Martin Scorsese's homage to the birth of cinema

Nov. 29, 2011
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Mention Martin Scorsese and gritty drama usually comes to mind. He was the director of Mean Streets, after all, as well as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But as far back as 1977, Scorsese filmed New York, New York in hues better and brighter than real life. With Hugo, the director flies to a historical fantasy Paris, circa 1930, where the buildings and their inhabitants stand up sharply against everyday reality. Oh, and Scorsese shot it in 3-D, which successfully creates a startling illusion of depth in most scenes. The snowflakes of the wintry city seem to blow from the screen and melt in the warm theater. The boy protagonist nearly touches the front-row seats as he emerges from a metal grating in the Montparnasse train station.

Working from Brian Selznick's children's tale The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese tells the story of a boy called Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan whose tattered coat sleeves are an inch too short for his arms. Hugo leads a furtive existence inside the iron and masonry bowels of the train station, winding and tending to the great clock overlooking the platform. Like the Phantom of the Opera, he slips unseen along rusty catwalks and hidden tunnels, moving amid the forgotten infrastructure undergirding the city, though this thread of the plot gets a little lost as the tale unwinds. Scorsese's main interest in the story is the opportunity to depict an innovator from the earliest days of cinema, Georges Melies, the magician turned filmmaker, the father of special effects and probably the first director to intuit the potential of film to mirror the reality of dreams.

Fans of early cinema will spot clues right away in the Montparnasse toy booth, a display of weird and wondrous artifacts. The booth's owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley), a bitter and apparently mean-spirited old man, might actually be Melies, years after changing times had ended his career and left the Edwardian whimsy of his short story films behind. Eking out his declining years selling scraps to the crowds who hurry past, Georges has a bone to pick with Hugo, who steals cogs and gears from his booth to keep the hands of the clock from stopping. Georges seizes the boy's treasured notebook and flips through the pages, endowing its drawings of an automaton with the magic of animation—an early example of motion pictures. Yes, Hugo has an automaton secreted in his lair waiting for a missing heart-shaped key to spring its mechanism to life. Perhaps the old man and his plucky, bookish granddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) will eventually unlock the secrets of this mechanical marvel.

Scorsese's best work in recent years has been as a cultural historian, especially his documentaries on filmmaking. Succumbing to the temptation to turn Hugo into a history lesson on Georges Melies, he provides interesting insights into the birth of movies, though he falls short of fully incorporating the lesson into the film's fantasy scheme. The history of Melies and his glass movie studio is wonderfully visualized, but it feels more like digression than plot advancement. Sacha Baron Cohen provides comic relief as the authoritarian station inspector prowling Montparnasse with a snarling guard dog, seeking lost children to arrest and pack off to the orphanage. He is funny and a bit scary, but a shadow of pathos is cast as his back story is revealed. Like Melies (and perhaps film itself), he was also a victim of changing times.

Naturally, bright young Hugo is a film buff; he slips into the nearby bijou with Isabelle to catch his favorite film, the one with silent comedian Harold Lloyd dangling dangerously from a clock hand on the side of a tall building. Even without (and perhaps especially without) Scorsese's history of Melies, Hugo is a reminder of how magical motion pictures were in an age before the world was flooded with them—a pre-electronic era when the world turned on the same sort of cogs and gears as the clock at Montparnasse and the projectors in the theaters. Movies were larger, not smaller, than life back then, and Hugo envelops the viewer in the experience. It's a film that must be seen in the theater—unless your plasma panel covers an entire wall and a crowd comes over to watch the sparks that will fly from the screen into the popcorn.


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