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 Artist, Midnight 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-Ass, Let Me In, 30 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.
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:
- A Trip to the Moon/Le Voyage Dans La Lune
- The Films of Georges Melies: I should probably let my undergraduates write guest posts more often if they’re all going to be as good as this…
- From the Earth to the Movies: On the reconstruction of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon in the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon.
- Georges Melies: A Magician at Work: A guest post from one of my undergraduates, teaching this blog a thing or two.
- Georges Melies in Springfield: Itchy and Scratchy parody A Trip to the Moon in an episode of The Simpsons.
- Hogarth’s Trip to the Moon
- Le Voyage dans le Stereoscope: slides from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune, first performed in 1875.
- A Trip to the First Men in the Moon: The BBC’s 2010 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon features explicit references to Melies’ film.
- How Special Effects Work #3: Now that’s magic…: Analysis of Georges Melies’Vanishing Lady trick and the film he made of it.
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Announcing the production of Martin Scorsese’s adapation of Brian Selznick’s book, which features Melies extensively.
- The Hugo Trailer: The first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s film.
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.