Bringing A New Dimension to Movie History: Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”

By Craig Phillips

Part of the Series The Silent Artists

A Dreamland of Magic: Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"

Hugo is clearly a departure for Martin Scorsese, as a 3D feature ostensibly about and for children, free of violence, and rarely very dark. Yet anyone familiar with the director’s work, especially in film preservation and scholarship (itself committed on film through documentaries like A Personal Journey Through American Movies) will know it is also entirely in his wheelhouse, as a valentine to the origins of cinema.

More simply, it is the story of Hugo Cabret, a smart but lonely orphan in a steampunk-ish 1930s Paris, who fends for himself in a railway station’s clock tower. Hugo (played by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ Asa Butterfield, who oddly looks like a small Maggie Gyllenhaal, with piercing green eyes, elfin nose and moppish hair) strikes an initially adversarial relationship with a toy shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley). He then befriends the man’s bookwormish but forward daughter Isabelle (the appealing Chloe Moretz, here with an English accent; it’s one of those films set in Continental Europe where a compromise is made to make all the characters act British). The two kids move from trying to solve one mystery–reconnecting with the boy’s dead father–to a question of more historical import: what happened to magician and early film pioneer Georges’ Méliès.

As the story unfolds, Hugo becomes more connected to cinema itself. Hugo recalls that his father once told him seeing a film is “like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day,” and sneaks Isabelle into her first movie screening, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (that film’s famous clock-hanging sequence is a bit of an on-the-nose set-up for a later scene, but one can forgive such things). They go to a library and discover a book about movie history, which reveals both the answer to a pressing riddle as well as the book’s author (a bearded Michael Stuhlbarg), who personally regales them with tales of the first movies in all their mystery and power, such as how the Lumiere brothersArrival of a Train sent audiences leaping from their seats, expecting the train to actually hit them.

What’s remarkable about the story’s integration of Méliès as a character is how much depicted here is straight out of Méliès’ own life. I will not spoil all these revelations, but suffice to say that after watching the film you will most certainly want to seek out Méliès’ real short films–A Trip to the Moon and other fantasies are a big part of the film–as well as more about his life (there are a couple of flawed but useful documentaries out there: Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician, and Jacques Meny’s dry The Magic Of Méliès).

Watch a clip from Georges Méliès‘ Excelsior, Prince of Magicians:

I confess I’ve not read all of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, on which the film is based, but just from both looking at it and talking to both older kids and adults who are fans, the book is full of invention and love for its subject, using a diverse array of styles; it is not simply a novel, but it also has elements of picture books, flip books and graphic novels. And as recreated in Scorsese’s film, adapted by veteran scribe John Logan, the film is an ode to film’s pioneering magician in particular, but every moment is permeated by Scorsese’s deep abiding love for movie history and the form’s power to transport us to a dreamworld, however fleeting.

Another aspect of the film’s regard for movie heritage is the use of 3D itself. While I’m normally rather skeptical–more often than not it doesn’t enhance a film, certainly not enough to justify the higher ticket price–here it works in a way that would surely delight Méliès himself, which is the point of its use here. It is, after all, merely a computerized extension of the stereoscopic effects first developed by Victorian era inventor Charles Wheatsone 170 years ago, and of the later “ViewMaster” type devices popularized in the 40s. Now it is all digitized impressively, and while that unavoidably keeps the viewer aware of the technology, it still gives Hugo a layer of charm, as if we were watching through a modern Kinetoscope. The film has a sly sense of humor about the 3D as well; at one point Sacha Baron Cohen gradually sticks his face forward in investigative probing, a subtler version of SCTV’s parody “Dr Tongue’s 3D House of Cats.”

Jude Law and a mechanical man: references to Spielberg's "A.I."?

Hugo has its flaws. The pacing, especially in the film’s first act, can feel stretched, as characters at times explain actions rather than acting. And there are some history lesson moments–where characters explain how WWI changed things, the advent of film, etc. – but these Scorsese keeps from being too ponderous. At times, especially with a mechanical man (as well as the presence of Jude Law as Hugo’s father) and the orphaned boy who just wants to find a home, I worried the film would wobble into the more dour, cumbrous territory of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. but again, it always flipped the right switch before wearing thin. Hugo is certainly sentimental, there is an awful lot of weeping nostalgia, but it taps into a love of artistry—not just films, but reading, drawing, design, of creativity—that I found hard to resist.

Howard Shore’s haunting score, which uses snatches of Erik Satie pieces, as well as the Django Reinhardt-ish band that performs in the train station, adds another lovely dimension altogether. And the cast gives it humanity that keeps the film from feeling like a cinematic exercise. Kingsley in particular hasn’t been this good in years, and Moretz not only nails the accent but also pitches her reactions and timing remarkably well; she and Butterfield make a good pair. Scorsese himself pops up as a photographer; unlike Hitchcock who usually placed himself right at the beginning in his films just to get it out of the way, Scorsese’s late cameo is a bit more distracting, at least to adults in the audience who recognize him, and yet it’s also a fitting wink in its way.

While Hugo is not a film for little children, it is also not necessarily a film for adults, but rather exists in a nether world: that dreamy place between childhood and a more cynical adulthood, as if winding a clock to keep a different pace of time. It is magic.

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