Digesting Hugo

These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget  (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film. 

If you need a plot synopsis, it goes something like this, and remember that this will, like the rest of the post, contain spoilers. (However, I’m months behind in writing about this film, so I reckon those who want to see Hugo will have managed to see it by now.) Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in a Parisian train station. Since the accidental death of his father, a master clockmaker, the orphan Hugo has been working for his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) maintaining all the clocks in the station, avoiding the attention of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a prolific and officious orphan-catcher. Hugo’s real passion is for the automaton left behind by his father: he longs to fix it, and steals component parts that he hopes will get the machine working again to reveal its secret messages. When he steals parts from the station’s toyshop owner, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), the old man confiscates Hugo’s precious notebook containing all the designs for the automaton. In trying to retrieve it, Hugo enlists the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz); their adventure uncovers secret connections between the automaton, Papa Georges, and the history of movies.

This was always going to be a film that would attract my interest: I had read, and loved the beautiful book by Brian Selznick; it is, in large part, about Georges Méliès (the secret identity of Kingsley’s Papa Georges), one of my favourite filmmakers; it features an automaton, one of my favourite things, and although Scorsese’s career has produced variable results, at his best he’s the maker of some astonishingly powerful, influential and innovative work, and his love of cinema history, which drives him to emulate his favourites rather than attempt to honour them with blandly imitative homages, is always infectious. So, there was always going to be a risk that Hugo would be overloaded with unreasonable expectations, or that it would collapse under the weight of its circles of referentiality (filmmaker makes film about filmmaker). For all its elaborate thematic interconnections, most notably the theme of machinic componentry as a metaphor for the interconnections between people, and their place within society, Hugo doesn’t quite have the structural perfection one might expect. It is oddly paced, has barely any suspense for a mystery story, and the focus shifts at various points so that Hugo’s own quest gets somewhat sidelined. This was an issue with Selznick’s book, which had set out to introduce a young readership to some stuff that the author thought was pretty awesome, which they should know about, with Hugo as the proxy explorer of said awesome stuff. Once it had delivered this pedagogical payload, the plot turned out to be all Macguffin and no trousers.

There have always been films about films, and recently there have been plenty of films about real-life filmmakers: Me and Orson Welles, My Week With Marilyn, and the forthcoming Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, and Saving Mr Banks, with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney during the making of Mary Poppins. The Oscars this year were dominated by nostalgic films The ArtistMidnight in Paris, The Help, My Week With Marilyn and Hugo, all of them referring back, to varying degrees, to film history. (In common with Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Hugo features fleeting appearances by actors portraying Salvador Dali, Django Reinhardt and James Joyce: their names are in the credits, at least; I must confess I didn’t notice them on a first viewing. But we might just as easily compare Hugo to Stephen Daldry’s widely derided Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which another young boy tries to piece together the clues and patterns in his environment that might explain his father’s death.) Scorsese dots his film with numerous references to cinema history, either by incorporating clips, movie posters, or homages in the form of shots mimicked from earlier films.

Hugo was often used by critics as an excuse for stories about Méliès and, like The Artist, stories about revived interest in silent cinema and film history. Scorsese’s role as an ambassador for film preservation, and founder of The Film Foundation, was crucial in cementing these links, so both filmmakers could be constructed as part of the same historical narrative: as a result, Méliès could be “recovered” from obscurity, while Scorsese could bask in the reflected glory that comes from being bound up with the deep history of film. Ben Kingsley said he even based his characterisation of Méliès on Scorsese himself, which might explain the glowing benevolence with which he is seen directing his actors in the flashbacks.

At one point, Scorsese folds himself into film history by quoting the final shot of The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), which had previously served as the inspiration for the final shot of Goodfellas (1990).

I miss the charcoal palette and urgent pencil-sketch look of Selnick’s book, which leaves plenty of scope for the reader’s imagination to colour between the lines. Scorsese’s film is impeccably detailed, but at the expense of the book’s impressionistic qualities, and at times it is drenched in the teal and orange colour grading against which Todd Miro has so memorably and influentially railed.

Most of the film takes place in the Gare Montparnasse, a breathtaking set, permanently peopled by an omnimob of behatted citizens; they take on a hivelike flow of activity without ever registering as individuals (they’re part of Hugo’s mechanical vision of society, I assume, and it is Hugo’s maintenance of the clocks that keeps them all flowing on time), unless Scorsese picks them out with a twist of personality or quirk, or by letting them disrupt the colour scheme, as with Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour‘s tentative flirtation via dachsund. And I love Emily Mortimer, but she’s given nothing to do here but stand around looking perky and pretty while her predestined love interest goes on a journey of self-discovery.

Ben Kingsley‘s Méliès starts out as a dour fixture of the station, like the crowd, before his ultimate redemption reinvests him with colour and quirk, putting a glint back in his eye and a twirl back in his moustache. This one pioneer filmmaker is used metonymically to personalise the history of film, to recast it not as a series of industrial machinations but as an intimate puzzle of personality; unlocking the riddle of Papa Georges’ foul temper is closely linked to the problem of cinema’s “loss of innocence”. We know it’s a puzzle, because no grumpy old man in a children’s film has ever not been harbouring a righteous and sympathetic trauma…

Méliès is thus treated rather like the broken-down old magicians of The Wizard of Oz, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a sought-after, mysterious old man who is found to be less glamorous than expected, and in need of recuperation by an innocent child. He starts out cantankerous, and ends up benign, affectionate and avuncular, a dream-maker who wants to help others to dream. Compare this to the tormented-artist version of the character enacted by Tcheky Karyo in the quite magnificent reconstruction of the making of A Trip to the Moon from the final episode of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon. I would have liked to see more made of Méliès’s early career as a magician, but really because I’m interested in it: Scorsese manages a perfectly succinct summary by presenting a levitation illusion using a neat cinematic trick (see image above). In reality, the apparatus lifting Jeanne D’Alcy (Helen McCrory; the film glosses over the fact that she was his mistress, rather than his wife, until their marriage in 1926) would have been where Scorsese’s camera stands, behind the curtain of the stage; by showing the trick from an impossible angle, the film adapts and cinematises a stage illusion, just as Méliès himself did when adapting his magic tricks for the screen, something I’ve discussed at length elsewhere.

Hugo bounces off history rather than meticulously recreating it. The reasons given for the demise of Méliès’s filmmaking career are the romantic ones (the horrors of the Great War killed off audiences’ taste for fantastic escapism, an angle that is represented in Sacha Baron-Cohen’s war-wounded station inspector, who seems to have lost all capacity for frolic), rather than the more prosaic industrial shifts and bad business decisions. Melies did not stumble across an early film show at a circus sideshow: as the owner of a prominent theatre in the centre of Paris, he was one of the invited guests at the first public demonstration of the Lumiere Cinematographe at the Grand Cafe, 28 December 1895. He is also depicted building his own camera when the Lumiere Brothers refused to sell him one of theirs. It’s true that the Lumieres knocked him back, and that Méliès assembled his own equipment, but the inspiration came from the British film pioneer R.W. Paul; while the Lumière Brothers were still guarding their Cinématographe from imitation and refusing to sell it, it was Paul who had identified a market ripe for exploitation and produced his Theatrograph in order to take advantage of the imminent rush of demand for moving pictures. Edison had neglected to patent his Kinetoscope in the U.K., and, along with photographer Birt Acres, Paul produced an imitation of the Edison device which could project images onto a screen. The Edison Kinetograph was used to make films for the Kinetoscope, and ran at 46 frames per second, but after 1898 it could be used for normal films for projection at 16fps. Although its intermittent mechanism was not reversible, Paul’s version of it was, as was the version Méliès commissioned from him. This enabled the retraction of the film to produce a precise double exposure, essential for the kinds of trick effects that would make Méliès’s name. Paul’s contribution gets momentary recognition in Hugo: his name can be seen on the camera next to Méliès as he builds his own apparatus, for a fraction of a second.

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there with the historics. Back to the film.

In the lead role, Asa Butterfield puts his electric-blue, sad-orphan eyes to good use (it would only take a few minor tweaks by the cinematographer to turn him all children-of-the-damned on us). It’s a difficult role, not helped by the requirement that he spout unlikely philosophical summaries of existence; OK, it’s made to be accessible to kids, but did we need the repeated flagging up of the machinic/clockwork theme? It’s already slightly overdetermined as it is. That must be primarily the fault of screenwriter John Logan, who has carved out a niche as a maker of unfussy scripts that won’t cramp or stretch the style of a big-name director/star: Gladiator (Ridley Scott), The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise), The Aviator (Martin Scorsese), Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton), er… Rango (Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski), and the forthcoming Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) and Noah (Darren Aronofsky/Russell Crowe). Yes, they’re all about male protagonists with big problems or existential crises. Perhaps Logan had trouble dialling down that grandiose heroic angst for a reticent child lead; Selznick cites Truffaut‘s Les Quatre Cent Coups as an influence, along with Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite: the character of Rene Tabard, the fictional “professor of film history” (could there even have been such a thing in the 1920s?) gets his name from one of Vigo’s young rebels. Though Scorsese references Truffaut’s film in a bit of business where we see Hugo steal a milk bottle (just as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel does), the boy doesn’t have that surly street-urchin edge that you might want him to have, partly because he is given too much speechifying to do. This Hugo is at his best when he’s determined, tight-lipped or sullen.

Chloe Moretz has essayed a series of roles in which her character puts up a girlish facade to hide precocious, devious or malicious intent (Kick-AssLet Me In30 Rock), a body of work whose dangerous-adolescent theme will no doubt be cemented by her recent casting in the remake of Stephen King’s Carrie. It is a surprise, then, to find her playing a swallows-and-amazons-keen adventuress. Her sparkly pluck makes a nice counterpoint to Hugo’s tormented pallor, while her love of classic literature is a solid foil for Hugo’s less refined, but ultimately just as liberating cinephilia.

In summary, if I really must offer such a thing, Hugo is a big, valiant, passionately applied but occasionally blunderous thing. One would hope that it can help to inspire or reignite interest in early film, or just in the wonders of cinema in general. Its paean to a more innocent cinematic age, depending on your perspective, either sits uncomfortably with the film’s eager embrace of alienating digital processes that have already caused Méliès’s techniques to obsolesce, or is perfectly in keeping with Scorsese’s drive to charge the new with an antique spirit.

Further Notes:

I like Jessie Rowland‘s description of the film as “like a snow globe that the viewers are allowed to shake and shudder as the story unfolds in their hands“.

I watched Hugo with my nephew, who’s eleven. I wanted to get his opinion, since he had just read, and loved the book, which is aimed more squarely at his demographic than mine. He was thrilled by the film, though he couldn’t see how it differed from its source: they did “pretty much the same thing”. When he caught his first glimpse of early films, his response was “Is that it? It’s not very convincing”. Hey, I still get that from undergraduates. But he also said, a propos one of the many digital greenscreen shots in the movie that it was “obviously a backdrop”.

Hugo has already been referenced in the following posts on Spectacular Attractions:

Georges Méliès and his films have been mentioned in many posts on Spectacular Attractions:

Watch an astonishing video demonstrating the creation and operation of the automaton featured in the film. No CGI, just meticulous craftsmanship:

The automaton in the film is the personification of the film’s “heritage” approach to technology (Scorsese lingers on clockwork like Merchant-Ivory linger on wood-paneling). It is believed that Méliès exhibited automata at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, but if these were similar to the ones that Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin used in his act, they were probably tricks, operated by hidden stooges rather than purely driven by mechanical means.

20 thoughts on “Digesting Hugo

  1. I enjoyed the film. My nine year old daughter came away impressed. When we got home she pulled out the ipad with excitement and wanted to do a shot where she made something disappear with a cut. Unfortunately when you take a new shot with the ipad it doesn’t splice that shot onto the previous shot. The digital age wants to organise shots spatially rather than chronologically. Of course when I start talking shop her eyes glaze over and she goes “yes dad”.

    • Now I want to go and try and do a substitution shot with an iPad… There must be a way of stitching a couple of shots together, but maybe you have to use iMovie or something.

      I didn’t mention it in my review (I’ll probably continue to edit it and add to it for a while), but the substitution shot at the end, during the gala screening where Ben Kingsley switches with the real Melies, is immaculate. I don’t have a 3D TV, but the Blu-Ray disc has the 3D copy, so I need to inspect the substitution cuts in the original Melies films – I imagine that the 3D conversion of those shots might help to reinforce the illusion by smoothing the spatial, as well as the temporal join between the two shots.

      • We saw the film at the cinema in 3D. Someone almost put me off doing so saying the 3D was bad, but when he said many shots looked like cutouts I thought that sounded really inetresting. There are shots of original Melies material that are also in 3D – because Melies shot many shots using two cameras (one for domestic and one for international consumption) that Scorsese’s effects team used to then create 3D shots. They used some clever reconstructions to ensure the grain was occuring at the surface of the objects rather than at the screen plane (using structure from disparity mapping).

        Re. stitching shots – yes one can go into a video editing package and do it. We eventually did it using a Sony 3D camera I had – that while it saves shots as separate files I was happy to discover it will play shots back, one after the other, in the order they were shot – so one can get some immediate satsifaction without having to go into an edit program. :)

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  3. Hugo is really interesting in terms of where Scorsese has been going in recent years. If you watch Shutter Island attentively, in terms of it’s cinematography and effects work, the difference between which is quite subtle, but visible, it prefigures the entire ending of the film, of which I was personally fully anticipate when it eventually arrived, but which many, I imagine wouldn’t. What might have passed for “beautiful images” – effects done purely for purposes of obtaining some sort of aesthetic becomes recomprehendable as no such thing. The effects work occurs precisely where the relationship between various possible comprehensions can separate from each other – where the ending can become both completely fantastic (in terms of what appeared to have taken place) or completely consistent with what had taken place. This double articulation, in Shutter Island, is only comprehendable in terms of an understanding of the difference between photographic images and special effects.

  4. When eleven year olds and undergraduates read Méliès as “not very convincing” this should not be interpreted as some deficiency in their understanding, but part of a critical process not ye completed. It speaks to what is possibly the case. Of course, what is missing is an appreciation of the historical context in which effects did not need to be convincing in order to interoperate with what is happening. The miracle of cinematography was already an explosion of preconceptions and the effects work would have been reinforcing that sense of the miraculous or appearing no different. But eventually audiences would come to understand the peculiar nature of the cinematographic images, that they do differ from effects. The recognition of the effect as an effect. As “unconvincing”. Because that is what they are. Now while this consciousness implies an evolution towards the ugly idea that effects should therfore be more convincing it can also be a prelude to the realisation that was is convincing, as a miracle, or next to miraculaous, is the photographic image.

    • Yes, the problem is the word “convincing”. We are never fully “convinced”, because we are always aware that what we’re watching is not real. And yet we are accepting of the self-contained reality effects of what we’re watching. We need a better word for what we are than “convinced”.

      And plenty of adult critics and historians parrot the line that Melies was some sort of primitive precursor to modern-day fantasy and science fiction cinema, rather than a fully-formed artist in his own right. What Hugo makes clear is that it wasn’t kids who killed off Melies’s career, but “grown-ups” who felt that their mature film industry no longer needed him.

      • “we are always aware that what we’re watching is not real”.

        The issue with such an idea is that it presupposes some conception of the real, for which the image will then be it’s inadequate representation. Certainly from such we can then be ‘aware’ that what we’re watching is, therefore, not real. Not that I have any answers to an alternative – other than to treat photographic images as a reality in their own right (rather than as a representation of our own conceptions).

  5. My main problem with Hugo is that – while “The Artist” SHOWS us the magic of late silent films – Scorsese just TELLS us about the magic of early silent films. I mean, can it get more boring than a film whose whole “showdown” consists of an über-long narrative flashback? Well it seems like Scorsese himself realized that there wasn’t really a climax and so he added a completely unnecessary and cheaply motivated chasing scene at the end – action for the action’s sake. But I kinda liked the movie anyway.

  6. Great post. Your comment on Scorsese’s “impossible” shot of the magic trick from the rear is not correct, though. You are thinking of the levitation method where an S shaped support is behind the magician’s assistant and though a slit in a curtain, allowing the magician to pass a hoop twice around the floating body (to prove there are “no strings.”) The illusion in Hugo has the woman balanced on a pole under her arm. She is wearing a stiff support in her costume, and the support is connected to the pole by a ratcheted 90 degree hinge; the pole having been mounted to the floor. This allows the magician to pass a hoop from her feet to her head, and down the pole. (You can see the hoop on the floor in the picture.) This illusion was also performed in episode of I Love Lucy entitled “Lucy meets Orson Welles.” While he doesn’t use a hoop in that illusion (though surviving publicity photos show him using one,) he does allow the levitating Lucy to spin around, showing her from the rear.

  7. While generally being a pretty endearing film, its premise really irked me a lot.

    I didn’t have any expectations going in, not knowing the book or much about the story, but it was obvious enough from the initial impressions that it seemed to have a rather big focus on clockworks and automatons. We have Hugo with his obvious talent for fixing stuff, his father, who seemed to be a pretty passionate clockmaker, the interesting connection between Hugo and Georges through that mysterious automaton.. and obviously all the clocks and gears everywhere. A pretty interesting premise in its own right, I would say.

    And then, suddenly, for me completely out of left field, the movie goes: (excuse the expletive) “fuck that, let’s talk about movies instead”. What? Why? As if Scorsese couldn’t bother to even for a moment focus on anything else but that. Yeah we know that movies are the best thing since sliced bread. Thanks for reminding us yet again.

    And it really felt especially insulting towards Hugo’s father.. what with that automaton, which fascinated his father so much and was his last link to his son, just being an inconsequential past time hobby of Georges between being a illusionist and a movie maker. “Uh what? Ah yes, I built that MacGuffin once in my spare time. But then I literally took it apart to build something much more exciting: a camera! Did I tell you that I was a movie maker?”

    Eventually, everyone is enthralled by that magic movie world and stops giving a f about anything else. Obnoxious message received.

    • – And then, suddenly, for me completely out of left field, the movie goes: (excuse the expletive) “fuck that, let’s talk about movies instead”.

      Being ‘about movies’ is not necessarily some inexplicable narrative vector plugged into a narrative that was really about automation. One could just as well argue that the ‘automation’ narrative was an inexplicable vector plugged into one about movies. Neither of these hold water.

      The beginning of a film doesn’t act as a constraint on the remainder of the film. Each part of a film (whether earlier or later) interacts with every other part of the film, through perception, recollection and expectation, each of which is not necessarily distinguishable at any particular moment, but emerges over time. It makes sense (or non-sense) over time.

      The assumption that the movie is ‘about automation’ is just that. An assumption. That the movie appears to interrupt this assumption (out of left field) depends on whether one has made that particular assumption in the first place.


      • He’s certainly free to change the topic as often as he sees fit. I don’t take issue with that, though I do find it a bit odd, considering how much energy was spent establishing the original theme.

        But the particular way in which it was handled really hurt the story, in my opinion. The Automaton does seem to play a very important role, initially; it connects Hugo to his father and to Georges, and all are supposed to care really, really much about it. Yet when we finally get to find out about the deep connection between Georges and the Automaton, all he talks about is his movie career. The automaton was a mere footnote in his life. He made it in between jobs. He gutted it to built his camera and gave it away. He certainly says he cares about it, but he doesn’t. It doesn’t define him in any way. It’s not related to his condition. It’s just a contrived MacGuffin.

        Just as Georges was forced to be a toy maker while he much rather wanted to make movies, the movie itself seemed to have been forced to talk about watch making while it much rather would have liked to talk about movies. And with “movie itself” I mean Scorsese.

        What makes this so irritating is that the whole watch making part essentially exemplifies Hugo’s father. And I just don’t think that you should, in a heart warming orphan fairy tail like this, associate the connection between an orphan and his lost parents with something tedious that you had to get out of the way to get to the truly interesting parts.

        This is certainly an assumption on my part, but the whole movie *felt* like it was just an excuse for Scorsese to talk about his favourite topic.

      • I don’t know how a movie, principally about George Melies (an important and central figure in film history) could be about anything other than the movies! Especially when the film is being made by a filmmaker such as Scorsese. The film is very much about the movies (and associated history/theory of such). That’s the entire through line of the film. Automation plays an important part in this, as many students of industrial arts will appreciate. If this is Scorsese’s favourite topic (I’m sure it’s certainly one of them) then why would Scorsese not make a film about it? He is, after all, the filmmaker. Films explicitly about film, are few and far between. Should we not be grateful for any that manage to be made? Fairy tales about orphans are a dime a dozen.

      • I think Tim’s right about Hugo’s father, but it’s a problem derived form the book – Hugo thinks the automaton contains a message from his father that will somehow bring him peace and show him his place in the world. He does find peace, but not through anything his father tells him. This is a structural wobble, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a flaw, as long as we don’t expect the film to slot into a symmetrical pattern or completed circuit to deliver satisfaction.

    • The film is an attempt to re-frame special effects, the history of which has been an ongoing problem since the invention of cinema. Contemporary special effects aim to inter-operate with the cinematography in a way that makes it next to impossible to distinguish one from the other. To allow the eye to pass from one to the other, without encountering a bump. The idea being to create a sense in which there is no difference. Or even just the idea of such. Even when this is not achieved (“not convincing”) the idea is there. The evolution of effects towards this end can also be understood as having it’s origin already at this end – that there is no difference, and that what we see as a difference, is just some sort of fault. There is that platonic idea, that the world is just an inferior copy or example of some otherwise transcendental universe in which everything is perfect and difference doesn’t exist (nothing changes). From the point of view of this perfect world a photographic image would be just another “effect” no different from a “special” effect.

      The alternative approach is to create a difference. To create disjunctures. To reintroduce seams rather than polish them away. To enjoy the cut. To appreciate the effect as an effect. But not as all the same effect. Each effect as a different effect. Inconsistency rather than consistency. Hugo employs a diverse range of effects, and revels (quite often) in their difference. In their heterogenity.

      By situating this idea in an earlier epoch, and the world of the pantomine, effects such as this can flourish. They no longer need to conform to each other and be “convincing” (or seamless). They escape “totalisation”. One can fall in love effects all over again. As effects, rather than as means to some dubious end.

    • I won’t try and talk you round on this one, Tim. I also think the film’s structure is rather wonky. The automaton feels like too strong a device to just to turn out to have been a mere McGuffin to get things started. But the connecting thread might well be the cinema, which Melies sees as one more broken machine. The automaton is an earlier form of recorded movement, superseded by film (though it wouldn’t make sense, then, that Melies would have programmed it to draw a scene from one of his films). Since I knew all along that Melies was the film’s big “secret”, the fact that cinema was the real subject wasn’t a sudden surprise.

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