Writing unenthusiastically a couple of years ago about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, I reported how “I started to think there’s something rather insecure about how he casts himself as an eternal superfan, devoting himself to preservation, making documentaries on American and Italian cinema (with British cinema to come) and on Bob Dylan (with George Harrison to come)…it’s getting tiresome how he raves in interviews about B-grade old-timers, people whose influence he ought to have outgrown years ago.” And that was before he made an entertaining but completely inessential documentary about Fran Lebowitz.
Well, Scorsese’s new film Hugo – his best in decades - represents the best possible response to this line of criticism. It’s as dazzling a deployment of cutting edge cinematic resources as you’ll ever see; in particular, it’s Scorsese’s first in 3-D. And it uses this to reach all the way back into the history of the medium, to celebrate the pioneer Georges Melies, insisting on his continuing relevance, as a creator in himself and more broadly as one of the first to understand the possibilities of cinema for nurturing dreams and visions. It takes Scorsese’s “superfan” project to an almost perverse extreme perhaps, but it’s as generous and joyous as any film could be. And it’s wonderfully mysterious how such a “big” picture can feel so sweetly intimate, conveying sudden and total refreshment.
Hugo Cabret is an orphaned boy, living inside a Paris train station in the 1930s, under constant threat of detection by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), especially because of his petty pilfering from the store of an old toy vendor known as Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). He makes friends with the old man’s granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), showing her a mechanical automaton his father saved from a museum, and which Hugo is trying to repair (hence the stolen parts). I don’t want to give away more than that (although the movie’s plot is hardly its most important aspect), but it’s impossible to write about it (and I don’t think anyone has) without noting that Papa Georges turns out to be Melies, virtually penniless and forgotten by almost everyone, too bitter to remember his past glories; as the children learn about these achievements, Scorsese embeds some of Melies’ work into his own film, as well as recreating in flashback the dream factory of his heyday (made of glass to maximize the light).
Melies made over 500 short films, from around 1896 to 1913: the best-known is Le voyage dans la lune, with its famous image of a rocket flying into the eye of a moon-face. I watched a few of them about a year ago, and it didn’t take long for a feeling of repetition to set in – his taste was for potted adventure spectacles, with mythical quests, monsters and dancing girls. He was a pioneer of what we now call special effects, for example in snipping out frames to create the illusion of someone suddenly disappearing, and in several of the films I watched, he focused on the glories of industrial production. But Melies wasn’t interested in the camera as a medium for exploring real life and people: he saw cinema as a variation on his past theatrical magic acts. Hugo (very kindly, I thought) suggests his luck changed because of the harder attitudes spawned by World War One, but he would surely have petered out regardless, overtaken by more advanced sensibilities (such as Louis Feuillade, also briefly referenced in the film, who was already making his multipart Fantomas epics as Melies wound down).
The rather poignant futility of Melies’ imaginings makes Scorsese’s elevation of him all the more moving. Hugo has an unusually tactile feeling for a digital epic – the texture is defined by clocks and moving pieces and the process of fixing broken things. Hugo refers to the world as a machine; a comforting analogy because machines don’t come with excess parts, and so we must all fit in there somewhere. But the loss of his father means Hugo doesn’t “work” any more, and of course Melies doesn’t either. Hugo is a grand fantasy, but at its centre it sees life and creativity in practical terms – certainly we must dream, but we also have to diagnose and repair. Scorsese extends the theme with the activity around the station – the inspector ineptly tries to court a flower vendor, paralleling an older man’s constant failure to approach his object of desire (she likes him; her little dog doesn’t). In the end, he suggests, cinema isn’t just about escaping; it contributes, even transforms, these faltering attempts at forging a community.
Scorsese’s goodwill even extends to a tacit endorsement of home viewing (sometimes viewed rather disdainfully by cinephiles): a scene where a film professor sets up a projector to show Le voyage dans la lune in Melies’ living room seems like a precursor of television! And the film made me think of 3-D in a rather different way than I had before. I’m rather skeptical of the technology; at best it’s another set of tools, a different visual convention, rather than any kind of heightened reality. Hugo has the inevitable moments when the foreground seems pointlessly and jarringly pronounced or the background weirdly flat and drained. But overall it works to anchor us within the spaces and the relationships, heightening our sense of the world as components and layers and connections, deepening the texture of Hugo’s quest to define himself within it all.
As I mentioned, from a commercial perspective the film seems almost perverse, or at least a huge leap of faith. We’re a long way from the era when – as it depicts in one scene – two children could be enraptured by a silent Harold Lloyd classic. Moving images are ubiquitous, and frankly, in the form most kids experience them, they’re not special – they’re just pacifiers, junk food. There’s a pedagogic aspect to Hugo for sure – there would have to be, or modern audiences might be largely mystified by it (they might still be). But it’s not pedantic and it’s never merely fuzzily nostalgic. It’s boundlessly optimistic that all of this still matters, can still change lives, or even save them.
In that review of Shutter Island, I said: “I don’t think (Scorsese) has any great insight into people or the world. He’s just really good with the tools of cinema. In his heyday…a mixture of preoccupied times, internal trauma, amazing collaborators and who knows what else led him to some unprecedented achievements. So that’s all over now – well, who doesn’t burn out eventually?” But with Hugo, it’s possible to look back at a film like Shutter Island as Scorsese’s own period of exile in the artistic toy store, now triumphantly at an end.