Thursday, November 24, 2011
Set in the vast Parisien train station Gare Montparnasse in the early '30s, Hugo follows its titular hero (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned child of a clockmaker, as he moves within the walls of station winding its various timekeepers and swiping meals from oblivious vendors. He also collects gears to repair a rusted automaton his father (Jude Law) brought home before he died in a museum fire, hoping that continuing his father's work will somehow bring the man back in some form. But when an old toy vendor (Ben Kingsley) catches him trying to steal parts from one of his wind-up mice, Hugo finds himself thrust into a deeper story of embitterment and rejuvenation, one that holds the key to his own issues even as it plunges him into a whole new world.
Scorsese delights with his new toy, but the space he gives to objects already made distinct by the 3D effect is magical. Steam and mist hang in the air in ethereal clouds, while gears turn all around the lad as he snakes through the station's inner workings. The inherently shallow visual range of 3D only encourages the director to use even more close-ups and extreme close-ups than usual, which Thelma Schoonmaker throws together in what must surely be the best-edited family film of all time. The 3D gives the film its usual illusory effect, but where so many are trying to make the format seem legitimate and artistic, Scorsese actively uses it for cheap effect, whether opening on snow flurries that float out into the audience or pushing out the faces of those in close-up. In so doing, he uses 3D to remind the audience of the film's "filmness," of the fact that it's fake yet enchanting.
This becomes important when Hugo grows close to the toy seller's granddaughter, Isabel (Chloë Moretz), who has been forbidden from seeing any movies. Hugo sneaks her into Safety Last!, that masterful Harold Lloyd picture, and she marvels with fright and elation at the man's precarious stunts, scarcely able to believe her eyes. When clues lead the two to believe that her grandfather might have made films as well, Scorsese visualizes their research with clips from the earliest of cinema, especially the Lumière brothers' film Train Pulling into a Station, which seems so simple today but famously terrified audiences who feared the train would come through the screen and crush them. In that 50-second short is Scorsese's whole approach to 3D, that of a clearly fake image turned to verisimilitude by the sheer magic of cinema.
Of course, it was not the Lumières who brought wonder to cinema, and it turns out that the old, bitter grandfather tending to his failing toy shop is actually Georges Méliès, the first great dreamer of cinema, the first one to truly test the properties of film and how its sideshow attraction nature could actually be the foundation for artistry, not a hurdle to overcome. From his films comes the blockbuster, with its use, for better and worse, of special effects to dazzle rather than deepen. Naturally, 3D becomes but one of the tricks that can, in theory at least, make film more tactile to audiences, and seeing Méliès' own A Trip to the Moon converted to 3D is one of the most bizarrely fitting approaches to film history I've ever seen, and I cannot believe I just wrote that.
Hugo gradually shifts from the story of a boy trying to find himself to one of that lad attempting to save an old man from self-made ruin, but I found the film remarkably cogent in its unexpected progression. Even the asides to the other characters who populate Scorsese's sandbox of a train station do not significantly alter the momentum. Besides, their subplots converge neatly into the ultimate theme, which sublimates Hugo's quest to retain his father into a story of realizing one's self, regardless of age. Even the film's villain, a hobbled WWI veteran turned officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), gets the chance to find some measure of happiness and fulfillment. He, Hugo and Méliès have all suffered some kind of debilitating setback, but finding their various loves in life, be they people or projects (or both), can make them whole again.
I have some minor quibbles with Hugo. Moretz, despite being the best and most mature child actor in a generation, gets saddled with vocabulary words that too preciously play on her intelligence. Robert Richardson's cinematography is gorgeous and works fluidly with the 3D, but I'm somewhat over our strange orange and teal fascination when it comes to color tones. Nevertheless, Hugo is a delight, and as personal in its own way as Mean Streets. Scorsese's passion for film preservation comes to the fore in the final act, and judging from the astonished response of the children in my screening to those ambitious old silents, the need for protecting and showing these films to new generations is a cultural imperative, which shouldn't be as hard as it seems. (I've seen some dismissing Scorsese's cinephilia here as academic, but the pleasures of people like Méliès or Lloyd are anything but dry and intellectual.) Movies unlock purpose for so many in this film, and it comes as no surprise that the key that sets it all in motion should be in the shape of a heart.