravo!

Anonymous said...


You know my fondness for "Hugo" already, so wanted to comment instead on another point you raise.

"Frenzy." Yes. Have always found the early-on rape scene difficult to watch and not in the usual, in-your-face, Gasper Noe way -- there's a kind of directorial relish there that's just gross (although it DOES prepare the way for the contrast of the very subtle, back-tracking treatment of the Massey rape).

Yet I'd argue that Hitchcock is more complex than that.

"Frenzy" is certainly a nasty (albeit, technically brilliant) film. But his last film -- "Family Plot" -- shows a kind of gentle forgiveness and sense of peace that's much more in keeping with other artists' last works (I'm thinking, particularly, of "A Winter's Tale")

Hitchcock had his obsessions, many of which were clearly private fetishes working their way out into his films (one of the things which made them so incredibly personal). But I think -- I would like to believe -- that by the end of his career, and his life, he had worked through most of that.

Dave said...

Can I nitpick for a moment?

Don't mind if I do.

I mostly loved "Hugo" (even if I think it suffers in comparison to "The Artist"), but it bugged the hell out of me that it takes place in a world where everyone speaks in English but can read and write only in French.

At least they didn't use outrageous French accents -- though they might as well have.

The Siren said...

Dave - equally true of any number of classic films where the setting is a foreign country and everyone speaks English. Truly, I do not understand this carp, and find it dreary and irrelevant to the point that it's hard for me even to be polite about it. Subtitles would be a weird affection for a film of a novel in English and are hardly going to help the film's commercial prospects. French accents are harder for a lot of English speakers to decipher and would undoubtedly have other people complaining the actors sound like Pepe le Pew.

I think nothing will satisfy this particular line of reasoning until everything is set in Ames, Iowa with a cast of professionally trained newscasters. Even getting an accent right seems to score no points, as year after year I see Meryl Streep getting volleys lobbed at her for the dreariness of her executing accents perfectly.

It seems to me that Scorsese and his CD probably locked in one or more cast members who happened to be English and figured that the sound of the film would have internal coherence if everyone spoke with a variant on that accent.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Quite right about the internal coherence, Siren. It also allowed for the casting of Sasha Baron Cohen (a talented but wildly uneven character performer, here given his best role to date) plus the adorable Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths of History Boys fame. And Emily Mortimer too.

Nothing in Hugo is "realistic" or "authentic" save for its emotions and Marty's limitless imagination.

The world of violence for whichh he has become most famous (ie. Goodfelles, Raging Bull, Casino) is that which he observed at a distance.

Hugo is what he's felt inside himself at all times.

The Siren said...

David E., thanks. We are so very much in agreement on Hugo, a lovely thing.

Meanwhile, in my comment above, that should be "affectation" stedda "affection." Paging Dr. Freud; what can I say, Hugo really got to me. At the end of my second viewing I was sobbing to the point that my own kids were giving me the side-eye.

Aubyn said...

Unfortunately, I have nothing to add to the Hugo discussion but wide-eyed interest since I haven't seen it yet. In regards to the accent debate though, I will put in my two cents and say that most of the time, the accuracy of accents doesn't bother me too much. It comes from a steady diet of classic film. After a while, you come to the point where the casting of Paul Henreid as an American gangster or Robert Taylor as a Scottish laird just seems perfectly natural.

I'm glad, though, that Scorsese opted for consistency. It does jar me some when a film gets stuck halfway, like Ratatouille (where only the protagonists sound American) or Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera, with Miranda Richardson ranting away in an accent that even Pepe le Pew would find a bit much.

Basically, as long as the share croppers don't sound like John Gielgud and Eleanor Roosevelt doesn't sound like Maria Ouspenskaya, I'm a happy camper. Accents are frosting, not the cake.

Eurappeal said...

My husband and I took off work to see HUGO to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We saw it at an Alamo Drafthouse so we could also have a celebratory lunch (yummy wraps and chips and salsa). This event started promisingly when the theater showed some Melies fragments and a lengthy sequence from Fairbanks' THIEF OF BAGDAD prior to the usual trailers.

What a beautiful movie! I became completely immersed in the characters (all of them) and the locale. I became weepy immediately because of the glorious details: dust motes, buttons, gears, flower petals, light fixtures, boxes filled with goods, snow flakes, clothing, and more. I had to squeeze my eyes shut hard to prevent myself from sobbing when Christopher Lee appeared as the bibliophile (I have quite a fondness for him because of staying up late watching Hammer Films on CBS late night when I was a kid). I was overjoyed when I saw Charlie Chase and Chaplin movie posters, and had tears going down my cheeks when scenes from THE KID, THE GENERAL, and SAFETY LAST were shown (and such appropriates scenes too).

I can't adequately articulate everything that moved me in HUGO, but I have to note two more things. The redemption of the station inspector was handled so well. He'd been so heartless and mean, but I felt from his interactions with the flower girl that before his war injury he had been different. Another beautiful moment for me was watching Hugo and Chloe read through the movie book at the library. Beginning when I was 7 or 8, I collected movie books. I vividly remember standing in bookstores and libraries consuming the photos and commentary. Back then, except for a smattering of old movies on TV and talking old movies with my mom, it was the only way I could indulge my obsession with old movies. So this sequence really got to me.

Siren, thank you again for your thoughts about HUGO. I will see it again soon, and I will read the book.

Shamus said...

Lovely review, Siren- I'll definitely watch Hugo when it comes out here.

Speaking of which, Gary Cooper plays a nuclear scientist in Lang's Cloak and Dagger: what you might call a loooooong lunch hour, even for the casting department.

Anonymous said...

Hugo is flawed in some aspects (the comical scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen don't quite work), but it is, overall, a beautiful movie, a very moving homage to the origins of cinema - and the use of the 3D is, indeed, astounding and vertiginous. I find it interesting that we have 2 movies this year celebrating old cinema - Hugo, and the fabulous The Artist. I also wanted to mention that, as a journalist, I have had the pleasure of seeing the newly restored Trip to the Moon by Méliès, in colors: it's an exquisite, magical, dreamlike fantasy, that is accompanied by a fascinating documentary about his creator. The whole project is the work of French film historian Serge Bromberg. It's coming out in France this month, so hopefully it'll come out here in the US next year.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I asked Marty about Christopjer Lee, Eurappeal, and he said "Oh I just HAD to have Christopher Lee in one of my movies!" -- and this one was the perfect palce to put him.

Harry K. said...

Sorry to bring up the accents again, but I must admit, I had a strange response to them in the film. They had a very simple logic to them, all British accents for French. I can't say I was disappointed or that there was something wrong about the choice, but somewhere deep in my heart, I kinda hoped that Scorsese would go old Hollywood on it. You know, the kid's accents straight from Iowa, the old wise man being British, the baggage handlers all transported from the Bronx, and maybe one actual French person for authenticity.

I mean, if you're going to do it, let's do it.

X. Trapnel said...


No worse than Cooper as a professor of linguistics, an architect, or a baseball player from Manhattan.

Shamus said...

Beg to differ, XT: if you've not heard GC speak German, you ain't heard nothin' yet. Like someone mumbling though a handkerchief. Under his breath. Through his teeth. And acting like he does that everyday.

But to be fair, he is good doing the spy stuff, although I was a little distracted by Lilli Palmer to pay any attention.

Like oh, Design for Living (where he speaks what kerchief-French), and Ball of Fire (kerchief-linguistico-semantic-a-babble), Cloak is a terrific movie whose existence most critics ignore because of the miscasting. Cooper has a lot to answer for.

X. Trapnel said...

I'll soon find out. I just got a copy of C&D yesterday (I'm in the midst of a major Lilli Palmer fixation; surely she and Danielle Darrieux share a common ancestor, some brief encounter amidst the Franco-Prussian War perhaps...)

Shamus said...

I'm convinced that if Darrieux shares a heritage with anyone, it could only be Hedy Lamarr.

And Cloak is wonderful: maybe it's the Italian-anywheretown-just-don't-ask-me-the-name-but-look-war-veterans-with-accordions, but Lang seems more romantic here. Maybe it's Cooper.

Or maybe he felt as you do about Ms. Palmer. Or how most people feel about tight-sweatered-long-legged girls with guns.

Dave said...

If I may clarify my comment.

I have no objection to the actors' various English accents. Those set up an internal consistency. That consistency, though, is belied the instant we see the signs on Melies's shop, and especially when the kids start reading the book on the history of cinema, and the title and text is all in French, which means the characters need to provide simultaneous translation that wouldn't be necessary if all the written in English.

If we can accept that an automaton can draw a detailed image from "A Trip to the Moon," surely we could accept English-language signage at a Parisian train station.

Noel Vera said...

I suppose we can say they are all speaking in French, and it's somehow being translated to British-accented English. We don't enjoy the same benefit with regards to visible text.

I remember critics complaining about the salad bowl of accents that was heard in Last Temptation of Christ. There it might actually make sense, if we think of Jerusalem as a cosmopolitan city, with a diversity of inhabitants. Much like New York, come to think of it.

Shamus said...


Here's an odd cautionary postscript: the third act of Cloak where GC is smuggled into Nazi Germany was apparently cut to enhance the ending of Lilli Palmer bidding adieu to him in Italian countryside. I'd wondered about that odd ending. That idiotic decision also eliminates the effect it might have had of Coop descending into the various stages of Nazi hell: Germany-infiltrated Switzerland, then Italy and into Germany.

Just came to know about it (courtesy Mr. Cairns actually) and my blood is pulsing pizzicati at the very idea. (To put matters further in perspective, the cut scenes are now lost.) Ah, Lilli: what have you wrought?

X. Trapnel said...


Yes, that's how I remember the ending (haven't seen it in years), but why blame Lilli? Did she demand this ending from a timorous and shrinking Fritz Lang?

Nothing, though, can beat the dumb ending of The Ministry of Fear.

Shamus said...

If Lilli hadn't been so damn indelible, then the (moronic, stupid, stupid) studio hacks would not have cut... makes sense to you?

Ministry of Fear's ending is a joke. Quite literally, I think. It had to be a happy ending so Lang (or whoever shot the damn thing) made it grotesquely impossible. Probably as revenge. The real ending is when the ominous shadow of the inspector rises from the carnage of the gunfight and slowly approaches the camera.

X. Trapnel said...

Though one regrets the loss, I'm not sure how much of Nazi hell a Hollywood film could have shown in 1946. Oddly, what you describe is more or less the itinerary of The Counterfeit Traitor. Not Lang perhaps, but an excellent film and Lilli, as always, is indelible.

I fear we have drifted way off topic.

Shamus said...

XT, I think ...and Dagger might have been a companion piece to Hangmen Also Die, both in content and in length. And this is still Lang: a director who could get away with screwing over the Production Code (the ending in Scarlet Street), not to mention screwing over MGM with Fury (what could be more un-MGM-like?).

But all off-topic, as you say. Apologies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

And now for something REALLY Off-Topic.

joe said...

Nicely said, Siren. I had held off on reading this post, since I hadn't seen the movie. Just got back from it, and I loved it. Such a kind film, so full of love. The images of Melies' studio struck me as a sort of idyllic flip side to the hellish vision of "Shutter Island" (which I think is a great, great film, although I don't have much company.) Mr. Scorsese is on quite a roll, in my opinion.

johncarvill said...

Interesting post. But I wonder...

"...after making so many films depicting adults at their harshest, he would suddenly tackle a kiddie movie." this really a movie for kids? To me it felt too grown-up for children, and a bit too childish for adults. It's a curious confection. There are lots of enjoyable elements but it doesn't really gel.

Ironically, as a fervent 3D hater, this was one I actually wanted to see in 3D, but as it happened the only showing I could conveniently get to was in 2D.

Perhaps the ultimate verdict came from my 5 year old son, who said, around half way through: "This is taking ages..."

gmoke said...

[Hugo] I knew we were supposed to be in Paris because everybody was talking with a British accent.

Sweet, kind film about the power of narrative, books and movies both, but overly long.

"Kundun" is still Scorsese's masterpiece.

As for late films, somebody should do Joris Ivens' "A Tale of the Wind."

Batocchio said...

Lovely review, Siren. I enjoyed Hugo a great deal.