Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hugo (Paramount/GK Films/Infinitum Nihil, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the “feature” Charles and I ran was Hugo, one I’d recently ordered from Columbia House DVD Club after both of us had missed it during its theatrical run. While it would have been nice to see it on the big screen and in 3-D — it’s a measure of the skill of director Martin Scorsese (I’ve missed a lot of his big movies because I was turned off by his obsession with criminal violence and the Mafia as subject matter, but I’ve liked quite a few of the films Scorsese mavens think are his less interesting ones, like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator) and cinematographer Robert Richardson that even watched from a DVD on an old low-res medium-sized TV, the depth of field was stunning and the film looked like it had been shot in 3-D (which the movie we watched the night before, Underworld: Awakening — even though it was also released in 3-D in theatres — had not). Hugo began as a “young adult” novel by Brian Selznick — a relative but not a direct descendant of the legendary moviemaker David O. Selznick (according to his page he’s the grandson of a first cousin of David Selznick and his agent brother Myron) — and it became a movie thanks to producer Graham King, who’s been bankrolling most of Scorsese’s recent productions. It’s also the first film Scorsese has made in 12 years that did not star Leonardo DiCaprio, probably because the three leads are two children and an old man.

Set in Paris in 1931 (at least that’s what the synopsis said, though my guess was 1925 because a movie theatre in Paris is showing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and in a film whose plot largely revolves around movies, moviemaking and moviegoing, there’s no mention of the talkies), Hugo tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the son of a museum staff member who’s developed a knack for building and fixing clocks. Dad brings home a mechanical man — an “automaton,” as they were called in France in the 19th century (when there was a major vogue for such things) — that was donated to the museum but is just gathering dust because it doesn’t work and nobody knows how to fix it. Hugo eventually figures out how to get the thing working again, but in the meantime he’s been caught stealing from the Gare du Montparnasse train station by Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs a small toy concession there. Georges threatens to call the station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen) — a delightfully inept cop whom I joked was the grandfather of Inspector Clouseau (and indeed Cohen was made up to look quite similar to Peter Sellers as Clouseau) but at least some of his ineptitudes are explained by his having lost a leg in combat in World War I and his having to make do with a barely functional artificial leg — and steals the mysterious notebook Hugo was carrying that includes a series of flip drawings by which a face (a similar face to that of the automaton) appears to move. Georges says to Hugo that he can work off the cost of the items he stole and an edgy relationship develops between the crabby old man and the boy. The boy also meets Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and a relationship develops between them after Hugo’s father is burned to death in a fire at the museum. Hugo is sent to live inside the Montparnasse station with his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a chronic alcoholic on his last legs, whose job it is to keep the elaborate network of clocks in the station wound and in good repair. Only several months later Claude is found drowned in the frozen-over Seine and everyone at the station is baffled by that because they have no idea Hugo has been filling in for him, winding and fixing the clocks and thereby doing his uncle’s job.

The film is basically two parallel plot lines, one centered around Hugo’s situation, his success in repairing the automaton and getting its attached pen to work (though it’s a fountain pen and the automaton seems to have an endless supply of ink — it doesn’t have to keep dipping its pen into an inkwell the way a human writer would), his growing interest in Isabelle and his confession to her that when his dad was alive they used to go to movies together every time they could (they sneak into the theatre that’s showing Safety Last but they’re caught, and Isabelle says it’s the first time she’s been to a movie because “Papa” Georges won’t let her go and can’t stand them himself). The other story is about Georges himself, who’s taken great pains to conceal his past, to the point of destroying virtually every relic of it he can find, and who turns out to be [spoiler alert!] the great pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, who in the first decade of the 20th century was one of the world’s leading actor/writer/directors. He began as a stage magician and got into filmmaking seriously when he was playing with a movie camera and it jammed; when he developed the film he found that, though the camera hadn’t moved, a carriage had mysteriously turned into a bus. Méliès was the first filmmaker to build his entire style around special effects — the “effects movie,” for good and ill, was truly born in his Star Film studio — and he was also a fanatic about intellectual property rights, going so far as to incorporate the Star Film logo into his sets so his films couldn’t be pirated (the beginning of the modern practice of TV stations and DVD companies to insert their logos into a corner of the screen). He also built a studio whose walls were made out of glass — mainly because in the early days the only really useful source of lighting for films was the sun, and the glass was designed to let the sunlight in (though Méliès must have had diffusers, shutters or some other contraption to vary the intensity of the sunlight coming in, because without such devices film shot in broad daylight would have been hopelessly overexposed).

Hugo and Isabelle do a lot of hanging out in a combination bookstore and lending library owned by Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), and through him they get in touch with one of the pioneers of film preservation, movie librarian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who gives them a book to read about the early days of movies that contains a chapter on Méliès. Rene actually visited Méliès’ studio in the glory days — his older brother worked as a carpenter there — and eventually, particularly after Hugo and Isabelle find a cache of drawings for Méliès’ films in a hidden drawer in an armoire in Georges’ apartment, they realize that Georges is Méliès and his wife Jeanne (Helen McCrory) was his assistant in his magic act and then appeared frequently in his films. The story of Hugo is almost entirely atmosphere and character vignettes — and the threat of being taken away from his tenuous attempts to retain a family and essentially jailed in an orphanage is such a running theme in the plot one is reminded of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo (in fact I wondered if naming the central character “Hugo” was deliberately intended as a Victor Hugo tribute) ­— and it’s the sort of movie that more or less ambles to a conclusion rather than ending with a bang (though it almost ends with a bang when Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, drops the precious automaton over some train tracks and, when he tries to save it, is nearly killed himself by an oncoming train — an event he’d had a premonition of in a dream that paralleled the early film by the Lumière brothers in which they shot a train coming in a station and audiences who watched the film screamed and fled in horror from the theatre for fear an actual train was bearing down on them), though the final scene shows Méliès (whose drop in popularity is attributed, in the script by John Logan from Selznick’s novel, to the real-life horrors of World War I rendering his charming fantasies obsolete and no longer of interest to audiences) introducing a revival showing of his films that Rene has curated.

 Hugo is a rich movie, full of fascinating depths, and an interesting bookend to the film that beat it out of the major Academy Awards, The Artist, in that both are tributes to the silent-film era — and though Hugo doesn’t go as far as The Artist did in eschewing dialogue altogether, it’s a marvelously balanced movie that tells as much of its story in pictures and pantomime and uses dialogue only when it has to (the sort of movie a lot of intellectuals in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s thought would become commonplace once the novelty of “100 percent all-talking” wore off and the screen, having learned to speak, would re-learn when it was best off shutting up). It’s also a highly personal film for Martin Scorsese: a director who’s been a leader in film preservation (a cause he got into when he realized the films he made in the 1970’s were starting to fade within a few years — he had the bad luck to start his major directorial career when Eastmancolor had introduced a new, cheaper film stock that faded faster than the ones they’d had before) making a movie in which film preservation is an integral part of the plot — and it’s a bitter story that reminds us that Méliès was one of the first people in the film world who fell as far as he rose. The plot line involving him is all too vivid in its depiction of the cruelty with which the film business treats its elders, writing them off as has-beens and letting them live in penury while consigning their films themselves to a scrap heap (there’s a grimly amusing scene in which Méliès recalls being so broke he had to sell the physical prints of his films to a chemical company, which ended up using them to make high heels for women’s shoes — and Scorsese cuts to some shots of women’s heels, presumably in the shoes made from Méliès’ magical movies) — something Brian Selznick would have known about all too well from his own family’s history. Hugo is a film of real charm, maybe not quite a masterpiece but certainly an underrated little gem and proof once again (in case any were still needed) that there are other things Scorsese can do besides violence and crime.

I also found myself wondering if Ben Kingsley had ever played any real-life characters besides Méliès and his star-making turn as Mahatma Gandhi — and according to his filmography on, he’s done quite a few: Dr. John Elliotson in a 1976 British TV miniseries about Charles Dickens; Vladimir Lenin and Dimitri Shostakovich in 1988 productions (different movies made the same year); Simon Wiesenthal in a made-for-TV biopic in 1989; Pericles in a 1991 TV-movie called The War That Never Ends; Meyer Lansky in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (with Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel); the Jewish accountant and concentration-camp inmate in what’s probably Kingsley’s second-best-known credit, Schindler’s List (1994); and Anne Frank’s father Otto in yet another Holocaust-themed story, a 2001 TV mini-series called Anne Frank: The Whole Story.