Link to a formal review at the end. It’s been a little while since I’ve really liked a Scorsese film. The Departed didn’t add anything to Infernal Affairs. Shutter Island was pinpoint directing undone by a ludicrous script and histrionic DiCaprio performance. Aside from The Aviator (and I know I’m in the minority on that one), the last one I’ve really dug was Casino, though even that represents a step down from his period prior.
Hugo is, in some ways a return to form. I still – and will always – miss the grimy, riskier Scorsese of old – Taxi Driver, After Hours, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. While Hugo is none of those films, it is a return to personal filmmaking, and once it dispenses of its laborious first 25 minutes and finds its director staring in wide-eyed wonder that equals that of his young protagonists, the film picks up steam.
As the great, innovative director Georges Melies is the subject, I wonder how fully accessible this film is for those uninterested in film history. References abound not only to Melies, but also to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, DeMille, and others of the time. As I expand upon in my linked review, this is really a film about Scorsese taking over the mantle of innovator, and absorbing Melies aesthetic and passion for cinematic magic into his own. This as much a ‘anything you can do I can do’ film as it is about a particular, fairly uninteresting narrative. And that’s another key: the A.I.-like story – about a young boy, a robot/automaton, and Jude Law wearing grandfatherly glasses in flashback – is really pretty immaterial. I can’t imagine watching Hugo only for the story. I’d be bored out of my skull (and this is a fairly positive blog post!).
Nope. The real fun in Hugo is Scorsese’s own childlike glee – his actually supersedes that of leads Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz by the third act – in reconstructing famous Melies sets and running a train The General-style through Grand Central Station. It’s also his glee – you can almost feel him breathe a sigh of relief – in finally fully embracing the digital age, and not only shooting in chip-format, but running with it in all its impossible wizardry.
Much has also been made of this as Scorsese’s foray into 3D. I don’t really go see things in 3D. But I saw this one because…I guess I’m a sucker for advertising. Scorsese’s usage is less the ‘throw things at the screen’ model, and more the Dial M for Murder model. That is: deep shots and lots and lots of foreground. Have you ever seen that Hitchcock film on DVD? It almost feels odd with the couch so close to frame center and foregrounded so frequently. I wonder if Hugo, when viewed in its 2D glory, will feel the same. The 3D in this film is most successful though when Scorsese just frames and moves his camera like he normally would. A lot of his elaborate tracks – speeding through the legs of passers-by – are reminiscent of things like the famous camera drop in After Hours, itself a shot that feels pre-planned for 3D. That is to say: while Scorsese certainly had to plan this for 3D, his aesthetic kind of already fit it.
The automaton that starts the story rolling in Hugo is an odd narrative piece. It’s kind of useless by film’s end, a relic from the past, but one that is still useful in connecting people and emotions. Like many other elements within this film – the most obvious being the clock – Scorsese attempts to pull this as metaphor for Melies. Once celebrated for ingenuity, shoved aside, and then found again to bring people together. This is how much of the film functions. The script is all an elaborate excuse to reinvent cinema (for Melies within the story) and resurrect cinema (for Scorsese outside the story). It is, therefore, less storytelling as it is storywatching. We watch the evolution of cinematic story.