by Erik Watschke, University of California, Irvine, Visual Studies
Hugo (2011) is the story of an orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who hides out from authorities in the superstructure of a Paris train station circa 1930. When not winding the clocks of the station, the boy spends his time attempting to bring to life an automaton piece by piece. Hugo, it seems, is convinced his father left some profound final message encoded within this mechanical man, but Hugo's efforts come to a halt when a mysterious old toy maker (Ben Kingsley) intevenes and sets him on an adventure of discovery. The more Hugo learns about the toy maker, the more their destinies intertwine, and—as a result—the more the film drifts into an overt fascination with the silent cinema.
During the course of Hugo's investigation, the essential message of Martin Scorsese’s film becomes clear when a film scholar (Michael Stuhlbarg) remarks to Hugo that “time has not been kind to old movies.” Indeed, what Scorsese’s film presents is the most explicit self-reflexivity encountered in Hollywood cinema in recent memory—even film scholars and the most casual entertainment-seeking filmgoer are confronted here. A lingering question remains: what is the ultimate effect of framing reflexivity in this way?
In comparison to The Artist (2011), the film that, to some, “robbed” Hugo of its prize this February, the self-reflexivity in Scorsese’s film takes him out of the proverbial three worlds of the cinema (production, distribution, exhibition) and into the lair of the archivist. And, in so doing, he stands philosophically neutral on the actual processes of the entrepreneurial industry and merely chastises the museum in its stead. The filmmaker is still adamant to prove, as if any still had doubt, that no one loves cinema as he does.
But this is not the problem. Though I have previously argued that The Artist amounts to formal and narrative mastery without a soul, an opposing force emerges here: Hugo is all soul, no mastery—a veritable two-hour infomercial for the Scorsese film foundation. This message is brought in through the back door, however, as the first act of the film meanders around the boy and his robot, only subsequently (and abruptly) changing subjects to “the movies.” Only film historians who are immediately struck with familiarity upon seeing the toy maker might experience the first section of the film otherwise. The film might actually have been better—all other things being equal—if it had been titled “Georges” rather than “Hugo”.
A difficult premise arises: ‘movies are so magical that they are worthy of intense, explicit celebration, yet this is more than most audiences will be able to handle up-front.’ While such a problematic argument might indeed warrant consideration in a critically reflexive film, its counterpart in the serenely cinephilic text is absurd. People who have paid money to sit in a theater and watch a film are doing so because something about the art of film is appealing to them; they like movies, they do not need to be tricked into accepting this notion. And if this is really your end-game goal, then perhaps there is higher striving to be done.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson, in consultation with Scorsese, certainly understands how to fully exploit deep space in conjunction with 3D technology in virtually every shot. Nevertheless, some traditional cinematographic wisdom fails them both here. For instance, racking focus, so as to draw attention to something in the extreme background, becomes ineffective when a gigantic blurry object protrudes off the screen into the faces of the audience simultaneously.
One of the most troubling conceits is the 3D conversion of several silent cinema works presented in the film’s finale. Up to this moment, the movies watched by the characters have been graciously presented in their unadulterated 2D form—is this is not, after all, the point of showing the films? That, for these films, there is something magical that needs to be preserved in its original form? In this vein, the only error more egregious than these formal alterations of the presented diegetic films is the revisionist history of filmmakers’ lives that further corrupts the cinephilic message. If the argument concerns championing a forgotten history of silent filmmakers, then the least the film can do is get the history right. Instead the historical development of early cinema is warped to better suit the tragic beats of Scorsese’s fantasy tale.
Unfortunate is the way in which the industry elevated Hugo (in a manner that only the most stubborn apologist could resist as anything except shameful self-promotion) to the level of absolute greatness. Or, conversely, critics and insiders lowered Scorsese to the level of their usual preoccupations: typically, the most attention around Oscar time revolves around artists working ‘out of their element,’ as if that alone should suffice to warrant acclaim. Hugo is no exception to this treatise. But, in the Hollywood cinema of the last thirty years, Martin Scorsese has never tried to be Robert Zemeckis, and such an ambition should not be so disingenuously supported by the Academy. In the quest to determine whether the violent and gritty Marty can pull off a magical, enchanting, feel-good movie of the year, critics might stop to ask whether he should.
Ultimately, no one has done more for (and spent a hundred and fifty million dollars in the creation of a blockbuster motion picture simply to raise awareness of) film preservation than Scorsese. This is what makes Hugo a noble endeavor. Not its writing, acting, editing, or cinematography, but its overwhelming passion for the cinema—a passion that cannot be contained by the explosive contrivances of the film itself.