(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.