Sunday, March 04, 2012

Hugo

Like, I suspect, a lot of people of my generation, my first introduction to George Méliès's 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon came from the Smashing Pumpkins' 1996 music video "Tonight, Tonight."  At the time, I had no idea who Méliès was or even that the video was an homage--it was simply a gorgeous, halucinatory short film set to beautiful music.  It was another homage to A Trip to the Moon that introduced me to Méliès's name and his importance in the history of filmmaking--the final episode of the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, titled "Le Voyage dans la Lune," cuts between the preparations for the final Apollo mission and an interview with one of Méliès's assistants (played by producer Tom Hanks), who describes the film's production.  Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated, rapturously received film Hugo (based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) also has Méliès and A Trip to the Moon at its heart, but its approach to both filmmaker and film draws a line between Hugo's intended, juvenile audience and people like myself.  When Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the maintenance spaces of the Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris, tells his newfound friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) about a film his father had seen as a young man, in which a rocketship takes off from Earth and hits the man in the moon in the eye, people like myself, who have seen "Tonight, Tonight" and From the Earth to the Moon, or simply know the smallest bit about the history of cinema, will recognize the film he's talking about immediately.  Children watching the movie, however, will probably be as much in the dark as Hugo and Isabelle, and eager to learn more.

Children's books have been a hot commodity for more than a decade, ever since a certain young wizard made it OK for adults to enjoy them, and children's films were quick to follow suit in courting both the juvenile and adult audiences.  The books and films that have gained massive popularity and large adult audiences tend to be fantastic adventures whose protagonists are either destined to greatness or have greatness thrust upon them.  What's been lost in the shuffle is the fact that there is an entirely different genre of writing and filmmaking for children, whose conventions adults are likely to find less congenial.  These books tend to be episodic, made up of linked stories that young readers can more easily process (or have read to them).  Their emphasis tends to be on mundane problems related to family, friends, or school, with fantastic or adventurous elements--if they exist at all--serving mainly to highlight and help resolve these issues.  The protagonist isn't a child of destiny, but merely the person that the story is happening to.  There is often an educational component to the story--a piece of history, or science, or art, that the protagonist learns about, and thus teaches to the reader.  The fate of the world is rarely at stake, but the characters' emotional well-being is.

I haven't read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but judging by Hugo I get the impression that it is this latter type of book.  For all the film's pomp and visual flair--its loving caress of every nook and cranny of the Gare Montparnasse (actually the Gare du Nord, filling in), its fascination with the enormous, endlessly churning gearwork of the station clocks that Hugo maintains, and of course, its impressive, and impressively subtle, use of 3D--the story it tells is very low key.  While struggling to avoid being spotted by the law and sent to an orphanage, Hugo is also trying to work through his grief over his father's death by fixing an automaton that they had been working on together.  He meets Isabelle, and her guardian Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and together the two children discover the wonder and history of cinema, and learn that Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (and also the automaton's creator), now broken down and bitter over the collapse of his career and the loss of all his films.  They decide to assuage his grief by showing him that his films are still remembered and loved, and do--which also leads to Hugo finding a home with Isabelle and Papa Georges.  The end.

It's interesting to see a big-budget Hollywood children's movie that tells so small a story, and there is, at first, something refreshing about Hugo's avoidance of the conventions of such films.  It's initially quite wrongfooting, for example, that Hugo is so reserved about his history and the reasons that he is living in a train station and obsessing about an automaton, even in situations where to speak up would spare him significant misery.  We're used to children's films front-loading their protagonist's backstory, the better to get the actual plot rolling.  In Hugo, however, Hugo's reticence tells us something about him--that he is in too much pain to talk about it blithely, and that he has learned a healthy distrust of adults--prioritizing character development over plot.  The problem, and the reason that the film ultimately leaves me so unimpressed, is that this is not the only story that Hugo is telling, and that its other stories are nowhere near as small or as intimate as this one.  Whether he's keeping faith with Selznick's novel, or bowing to Hollywood's current idea of what a children's film should be like, or simply making the film he wanted to make, Scorsese combines this low-key character drama about a child coming to terms with the loss of his father with an adventure, complete with elaborate, visually inventive chase sequences, about two plucky children investigating a mystery and outwitting cruel adults, and a potted history of the early years of cinema and the career of Georges Méliès.  The result is tonally incoherent, the three strands constantly getting in each other's way.  The film is so busy serving up the set pieces of Hugo and Isabelle's adventure (including one in which Hugo dangles from the minute arm of the station clock), that it has no time to develop Hugo or his emotional journey in any but the baldest, most unsubtle of terms.  The adventure, however, is in its turn undercut both by Hugo and Isabelle's understated reactions and lack of urgency, and by the film's frequent pauses to deliver short lectures about the history of its medium.  From one scene to another, Hugo seems to have no idea what kind of story it's trying to tell.

Nowhere is this more apparent, or more troubling, than in the film's treatment of adults who behave viciously towards Hugo and other orphans.  Even positive characters such as Papa Georges, and ones that the film flags as redeemable such as Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector, demonstrate an utter lack of sympathy towards hungry, friendless, homeless children like Hugo.  (If the film were more strongly rooted in its historical setting--if instead of concentrating on recreating the 1930s through visuals, fashion, and design, it took even a few scenes to establish the period's mores and attitudes--this behavior might be explainable, but Hugo feels too much like a modern child--albeit an unusually self-possesed and capable one--for the historical explanation to hold much water.)  A children's adventure needs villains, and those villains are usually adults who are cartoonishly evil, so it doesn't strain either our suspension of disbelief or our sense of moral outrage when they behave horribly to children.  Hugo, however, in its character drama plot strand, tries to show us these characters as real, rounded people, and yet it never calls them to account for their cruelty, because that cruelty belongs to another strand--the station inspector's pursuit of Hugo is part of the adventure story, while Papa Georges belongs to the strand about the history of cinema. 

In that strand, Hugo's suffering is downplayed in a way that feels entirely incongruous with the rest of the film.  When he and Isabelle try to confront Papa Georges about his history as a filmmaker, they are forestalled by his wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory).  She refuses to tell them Papa Georges's story because, she says, Hugo is too young to know such sadness.  Mama Jeanne may not know that the child she's speaking to has lost both parents, been snatched from his happy, comfortable life by an apathetic, drunken guardian who put him to work from morning until night and then abandoned him, and is currently living without any adult supervision, scrounging for food, and trying desperately to keep out of an orphanage that nearly every character in the film describes as a hell on earth, but Hugo does, and so do we.  And yet neither the character nor the film challenge her assumption that Papa Georges's pain, and his need for healing, are greater, and more important, than Hugo's, which ultimately makes both Georges and Jeanne seem monstrously self-absorbed.  At the end of the film, Hugo shows Papa Georges that his films haven't been forgotten, and returns to him the automaton.  For this, Papa Georges tells the station inspector, "this boy belongs to me."  The implication being that Hugo has earned his new family, and his escape from the orphanage, by being of use to Papa Georges.  Meanwhile, other, less useful orphans--such as the weeping boy that the station inspector packs off to the orphanage with nary a moment's hesitation--don't deserve such good fortune.

I think the reason that Hugo ends up delivering such a vile message is that ultimately, both Scorsese and the film are much more interested in George Méliès and the history of cinema than they are in their title character.  By the film's final third, it's pretty clear that the heart of the story is not in Hugo's adventures but in the lectures about early cinema that he and Isabelle receive, some of which are both well-done and informative.  When the children read that audiences watching Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, one of the very first moving pictures, were so thrown by the new technology that they reacted in horror, fearing that the train would hit them, they (and we) can't help but chuckle.  But Scorsese draws our attention to the universality of that reaction in a scene in which Isabelle, who has gone to the movies with Hugo for the very first time, gasps with fear as the character on screen dangles from a great height, and of course through the new medium of 3D in which the film is presented, with which he creates his own illusion of an oncoming train when he has Hugo dream about a derailment (I had my own private demonstration of the way that new filmmaking technologies can cut through the audience's jadedness and familiarity when the woman sitting next to me during Hugo kept laughing with delight at the 3D objects coming at her from the screen).  At the same time, these infodumps, freed from the constraints of story, are belabored--the story about the audience fearing the filmed train is repeated twice, and so are many of the important details of Méliès's career--and, to someone who knows a little about the subject, nowhere near as detailed as they'd need to be to make up for that flaw.  It's hard not to conclude that we would have had a better and more informative time simply watching a biography of Georges Méliès.

Which brings me back to my observation that Hugo works very differently for younger viewers who don't know the history that it is relating than it does for older ones who do.  I don't mean to suggest that adults or film buffs can't enjoy Hugo, because that is quite clearly not the case--I've heard effusive reactions to the film from many adults, including film critics who most likely know a lot more about Méliès than I do.  But I have to wonder how many of those positive reactions are rooted in the sheer joy of seeing Méliès and early cinema on screen, packaged for a whole new generation of viewers with healthy dollop of cinephilia, and whether that joy isn't being allowed to obscure the fact that Scorsese does nothing new with these elements, simply presents them on screen for the audience's edification.  Visually, Hugo is a heady feast, but its visual elements give the impression of Scorsese checking items off a list titled Stuff Steampunk Fans Like: brass!  Cogs!  Gears!  Steam!  Late 19th century glass-and-steel architecture!  Windup toys!  Automata!  And, of course, A Trip to the Moon.  Taken together, they have the effect of making the film's visuals seem calculated and leaden.  The only one who escapes this effect is Méliès--his drawings and films are consistently the most engaging visual elements of the film, but like much else about Hugo's handling of Méliès, they are presented as is, and without comment.  It hardly seems fair to credit Scorsese for their affect.  (The sole exception, a scene in which Méliès's drawings fly around a room, becoming animated as they pass before the camera, is one of the film's highlights, but also an indictment of every scene that doesn't follow suit.)

"Tonight, Tonight" and "Le Voyage dans la Lune" are great introductions to Méliès and A Trip to the Moon, but part of what makes them great is that they take Méliès's ideas and images and make them their own.  "Tonight, Tonight" replicates the film's imagery but changes its plot considerably, not least by adding a pair of lovers as protagonists who echo the song's themes.  "Le Voyage dans la Lune" draws a parallel between Méliès's vision, and his visionary grasp of the potential of the brand new medium he was working in, with the dream of an actual trip to the moon, and the work that went into making that dream a reality.  It is simply mind-boggling that given more than two hours to work with, a budget of $170M, and the most innovative, cutting edge technology, a filmmaker as talented and versatile as Martin Scorsese couldn't--or wouldn't--do the same.  It's hard not to imagine--especially in light of the brief scene in which the film visits Méliès's workshop during his heyday--what a wonderful film Hugo could have been if Scorsese had tried to bring Méliès's artwork to life, in high-def and three dimensions, but what we get instead is plodding and unoriginal.  Hugo will no doubt introduce a new generation of viewers to Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon, and this is obviously a good thing.  Those of us who were already familiar with them, however, might do well to stick with the original.

2 comments:

Mac said...

"And yet neither the character nor the film challenge her assumption that Papa Georges's pain, and his need for healing, are greater, and more important, than Hugo's, which ultimately makes both Georges and Jeanne seem monstrously self-absorbed."

Oddly enough, I KNEW I was completely unmoved by Papa Georges's supposed trauma, to the point where I found myself *angry* but I had never thought through, so clearly, just why. This would be why, and for that I thank you.

Abigail's Mom said...

Although Abigail's review concerns itself with the cinematic aspects of "Hugo," I'd like to say a word about the historic ones.

I loved the visual aspects of the movie, but squirmed in my seat every time it turned to the "real" story. Surely that $170M budget included a few cents to cover the cost of a researcher. Why make up a fictional Melies when the real one was much more interesting. He lost his money due to family conflicts and his inability to work with American businessmen. Jeanne was his second wife and the girl they raised his granddaughter. No one ever thought he'd died in WWI.

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