Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

A SplitScreen Discussion: Hugo

In Film, Reviews on December 31, 2011 at 9:57 am

by Matt Smith and Eric Plaag

This month’s edition (we’re lagging a couple of months, we know) of TheSplitScreen discussion takes us into the movies about movies genre, with the recently released Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Based on a book by Brian Selznick (The Adventures of Hugo Cabret), Hugo tells the story of an orphan living in the Paris train station. The son of a watch maker and a born tinkerer himself, he is trying to complete the restoration of an automaton that he began with his father, and for which he is stealing wheels and cogs piece by piece from a toy shop in the station. There’s a lot to talk about here, as it’s also the first foray for one of the world’s most-honored directors into 3-D, and has been highly anticipated because of the lagging audience and industry interest in the format.

The film’s plot finds Hugo befriending a young girl, and discovering the secret of the bitter old man who runs the toy shop. He is Georges Meliés, the pioneer of cinema who made over 500 films in his lifetime and he has been hiding away thinking the world has forgotten him and his work, completely separating his new life from the cinema. Hugo uncovers the secret all while evading a comically menacing station inspector, and we bear witness to several of the side stories developing with some of the other shop owners. It’s a film for children and families that has been garnering a lot of positive praise, but does it work as a family film? That will be one of the issues we attempt to get to the bottom of today.

MATT: The thing I really like about this is that Martin Scorsese totally pulled off a kid’s movie. I was wary of it at first (though really excited at the news), but then I remembered that this is the same guy who has done some really emotional work with a child actor before in Kundun. While that was most certainly an adult drama, it’s important to note that the work with the child seems to have really informed his approach here, and the children, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), are quite amazing as actors. This may have to do with the pedigree of child actor involved–Butterfield and Moretz are Hollywood heavyweights at this point, having turned in some terrific performances over the past few years–but I think it would be a disservice to the film to discount Scorsese’s involvement. He’s not particularly known for working closely with an actor to craft the character, but that’s mostly due to the fact that his films often seem to have such wonderfully realized characters at the outset, working from strong source material (The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ) or from a strong script by frequent collaborators, among them John Logan, Nicholas Pillegi, and Paul Schrader, without whom we might not even have a predetermined notion of what a “Martin Scorsese Picture” is or should be.

Moving away from acting a bit, I think it’s also worth noting that he is also likely the one working director who has a deep knowledge of classical cinema. For that reason Hugo is a perfect project for him. The films of Georges Meliés are beloved within the film world, and in Hugo he not only gets to reconstruct them as well as use them in a wonderful montage at the end, but he gets to go on some terrific little journeys into the birth of cinema. While many people may take umbrage with the fact that he continues to expound the (likely) myth that audiences leapt out of the way at the sight of an oncoming train, I love those moments of Hugo because it brings to life the mythology and reverence that children formulate about the cinema themselves. It is both astonishing and silly to a child that adults would think like that about a film, but as adults we lose a bit of that astonishment. What I’m trying to get at here is that the cinema is supposed to be magical, and in his own way, Scorsese invokes that as often as possible, so it is fitting that Meliés turns out to be the subject of a Scorsese film.

ERIC: While there is much that I admire about Hugo, I’m not so sure I’d agree that it works as a kids’ movie. In fact, if anything, the film seemed to me to be conflicted between wanting to be a children’s film on some level (perhaps marketing?), and trafficking in surprisingly adult emotions, themes, and revelations. In this respect, it reminded me a great deal of another movie about movies that features a child at its core: Cinema Paradiso. In some ways, Hugo relies on the same conventions, as we see in the relationship between the watchmaker and Hugo, which in the beginning is a virtual analog of the early dynamic between Alfredo and Salvatore, as well as in Hugo’s heartbreaking discovery that so much of Meliés’s creativity and magic has been lost or nearly lost to the ravages of time and disappointment, which is not unlike the devastation Salvatore feels when he returns as an adult to find that the theater is to be demolished in the name of the same kind of “progress” that rendered Meliés’s work no longer attractive to audiences. I fear that the watchmaker’s emotions are ones that will not resonate with ten-year-olds who do not yet really know what it means to have one’s dreams destroyed by others, nor will those of the station inspector Gustav, who has also known heartbreak of the cruelest kind. To most kids, they will both seem to be only crotchety or cruel old men who play as the film’s bad guys. But that’s not what they are. Like Hugo and Isabelle both, these and many of the other characters who populate Hugo are broken, in desperate need of finding something magical in their lives. This is why I was deeply moved by what I think is one of the finest scenes in the film, when Gustav and the florist finally speak to one another and turn not to flirtation but promptly to the agonies of the Great War. It is not a comic sequence, as the scene’s set-up seems to suggest is coming. Instead, it culminates in a profound moment of recognition between these two severely damaged people. There aren’t many kids or even young adults I know who would understand such a passing but vital reference to Verdun, which is presented to us as if it were common knowledge soaked into our collective social unconscious just as it was in post-war France.

Indeed, this is one of the problems of Hugo: It relies on associations that will make culturally aware adults laugh out loud or muse wistfully or swallow back emotion, while the children in the audience won’t get it at all. One impressive sequence in the film focuses on Hugo’s oddly prescient nightmare in which he is the cause of the infamous Gare Montparnasse train accident in 1895. The picture is a famous one — a huge train engine hanging out of the front window of the station from the concourse above — but most children won’t know it. My thirteen-year-old son, who I like to think is very well read, knew the image only because it used to hang on the wall in my kitchen — my touchstone for whether a day had really been as terrible as I might think at the end of it. Similarly, the long sequence in which Gustav is hunting for Hugo, and the boy must hang from the station clock face Harold Lloyd-style, is meaningful to youngster viewers only because the audience has already seen Hugo and Isabelle watching the same scene at the movie house earlier in the film. In Hugo there are countless similar nods to the glorious early years of captured images, whether they be purely cinematic or generally photographic ones, and I’m not sure most adults, let alone most kids, could catch them all.

All of this begs the question, of course, of who it is that Scorsese is speaking to. As I marveled at the haunting beauty of this film and its sequences, I realized that these “in” references are not unlike that great moment in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall — another magnificent and important movie about moviemaking (and most decidedly not a children’s movie) — when the young Alexandria catches a glimpse of the inverted projection of a horse as its light passes from outside through a keyhole and appears on the wall beside her. A child revels in such delights by seeing them as miracles, while the adult with a knowledge of how a lens works finds humor and an odd sort of comfort in Alexandria’s subsequent gasp. In short, I consistently found myself thinking that Scorsese was trying to remind me and adults like me about the magic and invention and…well…love that goes into this fabulous art of filmmaking. I feel as though he is wanting us to feel wondrous again, just as Hugo and Isabelle are in their discoveries throughout the film, for exactly the reason you suggest, Matt — it’s easy as we get older to forget what that feels like. But then there comes that long montage and backstory on Meliés near the end of the film. I found it fascinating and thoroughly entertaining, but I could certainly understand that many children might feel as if they were sitting through a Film Studies 101 lecture. Part of this may be because older folks will understand, for example, the hard work and brilliant imagination that went into the stop-action sequences that are broken down in this montage (the one with the skeletons in particular); Scorsese can afford to skip some of the details, knowing that we old people will connect the dots. Kids who have grown up in a purely digital world, though, might not get how labor intensive this kind of filmmaking would have been, and why it was therefore so amazing, and Scorsese doesn’t (and can’t, really) dwell on that point for long for fear of derailing the film. But remember — this is a culture that now teaches digital photography courses in schools without ever talking about aperture, shutter speed, or other essential photographic terms. Understanding those miracles — and recognizing their magic — is no longer so self-evident as we might assume it to be.

And that raises the question of why Hugo is presented to us in 3D. I’m curious what you thought about this choice, Matt, and whether this technological innovation serves to add any “magic” to the Hugo story in the same ways that Meliés’s discoveries so clearly did.

MATT: Before delving into the whys and wherefores of 3D, I must respectfully disagree with you. This is indeed a children’s film, and just because the constant references to other films are there does not seem to lose the audience. Scorsese (and Jim Jarmusch and Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers and and and and) includes moments which reference other films, in particular the French New Wave and Italian Neo-realism, all the time. I don’t think that just because one may not get the reference does not mean that the film doesn’t know who it is speaking to, and one of the really great things I found in Hugo is that it seems to present something for everyone, from the train image you mentioned, to the silent film production methodology, down to the human and “adult” emotions evoked by the characters. I don’t read it nearly as much as a gap in Scorsese’s judgement to skimp on details where adult audiences might be concerned as much as a way for him to spark the same intrigue with those strange images that I first encountered as a child, and which led me to where I am now. There is something wondrous, I feel, for a child to be struck by something they know nothing about, and then become curious enough to find out more about it, like attending a magic show and then purchasing all manner of how-to books and decks of cards.

As for the 3D, I genuinely enjoyed its deployment by Scorsese, who is one of maybe three filmmakers to have used it in a way that I felt added something to the film (the other two will be on my year-end list, so no need to bring them up in-depth here). I think the choice to go in 3D is probably mostly from the studio at the production contract level. The format was still all the rage last year when the production started coming together, after all. But I still find it striking that Scorsese was able to use it to open up the image, and didn’t use it as a gimmick at all, even when it could have been very easy to do so (the famous train film, the final shot of The Great Train Robbery with the cowboy firing the gun directly at the screen). The depth he achieves, with some computer assistance during the breathtaking opening trek through the train station’s mechanical clock faces, is staggering and completely unlike anything we’ve seen before, even from James Cameron’s Avatar, which was very pretty, but still retained a forced-perspective viewfinder method where half the image was usually out of focus and illegible. Here I’m reminded more of the deep-focus photography that was all the rage in Welles and Renoir films, and which gave the image a vibrancy and a life that was more than just the characters sitting in front of you on the screen. There is a real world in that celluloid projected on the screen.

I would also like to think that Scorsese was excited to try the format because, while we don’t think about him as such, he has always been interested in advanced techniques behind the camera, whether in sound design or the expressionistic use of new lenses, and even some CGI. With Hugo it seems like he got the sense of being a kid again himself, and watching him use his trademark extended tracking shots combined with the image depth provided by the 3D was a distinct pleasure I got from the film. Much like Meliés, I think Scorsese was simply interested in tinkering around and seeing what he could do with it, and it worked out pretty magically.

While I did think the final third of the film got a little too Film History 101, as you put it, I also think that this is something that no one ever puts right out there in front of an audience. The cinema expects its audience to be cognizant of its history, but rarely are they. What is so great about this film and Selznick’s book, is that it makes that history explicitly cinematic itself, and brings the magic that went into the wonderful silent films made during and after Meliés’ time to life unlike any time before. I gasped audibly when the real films and not the recreations were shown at the end of the film, not only because I had forgotten how gorgeous they truly are, but because they were also presented in the multi-dimensional format, converted digitally, but in a way that was unobtrusive. Instead of being offended that they had been converted, I found it more than appropriate, especially considering that it fit so well with the visual motifs of the 3D found throughout Hugo.

I, too, liked the moment between Gustav and the florist (Emily Mortimer, one of my favorite actresses), and the conversation about Verdun was handled in a way that I fear will only further iterate what I found to be great about the movie (including the 3D, and the references to other films): Scorsese’s direction, and the script by John Logan, display a light touch in what they use as exposition. I, for one, want filmmakers to act like the audience knows everything about what’s going on in their films. Not to get off on a tangent, but one of my favorite films from the previous decade, Spartan, operates in much the same way. It does not pander to the lowest common denominator as so much writing does for films these days, and really only gives you enough information to keep the story moving and give the audience just enough to follow it. And each time I watch it, the dialogue is richer, more meaningful and more intriguing than the previous. Not because it is initially sparse and bereft of information, but because it seems to be that way, and then the next time you learn a little more that maybe you hadn’t caught onto before. The reference to Verdun is that same thing.

ERIC: I’m glad you brought up that opening steady-cam shot through the train station, which really is magnificent. I’m not sure that shot benefits in an immediate, obvious, and tangible way from 3D, however. It’s marvelous all on its own, for the wealth of detail we are able to pick up as we fly past the stunning architecture and the myriad lives taking place beneath and beside us on our visual journey. I’m also glad you mentioned the “deep focus” characteristics of this shot–a trick of filmmaking I have admired since Orson Welles first perfected it. But it does raise intriguing questions about how genuine this steady-cam experience is to what most of us ever see or could see in the real world. The human eye does not engage in deep focus, and certainly as we move through our real-world environments, the objects to our immediate left and right are not just as crisply focused as the objects several hundred yards in the distance. Presented to us in the flat-screen, two-dimensional environment of the theater, there is something acutely fantastical about this kind of heightened optical illusion, even as it amazes, and strangely, I’m not sure it did anything to make me feel as if I were “really” in a Parisian train station. The additional layer of 3D imagery (which is still presented in a two-dimensional format that is designed to fool the eye into thinking otherwise) doesn’t take away this awareness of the fantasy. If anything, to the discerning viewer, it only amplifies the sensation, and not just because the 3D glasses are (still) such a pain in the ass.

Then again, cinema has always been about fooling the eye with the fantastical, and that’s part of what Scorsese celebrates throughout this film by urging us to learn about those remarkable innovations of the past. Whether it was the early, flip book-style “movies” one viewed through the Kinetoscope at the arcade or the nickelodeon’s films that relied on stop-action tricks and other special effects, it’s all been about tricking the eye with a certain number of frames per second and the illusion of persistence of vision. But as Wertheimer demonstrated nearly a hundred years ago, the eye is not a camera. Now that digital is shooting at 48 frames per second with a flicker (or, more accurately, refresh) rate that obliterates any strobing effect, it’s becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between the digitally-simulated, two-dimensional world of the 3D film and that place where the rest of us actually live. The fact that it looks so clear, pristine, and vivid doesn’t help matters, and I worry whether Scorsese undermines his love letter to the cinematic past by embracing a technology that only amplifies the misguided notion that the old ways are sort of quaint but passé, like knickers and horse-drawn carriages. A colleague of mine who teaches film at a university in the southeast recently told me that he can’t get his students to come to the teched-out theater on campus for screenings. They’d rather stream the assigned films to their iPhones and watch them while they’re sitting through another class’s boring lecture or riding the bus to school or waiting for their steak and cheese to arrive at the table. It seems to me that it’s difficult for a modern audience to appreciate the history of cinema or the technological innovations that have gone into it if they’re watching a film about that subject on a 3.5″ screen with brightness and contrast settings that would blind someone sitting in the dark.

All of this is more a philosophical problem for film and filmmakers (and viewers who care, I guess) than it is a problem for Scorsese’s Hugo. For much of the film, in fact, I wasn’t really aware of the 3D elements, and maybe this is a good thing. The vibrancy of color was much more striking to me to the point that I wondered about the degree to which Scorsese may have digitally “colored” Hugo in much the same way that Meliés once did his films with hand tinting, as his muse waxes poetic about at one point late in the movie. This, more than any 3D effects, is what made me marvel at Hugo’s visual appeal, especially in the shots of Paris at night, which anyone who has been to Paris would say did not look “real” but nevertheless captured how the city feels at night, especially when glimpsed from Montmartre or any other place on high in the city. And this, really, is Sorsese’s accomplishment, just as it was with Meliés or any of those other early cinematic geniuses–they make us believe that their invented worlds feel real, even if we can see the ways in which they are not.

So, does Hugo work in the ways that it intends? You’re absolutely right that the cinema likes to think that its patrons know its history, but they rarely do, and I’m not sure what to do about that. I was horrified to find out recently that several of my wife’s younger (i.e., 20ish) colleagues had not ever heard of Alfred Hitchcock. These are not dumb people. They go to school, and they do well in school, and they are curious, movie-watching folks who are persistent about wanting to do a movie night with us. They like movies. But as representatives of their generation–and of the educated among their generation–the fact that Hitchcock’s name does not bring immediate, visceral memories into their brains is antithetical to the idea that our culture knows its cinematic past. My film professor friend has had similar experiences. His best students can name a bevy of kitschy 80s films that they’ve seen dozens of times, but to them, these are the “old movies.” Most of them have never even heard of Meliés and have no concept of a silent film accompanied by a live orchestra.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the question you pose–do we want our filmmakers to keep going on in a way that presumes that we (or at least some of us) know the touchstones that they rely upon both narratively and visually, even if most of the viewing audience does not? Maybe this is always the question that art must ask of itself, given its reliance upon allusive material to generate its deepest levels of meaning. I remember reading Shakespeare for the first time as a fifth grader and being startled by how many explanatory footnotes there were. Is this what we have to look forward to in future screenings of classic films–a supplemental “viewer’s guide” with time code notational references? I, too, would prefer not to see our films pander to the lowest common denominator, but those are the folks who buy access to movies in bulk. So, there must soon be either a negotiated middle ground, or we will witness the moment at which film finally bifurcates into pablum for the masses and good stuff for the film-literate, with little in between. Maybe we are already there. But if Scorsese is trying to bridge that gap with Hugo–which I think he is–I’m not sure he’s completely successful in actually bridging the gap as opposed to presenting something appealing to parties on both sides of the gap. How many will leave Hugo with an urge to go learn more about Meliés? How many will even realize he was a real person? How many will like Hugo simply because it is entertaining and dramatic and a little heroic, and not because of the reasons you and I like it? Or think of it this way: Imagine if a first-time or even second-time director without Scorsese’s pedigree had bought the film rights to Selznick’s book and presented a proposal to make this movie that celebrates the history of film in a powerful, haunting way. It never would have happened because the studios never would have taken the risk. The dollar rules all, and in my opinion, that puts any artistic integrity here under the microscope of whether the art exists for art’s sake or primarily to turn a profit. It is a surprisingly small step from a new recording of Mozart’s Requiem to a “Hooked on Classics” recording of the same piece. I’m not saying that Scorsese has crossed that line, but it sure feels as if that line is somewhere nearby, and I find that scary.

MATT: The debate about film as an art form stretches back to the days of Meliés, and I think we’re so far beyond it now that it’s not really worth dredging back up. As a commercial medium, it is only under attack because of some sort of imagined “threat” to it, one that I don’t think affects Hugo’s execution at all. The bifurcation exists, has always existed, and is indistinguishable in every art form. It is the same thing with literature. And that includes the way genre is often treated by so-called “serious” readers. High brow readers are perfectly willing to accept Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and (more recently) pulp authors like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler. These authors operated outside of what is generally considered the literary work of fiction, yet they are lauded because they have somehow “transcended” the genre which gave birth to them–a distinction that is insulting to what their achievements within the genre actually were. Scorsese is a popular filmmaker, not a niche director like Guy Maddin or even Jim Jarmusch, and as such he is the embodiment of the struggle that has always existed between commercialism and art. Let us not forget that this is the man who has ushered the mafia and gangster film into the modern era, made at least one (though in my estimation two) of the greatest concert documentaries of all time, and who is a pretty decent historian of the cinema in his own right. It’s not that we need to footnotes to enjoy the work, but if you’re interested, they’re there and you can dig up what you want.

But all of this is a digression from what is at stake here: you ask about how well Hugo actually operates as a document which will provide the impetus for viewers to track down their own information. I think it works well in this regard, but also have no problem with it if it doesn’t. It is not the work of art’s station to make an audience understand it. It just is. The viewer of Hugo will get whatever they want out of it, and that will be that, just as I am able to find some value in 70s shlock exploitation or a new guilty pleasure Michael Bay film. The fact that I am more informed that someone else as to exactly why I might like this or that, it does not make the impulse or the emotion behind it any different. It is as such with all art. Your wife’s colleagues may have never heard of Alfred Hitchcock, but they have now, thanks to her exposure. Until this past year I had never seen anything by Otto Preminger or given a fair shake to Robert Bresson (I had never sat through the entirety of one of his films, finding myself bored and unable to deal with it), but now I have. Everything works in this way.

What I take away from Hugo is that we have been given an entertaining film that packs a whole lot of information, both in its dialogue and characterization as well as its visuals, into a two hour running time. It is Scorsese’s love letter to silent film, to the medium that has been so wondrous and kind and loving to its fans. I think the 3D works because it is unobtrusive, and most of the time you don’t notice it, but that does not necessarily mean that the film has not been enriched by its use in any way. Is 3D necessary for the enjoyment of any movie? With the possible exception of genre and/or gimmick movies or something like Herzog’s amazing use of it in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, no, it’s not. But it is used in Hugo in a manner entirely different from the much-lauded use that James Cameron squeezed out of it in his previous efforts, and I think much more fully realized.

I like Hugo immensely. I think it’s a children’s film of uncommon depth and realization. Much more akin to something like Danny Boyle’s Millions, another emotionally complex and entertaining tale that is light years ahead of the typical family fare that normally consists of useless adaptations (and I use that words very loosely) of Journey to the Center of the Earth or the absolutely brain-dead comedies (I can provide a very long list if you wish) which are commonly produced from children’s literature, mostly live-action, but also some animated fare as well, which I won’t even begin to get into.

ERIC: I think we will have to agree to disagree about whether the film-as-art-form discussion is still worth having. There are plenty of art forms that have commercial hucksters operating on the fringes, and I think it’s still important to know and highlight the difference. You’ve seen some of the photography in the shows and commercial galleries we’ve wandered through together over the years, and I think you’d agree that there’s a big difference between over-produced digital images of kittens or stock tourist sites selling for $500 a crack and photographic images (digital or darkroom) selling for the same price that make you stop, think, and marvel about the image. The same is true about cinema. You’re entitled to your Michael Bay guilty pleasures, and there’s nothing wrong with that — I certainly have mine, too. But as a discerning viewer with a well-honed sense of taste, you’re never going to praise Michael Bay as high art or anything worthy of your higher faculties. I’m not so sure that most moviegoers can make this distinction, and if Hugo blurs that line even as it tries to emphasize the difference, then I see that as an artistic misstep on Scorsese’s part. As for your genre-transcending writers, artists, and filmmakers, these are folks who took material that was always treated as schlock and elevated it to an art form by expressing something meaningful through the work. I don’t see it as insulting to recognize them as such. It is not genre that determines artistic value, as you seem to suggest, but what the artist does with the genre. Scorsese is an artist not because he transcended the mafia/gangster genre but because he created compelling, believable, stunning films about the subject. Similarly, I’ve never bought in to the cop out that art “just is” and doesn’t have a responsibility to convey meaning. Art that fails to communicate is masturbation, even if it cloaks itself in an air of profundity.

What I think we can agree on about Hugo is this: Scorsese has created an entertaining, moving, thought-provoking love letter to silent cinema, one that lots of folks should see, whether they are interested in the history of early filmmaking or are simply looking for an adventurous, although on occasion too cute, story about young people rediscovering the magic that the adults around them have become too cynical to remember. Like you, I enjoyed Hugo immensely, too, and I admire much of what it is doing, although perhaps for different reasons than you do. Yes, it is light years ahead of the standard family fare, but I expected as much from one of the greatest directors of our time. I guess where we differ is on the question of where Scorsese’s bar should have been set with this film and the opportunities it offered him. I don’t think he accomplished all that he could have, and that disappoints me. At a time when our culture is losing touch with the medium of film and its rich history, as well as shifting all of its mediated interactions into individualized experiences rather than ones that are culturally shared, leaving us as a veritable Babel of cultural references, I can think of no more important work than a director like Scorsese taking this opportunity to wake up everyone to what they’ve been missing. Instead, after seeing Hugo, I fear that he is (mostly) shouting into the wind and doing so in a language that few will truly understand.

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