Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s pictorial children’s bestseller, it not a betrayal of director Martin Scorsese’s roots, but a heartfelt affirmation that explores themes of tradition and memory, pertinent to Scorsese’s art since he first created images of bloodletting juxtaposed against Catholic crosses and Sicilian cooking in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968) and Mean Streets (1973). Memory both personal and cultural, historical archeology, and cinema are compounded together in perpetual motion where metaphor and object, the abstract and the concrete, become indistinguishable. Scorsese was the director who infamously dared to make Jesus Christ both true God and true Man at the same time in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where death and resurrection occur in one moment. For him, the motion of the still-frame motion pictures are the resurrection as the dead material becomes injected with animism, a soul. It is when Jesus (Willem Dafoe) dies after realizing his accomplishment of Passion that we see the flickers of celluloid film shadows bursting over his face. The words of St. Paul work for Christ as they do for the film director: “He conquered death!” The redemption is not necessarily contained in a dramatic moment, but in the almost ritual "transubstantiation" of an audience being actively engaged with the filmmaker’s animation of life captured. We endure Christ’s suffering as we endure Jake LaMotta’s in Raging Bull, with no specific dramatic redemption. To see, as the blind man is given sight by the Savior in Raging Bull’s biblical postscript, is a gift handed down by teachers and patriarchs, be it religious or literary text, Scorsese’s NYU teacher Haig Moohigian, or other filmmakers ranging from Cecil B. DeMille to John Cassavetes, who demonstrated how the camera eye has the possibilities, even in the murkiest corners of human existence, to expose a hidden God.
Hugo is about an orphaned horologist, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), whose passion resurrects the forgotten film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). The film is a perfect installment in Scorsese’s late body of work, which has been primarily concerned with memory, or a sought essence of individual identity and purpose, conflicting with an increasingly technological world. Scorsese is nearly 70 and knows that he is running out of time. The internet age of information has made us smarter, but at the expense of preserving some relation to the past. For better or worse, tribes are exterminated by overreaching impersonal powers of control, and the brotherhoods depicted in GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995), and Gangs of New York (2002) give way to the digital plasticity of The Departed (2006), where family and race are only pretenses, and identities are created and erased based on a computerized social security number, not biological lineage. It is just as possible that the best work of Scorsese and his Movie Brat colleagues from the 1960s and 70s, much like their own influences – and the influences of those influences – will be ushered into cultural amnesia and silence by the Red Box market or the streaming of Netflix, which caters mostly to current television serials. The “Canon” will be left for the "specialists," the film school crowd, further alienating those individuals from the currents of popular taste. “Families are always rising and falling in America,” Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), obsessed with holding on to an authentic memory of the past and family, quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Departed, while his digital counterpart, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), recognizes Costello’s “Non servium,” the declaration of Satan, as an allusion to James Joyce. Sullivan is the modern successful man, perfectly malleable in his alienation. When Costello drops pieces of silver in the boy’s hand during the prologue, there is a jump cut, a break in the analog journey of film. For economic expediency and to “rise in America” he’s quite willing to cut himself off from the past, changing moment to moment with an absence of essence. The commercial demands of Hollywood, accelerating faster than ever with an onslaught of moving images that affect us before they can be processed cognitively, may lead to an artist’s worst nightmare as he fights to not go gently into the night. He will be forgotten.
It has not helped that the punditry of movies has been chastising Scorsese over the last decade. In a Slate piece, Elbert Ventura saw Shutter Island as a preposterous story catering to studio interests that evidenced the director’s lack of vitality, while The Departed was an inferior remake of a Hong Kong masterpiece, its Oscar wins mere career achievement awards, probably an empty assertion which nevertheless fits into a ready-set and easily digestible false pop cultural narrative, particularly when one notes how many well-regarded critics named The Departed their favorite film of 2006 (look at Film Comment’s year-end polls), and there really isn’t an argument to say that it was “unworthy” of its accolades (personally, in 2006 I thought Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men were superior, but it’s rare when any film I would select as being one of the five best of the year earns Academy honors, so it’s absurd to protest). The most interesting complaint came during the Gangs of New York campaign, when screenwriter William Goldman said that Gangs proved that Scorsese was an inept storyteller. But Goldman’s argument about the film and its director is tainted by his distaste over the film’s epilogue, a series of dissolves through time over the New York skyline: 1863 Manhattan leads to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the Empire State Building, and finally the World Trade Center looming before the final fade-out. To Goldman, this is a “disgrace” in attempting to move an audience. Of course, this image was conceived long before the film’s release in 2002, probably as far back as the mid-1970s when Jay Cocks began working on the screenplay. But it also suits the film’s theme perfectly. A forgotten past is weighed down by the mandates of impersonal – and innately corrupt and dishonest – political structures. (A great review of the often-derided Gangs of New York by the wonderful Twin Cities critic Rob Nelson is here, and another by Salman Rushdie from The Guardian here).
The tombstones crumble to dust as the Twin Towers, symbols of economic prosperity and vacant spirituality, arise. It’s too ironic that Goldman’s remark feels like the by-committee opinion of politically correct Hollywood seeking to erase the past for fear of bad feelings. It’s the same feeling one has at The Departed’s conclusion, seeing Billy Costigan’s official police photograph at his funeral, as Sullivan, the man who “erased” him, “goes on record” to recommend Costigan for the medal of honor, or Andrew Laeddis’ (DiCaprio) self-imposed lobotomy in Shutter Island (2010), or how Howard Hughes (DiCaprio again) has created the structures for the future in The Aviator (2004) at the expense of functioning sanity and identity. Goldman’s quibbles with the “mess” of Gangs of New York are merited, if unexamined, particularly from a very linear, Old Hat, three-act master screenwriter known for speaking his mind (Goldman’s commitment to perfected structuralism helps explain why he would have gladly awarded James Cameron the Oscar for writing Titanic’s screenplay; the mess of Gangs is, for me, part of the film’s character as a Civil War epic about national discord. A "clean" and tightly structured film about that subject, especially one set in the Five Points, is antithetical, to say nothing of cowardly). The Scorsese that his critics would have is an automaton replicating his past uniformly: a machine disconnected from the organic influence of an outside world. Say what you want about these films, but there’s much more heart in the wildness of Scorsese’s recent prestigious work, as an artist smuggles himself into a great wind-up machine of Hollywood mass-production. This is where Hugo comes in.
THE BLOOD STAYS ON THE BLADE
It's misleading to believe that a child's perspective is a stretch for Scorsese, as the subjectivity he has always embraced is locked into an adolescent sensibility. Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, Johnny Boy, Andrew Laeddis, Howard Hughes, and the wise guys of GoodFellas and Casino are adult children actively at play with their imaginations, the world being a train set under their control (or that they stubbornly try to control). Delusions skewer their lives and lead to ruin. But there is also the possibility, through this child connection, that they also are more positively inward. A prayer could be derided as a conversation with an imaginary friend, which is how Johnny Boy and Theresa treat Charlie Cappa's addresses to the Almighty in Mean Streets. But flawed as Charlie is, he is much more sympathetic than the anarchic Johnny Boy, or the racist and practical ("you help yourself first") Theresa.
Scorsese's characters are often introduced to us as children, cluing us into subsequent adult conflicts. Alice in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975) skips on a country road, filmed under a classic red Hollywood sky and aspect ratio; as her mother calls her inside, she stubbornly tries to hold her ground. Henry Hill in GoodFellas spies on the neighborhood wise guys, envying them and dreaming of how that lifestyle will elevate him above the drudgery of his father's working class life of "pledge allegiance to the flag and good government bullshit." Young Amsterdam Vallon is acclimated to a violent subterranean world in Gangs of New York, the aggressive violence of the film's opening battle intercut with close-ups of his eyes. His journey to avenge his father's death will be a confrontation with that distant past, as he stares at the father's shaving razor, still stained: "The blood stays on the blade." In The Aviator, Howard Hughes' mother "programs" him to feel unsafe, his "quarantine" a Faustian bargain with his child-self, who returns to him in the darkness of a mirror's reflection. In The Departed's prologue, Jack Nicholson's panoptical gangster lures altar boy Colin Sullivan away from tradition, his careerist digitalism determined by accepting the easy shelter of a criminal lifestyle.
Kundun practically is a children's movie as much as Hugo, its first half portraying the 14th Dali Lama through three stages of childhood. Scorsese wraps us into the boy's naive, "auspicious," and sometimes ego-ridden selfish perspective. The signal to his enlightenment occurs during a captivating montage following his flight from Tibet to India, woven together with a sand-painting's creation and destruction. The young man awakes to see his childhood self sleeping across from him: one recognizes, at long last, the Self. It's the same recognition of Amsterdam Vallon upon seeing the stained blade, or Alice's declaration of desiring to "be a singer" at the end of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, tying the end to the beginning, or Howard Hughes' recognition of his price for greatness. Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ has to age and become an elderly, despair-ridden man before he can go back to the cross and be a true God.
Whereas we could say that a chief flaw of Scorsese's protagonists like Travis Bickle, Johnny Boy, Rupert Pupkin, and Henry Hill is that they refuse to "put away childish things," characters like the Dali Lama become individuated by growing into their adulthood and overpowering selfish impulses, while also remembering where they came from. Chairman Mao's China may bring technological "progress" (a general derides the Dali Lama's palace as "a tribute to the past!"), but, like the post-human world in The Departed, it is lifeless, robotic, estranged from history. It also brings mass death and steals away the monks' "silence," so important for meditation and an encounter with "the final reality."
Elsewhere, though they are not seen as children, Newland Archer and the Countless Olenska, unconsummated lovers dreaming to flee adult responsibilities of mannered poise in The Age of Innocence, fondly recollect childhood moments of flirtatious play. The "Adult World" of 1870 Aristocratic New York is beautiful but stifling. Newland plays childish games, like gazing at Olenska from a distance and being willing to approach her only if she turns around before a boat passes a particular point on the river. She doesn't, and he turns around, back to his duties as an unhappily married man, swimming through his longing. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus' vocation as messiah is indicated to have been the fulfillment of a child's monomaniacal wish for fame and glory. Satan reminds him, "Remember when you were a little boy? You prayed to me, 'God, God, make me a God.'" The same kind of child's dream for greatness pulses through the way Scorsese sculpted Bob Dylan, another messiah, in his documentary No Direction Home, or even ambulance driver Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead, who was always told that he had a "priest's face" and now serves as a kind of interloper between the land of the living and the dead, addicted to resurrecting bodies. When he brings someone back to life, he equates the feeling to being God.
Hugo Cabret is just the most recent of Scorsese's child messiahs following a calling. He is much like young Marty Scorsese, the lonely asthmatic spying out of his Hell's Kitchen home, for whom the movies served as the outlet for connection and influence. The awe roused in Marty by his religion, which his highly internalized existence nurtured, was doubled by what he saw in movies. The child looks up at a mural of God projecting light from his fingers, and cinema is bridged to both religion and a child's imagination. Hugo is both audience and director, framing vignettes starring the daily workers of the Gare Montparnasse station, such as portly Monsieur Fricke (Richard Griffiths), trying to court a cafe proprietor with a protective dachshund, Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour). For the child, reality is processed as fiction, something both mechanical and sweet. Everyday reality is transcended with the attentive heart. Film's language transcends the plainness of human words, as the two aging lovers are brought together only when Fricke introduces his own dachshund. What we see, as the two dogs seem to be conversing happily, shows how images communicate. The obstacle of words is placated by the camera eye's seeing.
OUT OF THE PAST
Since Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s settings have been set to a temporal pendulum that swings between the past and the future, confusing time. His films are markers for what we have of the Information Age, as present digitalism and the sense of a future world encounter history. He begins in 1840s New York, moves through mid-20th century Hollywood, touches the future-shock of the post-human present, then swings back to Post-WWII America, and now is in 1931 Paris. In each film, the conventional demarcations of the period are blurry. Inspired by Fellini’s bizarre Roman Empire epic Satyricon (1969), Gangs of New York is “science fiction projected into the past,” a Western set on Mars, a movie about the end of the world with a post-apocalyptic veneer resembling The Road Warrior more than other sweeping 19th century American epics, like Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). The Aviator’s opening title denotes Futurism, and the film’s art-deco design hauntingly nurtures the story of Howard Hughes, a machine-man whose scars are mended with electrical tape. Hughes creates “the way of the future” while hallucinating his own future as an alienated eccentric with long fingernails and unkempt hair. The Departed may appear to be a modern genre film not far removed from the urban Boston fiction of Dennis Lehane, yet it is oddly just as similar to the cyberfiction of William Gibson, for whom the “Future” about which science fiction has speculated is indeed happening now, though it’s not evenly distributed. Shutter Island, adapted from a Lehane novel, may have the gothic noir influence of Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, and Robert Aldrich flowing through its early Cold War veins, but its references to zombies, imploding hydrogen bombs, television screens, and evil mad scientists carry apprehension about a chilling future-world, history itself being the memoir of a mad man, especially when we think about the Holocaust images and how one of the asylum’s main buildings was once a Civil War fort.
Hugo is also science fiction in the past, the smoke and machines bringing to mind Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the whimsical workers’ dystopia of technology consuming human employees caught in unimaginative drudgery, and, as with The Departed, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), a cyber-thriller about man-made automatons, “replicants,” looking for their “father” who can give them “more life.” But in addition to the confusion of past and future, there is an overlapping sense of the real and the fantastic, along with the organic and the mechanical. Hugo is a film wondering about the very purpose of artistic creation. Does Art aim to be the transcendence of reality, or is it reality’s duplication? The film squarely fits into a genre of children’s films not unlike that of Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket, among so many others based on a wave of new literature, but its adventure circles around a very real person, whose work was the prototype of all cinematic fantasy, Georges Melies, his A Trip to the Moon (1902) often considered to be the first science fiction film. Seeing that particular film in 2011, where a crew of astronomers fly to the moon and confront some very irritating – if however physically fragile – aliens, is sublimely haunting, especially when we think about Hugo's wide net of allusions. We see how Melies’ vision encompassed the dreams of all humankind standing beneath the cosmos like an audience in a theater, and decades after his death those dreams have been realized through scientific exploration. It feels like one is confronting a cultural embryo, no less than we were when Stanley Kubrick showed us our species’ infancy in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In going to both the future and the past, we encounter ourselves in Scorsese’s pendulum whirlwind, at our most sweetly vulnerable and childlike. The past is both familiar and strange, as Melies takes us to an archeological dig of our unconscious in the early 20th century. Hugo is unique in how it has an absence of prop mirrors (as I recall). The reflections that interest Scorsese are in the tools of his beloved seventh art, the ever-evolving statuary form that seeks a grail giving immortality, a respite from death’s finality.
It is a hymn of familiar Scorsesean zeal, praising the Patriarchs of his profession and so an extension of his religiosity linking back into a bottomless well of history. The vocation of cinema, with its incendiary gods shaping a grammar, is a branch born of the same creative tree that birthed poetry, literature, sculpture, music, painting, theatre, photography, etc, each art having its respective patriarchs and matriarchs. Scorsese reaches out for a synapse between the arts, and then extends that synapse to life, just as the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) becomes something of a thesaurus while interrogating his prey. Could Scorsese be dismissing the superficial complaints of his R-rated admirers, who bemoan their idol making a PG kids film? Or the movie snobs who are apoplectic about his embrace of a new filmmaking gimmick, 3D, when he would list off elements such as color, Cinemascope, and sound as comparable “gimmicks”? We don't exist in a vacuum.
If one wants to see an artful complaint of technological taste moving in America, it’s fun to look at Chaplin, who ridicules sound in City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator – which, though it’s his first full sound picture (made in 1941, long after sound became a standard), has great fun by attaching the oppressive spoken word to the Hitler-like dictator, from whom microphones bend as he speaks. Or watch A King in New York (1957), where Chaplin makes great fun of Cinemascope’s aspect ratio, as Chaplin’s King goes to the movies and turns his head back and forth to see the action move across the ultra wide screen. An important ingredient of Chaplin’s protestations is in the same fears he verbalizes about fascism in The Great Dictator, where “machine minds and machine hearts” tear us away from our fellow beings.
But in The Great Dictator Chaplin still masterfully used sound and made the technology serve him. The product is able to move the viewers, establishing a clear path between our hearts and tools. Could Hugo be another example of Martin Scorsese smuggling his wisdom and religious sensibility of cinema and art through popular means? Could this wind-up film, so meticulously put together with its own automata, stir us as we look beyond the fourth wall and notice the clockwork? And then observing the clockwork in ourselves, do we become a more fully aware and actively engaged audience?
THE WAY OF THE FUTURE
The architects of the future are steadfast with their ingenious plunders, and their enthusiasm takes firm hold of them as they expand with their invention. But in digitalism, have things begun to move too fast? In his book The Secret Language of Film (1994), one of the first film books I ever read, Jean Claude Carriere writes about the prevalence of video montage, whose pace has since invaded and conquered internet, television, and news. The assault of quick cuts and sounds “eliminates awareness and perhaps even vision,” he writes, adding that it “denies brain and eye the time they need to establish contact, just as it seeks to short-circuit the optic nerve, stimulating vision and hearing directly, without the benefit of a middle man.” The description sounds an awful lot like Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, who has the premonition that his madness is like “flying blind.” The way of the future sucks him into a terminal blackness in the film’s final moments. Carriere mentions Fellini’s thoughts on television, a device which “had spawned a new generation of specters [Fellini] found arrogant, overbearing, and neurotically impatient.”
As technology evolves, so do we in adjusting to it, whether it’s the printing press, typewriter, or motion picture camera. When Dziga Vertov made Man With a Movie Camera in 1928, critics complained that his cutting was too fast, for example between industrial machines and the human workers who seemed to be mimicking, with mechanical precision, the machines. In addition to sparking workers’ revolutions the world over, Vertov imagined his film would change human nature, perfecting our reflexes, making us better workers, viewers, and citizens. The Kinok's juxtapositions of humans and machines, and intimately filmed workers against the expanse of a whole city, clearly influence Hugo: the revolving gears, the swinging pendulum, and the movie theater where an audience encounters the automatic yet soulful mechanical eye of the movie camera that moves of its own volition.
Vertov’s beautiful experiment is Utopian, and the messages of Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) seem better-fitting to contemporary attitudes: the heart must mediate between the head and the hands of action. Otherwise, the machine – which is otherwise cannibalizing for steep profit gain – swallows its workers whole. In Hugo, this is projected in an anxiety dream of the hero where he morphs into the automaton that fascinates him. He drowns in the clicking and metallic rotations, the audience’s vision becoming obscured by the steel invading the field of vision. In The Aviator, written by John Logan just as Hugo was, Howard Hughes makes a note about his plans for a plane's marvels, "It's all in engineering," just as Hugo's father (Jude Law) tells Hugo of the automaton, "The secret was always in the clockwork." But the "engineering" goes awry in Howard Hughes' head, enveloping him in the dark when America turns the corner into the 1950s. The marvels of technology displayed in Hugo could also lead to entropy, as Scorsese and Logan allude to the Great War following Melies' heyday, the gas masks indicating a particularly sinister shade of science weeding modernity, while the 1930s have another ominous shadow of war on the distant horizon.
Today, the machine men paving the future are intoxicated by their creations, and the mainstream audience is rapt. George Lucas is the most emblematic of the magical pioneers, and he points out that what has been happening to movies over the past 20 years is simply more economically feasible, and aesthetically we are just shifting from film being a photographic medium to being a painterly one. The technology, Francis Ford Coppola adds, remains in service to the artisan, as after all, “cinema is technology.” Why not embrace this shift in the canvas?
A key retort is that the rejection of the photographic is the problem. It was the photograph that convinced us of an object’s reality, as its light was stolen by the objective mechanical eye of a machine. Even if the photograph was doctored by illusionists, it was worth – if not more than a thousand words – a thousand drawings.
Consider how Scorsese was visited by Lucas on the set of Gangs of New York, where much of New York’s Five Points was physically built by the team of production designer Dante Ferretti, maybe on a scale that would never be repeated. Lucas pointed out that Scorsese was representative of cinema’s past, while he, Lucas, was the future. But watching Gangs of New York, it’s hard not to think of the intertextual playfulness - and remorse - with the changing form that isn't as liberating as it is freedom-quashing. The anarchy of this messy and spirited epic, which at times feels like 18 different films at war with each other, is interrupted at the climax. The chaos is hushed by the mechanical dictates of the domineering studio office closing down production and demanding uniformity (This is more or less accurate; apparently Scorsese wanted to keep on shooting his Draft Riots, but Harvey Weinstein pulled the plug, leaving the finished film seeming incomplete). The gunboat captain, who fires just before the final gang battle was to begin, is played by one of the film’s producers, Michael Hausman, and the police chief who commands “bring the mob down” is portrayed by Scorsese’s longtime assistant and 2nd unit director, Joseph Reidy. Photographic spontaneity is reigned in by changing currents in filmmaking, where George Lucas’ painterly canvas has usurped moviedom's throne, with graphic designers holding the scepter controlling the light.
Another element in Gangs’ construction as a surreal meta-movie is how Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker insert shots of both drawings and photographs to communicate historical details like the abolition of slavery, racial attitudes, and the Draft Riots of 1863. It imbues the picture with a sense of anthropological authenticity (conflicting with its operatic surrealism), a burning portrait making the apocalyptic dread during the Riots more real than staged drama could ever convey. But the photographs of the dead, set alongside newspaper lists of casualties and injured, urgently gives a sense of the changing times. The Civil War was the first time that war had been photographed. Citizens saw the most real duplication of reality, in the form of dead and hollow eyes and slumped real bodies, causing a great reduction in military enlistment. The blend of art and technology, when stirred together, was a key reason for the Union’s need to instate a draft. In Gangs of New York, the past is both realistic and deliberately artificial, but it's also more alien than what we’ve ever seen in a historical epic, in both the period landscape and the morality of the story’s characters, where Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), a brutal and racist gang leader, is, when you think about it, the film’s most noble personage. Scorsese wants us to understand that the way we see things affects how we process it: memory, dream, drawing, film, computer graphic image, or still photograph. Those Civil War photographs in Gangs of New York are possibly the most unsettling aspect of the film, as the photograph assigns a certain reality, or evidence of a space or event. We are fooled.
WELCOME TO JURASSIC PARK
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lucas and Spielberg, with special effects technicians like Dennis Muran and Stan Winston, made real the fantasies of giant sharks, (Jaws) extraterrestrial contact (Close Encounters of the Third King), intergalactic warfare (Star Wars), terrorizing ghosts (Poltergeist), supernatural archeology (Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), artificial intelligence (*batteries not included), and demonic creatures from ancient worlds (Gremlins). Yet it was how Spielberg went back to the primordial soup of the deep past, resurrecting dinosaurs from extinction in Jurassic Park, that computer generated imagery changed the standard. Spielberg understood what his Amusement Park Movie was doing, conveying this is an scene between archeologists being guided by a new computer system during a Montana dig. “Pretty soon we won’t even have to dig anymore,” someone says, leading Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to respond, “Where’s the fun in that?”
It may be a deliberate meta-movie irony that it’s a film director (Richard Attenborough of Gandhi and Cry Freedom) who portrays the chief guide for Jurassic Park’s guests, who sit in a small movie theater (which is also “kind of a ride,” the amalgamation of movies and rides being a perfect description for Spielberg’s endeavor). He explains to them how he was able to create something from (almost) nothing. The archeologists understand that the means of their profession are changing rapidly, and Grant later shrugs, “I guess we’ll just have to evolve too.” This is Spielberg addressing his own vocation as a filmmaker.
But Jurassic Park’s most lasting irony, as I see it almost 20 years after its release, is that the new creations have gotten out of control and are now eating the real people in the fantasy play-land of Jurassic Park. The raptors are out of their cages and consuming the meat. Watching Spielberg and Lucas’ Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008, the most detrimental flaw, to me, is not a plot involving aliens or an over-reliance on nostalgia (flaws though they may be), but it’s the rubbery cleanliness of a digital backdrop featuring cartoon prairie dogs and anthills. The new image does not fool the human eye. A chase through the jungle feels less like the three loveable Indiana Jones adventures from the 1980s, which were flavored by several real-space real-time stunts, and more like a videogame. The raptors have eaten us, and the director’s cinema is now the graphic designer’s cinema. This was much more the impediment of the recent Star Wars prequels than any utterances of ridiculous dialogue or wooden acting. The originals’ production design (1977, 1980, 1983) fooled viewers with their shadows, smoke, and sheen, but The Phantom Menace surrendered to a saccharine cartoon image.
But my complaints against the aesthetic monster do not matter. The thrill-ride escapism in the amusement park of Lucas and Spielberg has reaped more than enough rewards through ticket and DVD sales. It is the way of the future.
Spielberg 3.0 is James Cameron. He first thrillingly recreated the past, and so became the king of the world, with Titanic in 1997, and then realized the distant future of Avatar in 2009. Not accounting for inflation, they are the two biggest grossing movies of all time. Avatar’s pioneering 3D, constructing much of its landscape – and faces – with state-of-the-art cameras and computer technology, showcased a brave new world of digitalism, the earthy myth being tied to Utopian hyperreality where human beings can plug themselves into their ether charges of numbers punched through a computer and disappear into Pandora. Reality mimicked Art as several Avatar audience members were so entranced by the all-too-real fantasy Cameron created that they suffered a post-traumatic depression afterward. At the end credits, they were forced to depart the film's preferable reality of Pandora and return to their droll, boring, everyday lives.
Is Avatar evolution and an opening? Or were we dreaming too quickly? Like Dziga Vertov’s Soviet dreams of Kino Eye, where the workers of the world united under the guidance of industrial machines and so fermented worldwide revolution, the idealism of Cameron and Lucas, especially in wake of the 3D and CGI produced since 2009, has been tempered. After Avatar, 3D was mandated for big studio productions. Jeffrey Katzenberg believed that 3D would become as ubiquitous as color and sound. But with few exceptions did critics care for the films, and even if some were commercially successful (Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans), they were hollow movie experiences. (One also should bother to ask if a technological mandate that ups budgets and ticket prices is a wise decision during a recession.)
The non-stop pounding of CGI and 3D spectacle induces numbness that's become contagious and threatens to eradicate shot-based photographic cinema, resulting in some audience members complaining that a picture like Steven Soderbergh's exceptional Contagion, which I think is how more movies should aspire to look like, has the appearance of a TV show. Roger Ebert has become the most outspoken critic of 3D, using the revered editor Walter Murch to justify how our minds are simply not meant to see movies in the format. It’s optically unfeasible. Murch writes, “3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of human evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point.” The brain needs extra time to adjust and process each 3D image, which is why audience members get headaches. Ebert responds, “The notion that we are asked to pay a premium to witness an inferior and inherently brain-confusing image is outrageous. The case is closed.”
Though I admire Ebert and Murch very much, and empathize with their gripes (it is very hard to argue with those 600 million years), I still wonder if our plasticity can adapt to 3D, as our minds are always modified to the technology presented to us. What I don’t like is that the gimmickry of 3D is sort of being shoved down our throats, while mature and dramatic stories are being boarded and shipped to HBO and Showtime, pay-cable being a luxury that not everyone can afford, in addition to being different from the monkish seclusion of a theater, where strangers dream the same dream together. A movie theater now looks more like a Comic Con convention or TMZ celebrity gossip center. The industry is conscious of the trashiness, and recent flicks like Fright Night and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas have gotten their kicks from using the format in the silliest of ways, as glasses, blood, and penises (oh my!) jut out of the screen to startle us.
And while it’s not surprising that comic book franchises, horror films, and children’s animation would adopt 3D rapidly, a question that no one seems to be asking is in regards to drama. When Avatar came out, I joked about My Dinner With Andre being in 3D, but now I’m curious to see how it would affect me. I’d like to slow down the current style of fast-cuts and propulsive images down, and see how 3D can sneak inside of me and alter my brain. In addition to the expected mainstream directors adopting the format like Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), and Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tin Tin), Baz Luhrman will be shooting his adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 3D. David Fincher may do 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea likewise. Other luminaries like Bernardo Bertolucci and Wim Wenders are using it. Francis Ford Coppola has shot certain scenes in his horror movie ‘Twixt in 3D. And Michael Mann, whose use of HD video was born less out of convenience than his singular aesthetic sensibility towards an environment, has verbalized an interest in using 3D for straight drama. In other words, perhaps he would be fastening the new form to the cinema’s photographic roots, where stories do not rely on computer generated worlds for characters to realm and conquer.
And as if to reply to Ebert, two of the sage critic’s favorite filmmakers have embraced the technology: Werner Herzog with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Scorsese with Hugo. Yet both filmmakers have taken 3D to a level far above gimmickry, and engaged the technology with a sincere dialectic about filmmaking and stories using tools. They respect the new tool as another link in a vast chain onto which all myths attach and are rewritten through eons. Cave of Forgotten Dreams uses 3D cameras, says Herzog, out of the necessity to get an appropriate perspective through the cramped quarters of the Chauvet caves, where humankind’s first cave paintings, from over 30,000 years ago, are found. Herzog’s narration draws comparison between the drawings and the film that an audience is now watching under projected light. Against a flickering fire, the drawings of animals would appear to be in movement, animated, given a soul. The digital 3D movie camera is confronting its oldest ancestor, and the audience is compelled, hopefully, to share in the dreams of the pre-historical dreamers and artisans who crafted their vision on a rocky wall, just as a filmmaker sculpts an ecstatic truth on screen. We are bridged to the past, the difference negated for a historical synonym with our forgotten forebears.
THE GLASS PALACE: HUGO
“In this room, none of us would be here without the people who came before us…we’re all walking in their footsteps every day, all of us, and it’s humbling to have my name even so modestly joined with Cecil B. DeMille…the ultimate showman. See, to myself and many other filmmakers, DeMille’s name is synonymous with the big show, the spectacular. And in a sense, his films represent the shared landscape of our childhood, the world as we dreamed it…bigger than life…He made these pictures for us, the audience, so that we could live in their wonders. He was there from the beginning, when films were born, he helped create the narrative, style, and language that we use today, shaped film as an art form, as a business, and as a mythical landscape. He led the way for all of us…When we look at his films, or Hitchcock or Kubrick, we all remember that motion pictures are part of a continuum, a living on-going history.” (Martin Scorsese, Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech at the 2010 Golden Globes).
Accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award in early 2010 at the Golden Globes, Martin Scorsese gave a speech clearly anticipating where he was planning on taking Hugo, which was just beginning production in England. The night was marked by a clear schism in the films competing, namely Cameron’s Avatar and Katheryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. As happens in many instances when two very different films are going head-to-head, partisans were keen to take sides and utter insults about the less-preferred movie. I can’t make a secret of how my distaste for Avatar increased with each succeeding accolade it received, and I was rooting for Bigelow.
But Scorsese’s speech seems to acknowledge how effective Avatar was as a fantasy, and so should be acknowledged as the offshoot of the spirit Scorsese praised. Even if I didn’t care for it, some cineastes who surpass my intelligence found much to marvel about in Avatar. Indeed, invoking DeMille and the “shared landscape of our childhood” along with the big “spectacular,” Scorsese had to be thinking of James Cameron, in the room watching, in addition to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. These figures also “prepared to way,” to steal a line from the prophet Isaiah, who is played by Scorsese in Jesus’ dream in The Last Temptation of Christ. Just as Jesus is caught between Love and the Sword, or Charlie in Mean Streets is between the Church and the Streets, Scorsese and many of his generation were born from two different parents: the Hollywood spectaculars and the burgeoning independent film movements that owed much to what was happening in France, Italy, India, and Japan.
Scorsese wants to be a part of the “continuum” of film in his own work, alluding to those who came before him, stealing the fire like Prometheus, his thievery becoming emulation and worship, leading to new creation. In his documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese admits that he would steal still-photos from his favorite public library book about film, something to which I can relate. Theft is an important theme in Hugo, and we can sense Scorsese’s identification with young Hugo as he tries to steal a mechanical mouse from Georges Melies’ toy shop in hopes using the parts to fix his automaton.
The thievery is analogous to relationships between artists influencing one another, relating Hugo to Francois Truffaut and The 400 Blows, cited by Brian Selznick as an influence on his book. Before Andre Bazin took him under his wing as a critic, Truffaut was a thief, but as a filmmaker we can see his thievery legitimized as something reverent. He loves Balzac, and so his alter-ego builds a shrine for the author where he lights a candle. In 1973’s Day for Night, Truffaut dreams himself as a child, stealing a lobby card of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from a dark theater. For Truffaut, this isn’t plagiarism. It’s almost, as the Balzac shrine indicates, religious adoration based on a profound identification that he cannot find elsewhere. In these other men, Truffaut, like Scorsese, sees lost fragments of himself that he absorbs and twists into his own clockwork mechanisms. Thievery and filmmaking poetically go together, as the shutter steals light from reality. The Prometheum aspect of filmmaking is maybe most resolutely voiced in Werner Herzog’s anecdote of how he lifted a camera from his film school. He adamantly says that “it was not theft!” because no one was using the camera, while Herzog meanwhile used the machine for several films, some of which are now considered classics.
In Scorsese’s body of work, it’s fun to try and see how he practices the technique of allusion, opening up his films to a grand and ephemeral web of interpretation that works emotionally more than intellectually. Taxi Driver leads us to The Searchers, for example, Raging Bull to Psycho, GoodFellas briefly to The Great Train Robbery, Casino to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon, Gangs of New York to Satyricon or Heaven's Gate or Birth of a Nation, The Departed to Blade Runner or Prince of the City or The Third Man or Heat, Shutter Island to The Shining or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Shock Corridor – and of course, in each film there is a corpus of other films leading us on alternative adventures of discussion and relationship, even though, importantly, the individual pictures preserve a sense of their own integrity. In A Cinema of Loneliness (another first book of film for me), Robert Kolker writes, “These intrusions and allusions, like a poet’s allusions to other poems within his or her work, or a jazz musician’s quotations from other melodies within the piece he is playing, serve a double or triple function. They constitute a celebration of the medium, an indication of a cinematic community; they enrich the work by opening it out, making it responsive to other works and making others responsive to it; and they point to the nature of the film’s own existence. The viewer is urged to observe the film’s relation not to ‘reality’ but to the reality of films and their influence on each other.”
The artificial quality of Hugo, where the whole film at times feels like a wind-up automaton beginning with the circling stars of the Paramount Pictures logo, and then almost too perfectly unspools with a clockwork perfection, is part of its trick. The mirrors of filmic reflexivity, where the infant cinema meets 3D digitalism, reveal how the smallest element is a microcosm for the whole beautiful design of a civilization. The picture begins with a clock's gears dissolving into an aerial view of electrically lit Paris. It is the labor of everyday workers who make the larger design of the city live, everyone integral with purpose in a cosmos. The illusion of the magic wind-up toy is not held separate from reality, but joined hand-in-hand with it. Scorsese at first embraces the graphic designer's canvas, his image moving through an animation. This dissolves through smoke into a physical photographic shot quickly dollying through a Shepperton Studios set, actors conspicuously rushing out the way of the camera's axis. A seemingly impossible crane movement lands on Hugo Cabret's face in close-up, gazing through the number "4" of the station clock.
What follows is a spectacular tracking shot of young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) sliding through the walls and walking through Montparnasse’s interior gears. It is a perfectly fluid shot, but it feels impossible. Is it real? Is it part of the complex cinematography and real-world production design, as Scorsese tries to outdo his Copacabana sequence from GoodFellas? Or is it spliced together through computer wizardry? The 3D cinematography of Hugo confuses us even further, because we are accustomed to it complementing a digital environment and not real spaces. During dialogue exchanges in the train station, there are floating particles in the air. Indeed, it would be natural for any viewer to discount these as post-production CGI touches.
Part of Scorsese’s Information Age output is concerned with the search for something real when so much is faked, be it hallucinations of whole identities. Rob Legato’s special effects work on Shutter Island is fairly transparent in terms of its CGI, stunning in appearance just as it seems openly doctored, something that may lead a dismissive film buff to disregard it as laughable visual effects work. But Scorsese has noted how the nature of images and their trickery is a theme in Shutter Island, tying it perfectly together with the fabrications of The Departed. “It’s our perception of reality, particularly in an age when we have all this internet and we have all this information coming at us,” said Scorsese at a 2010 BFI interview, “and there is no such thing as a true image. Everything’s doctored. Everything could be doctored. We can’t trust anything. So how do we perceive reality?” This affects us outside of the theater, where we are barraged by non-stop media, and in the theater where we go to encounter a duplication or heightening of the “real.” For example, watching Steven Spielberg’s recent World War I epic War Horse, we have to wonder about the snow, or the animals in the film, whether it’s the horse of the title or the eccentric and aggressive farm goose who adds a dose of comical relief to the proceedings: is this real? I already mentioned the prairie dogs in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which completely failed to fool the human eye. But are the computers getting smarter?
David Fincher’s The Social Network is a docudrama set in recent history, but Fincher uses state-of-the-art technology for snow, winter breath, and most memorably a set of Harvard twins, the “Winklevi,” both played by Armie Hammer. Yet there’s something uncanny about the way Fincher uses it – maybe unlike Spielberg – that fits the weary theme of technology overwhelming us in The Social Network. When Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) says that we will no longer live on farms, villages, or cities, but “on the internet,” the film shows how he’s right, as even breath is created by a computer. There is no truth to these images. That may be progress, but could it also make it easier for us to fool ourselves and to act amorally? The Social Network certainly feels like it's set in a world where things are falling apart and the center is not holding, much as it's now contained in cyberspace. The same with Michael Mann's cyborg world of Miami Vice. Scorsese’s The Departed is a flight away from the authentically real and the subjective, where citizens thrive in a hyperreal sphere of appropriated identities determined by their labor. Colin Sullivan hides in that cyberspace, and for Scorsese, who transparently has the implications of his government’s ethics after September 11, 2001 in mind, the question goes back to "the end of morality," a nihilism he sensed around him during the film’s production.
But the train station dust in Hugo is real dust that became part of cinematographer Robert Richardson’s design for a 3D film constructed on the conceit of blending the illusory with the concrete, the technology being steered away from Lucas' painterly canvas as the technology confronts a photographic root, dazzling the eye with the foundations of planet earth. And as the dust reminds us of the tiniest particles texturing the big picture, maybe we are reminded of the people we take for granted, or historical incidents we forget, all of which have created the present moment and informed our identities. Instead of using 3D to go out to Pandora, Scorsese comes back to the root. The potentialities beyond mere gimmickry are hilariously displayed by the photographic shot, most wonderfully when the Station Inspector Gustave Daste questions Hugo. A close-up is held on Sacha Baron Cohen's face, slowly moving in as he speaks about the suspicions of his loyal dog, Maximilian. "Seems Maximilian doesn't like the cut of you jib. He has problems with your physiognomy. He is upset by your visage. Why would he not like your face?" As Gustave lists off the synonyms, as is his character's habit ("synonyms" being a theme of the film), we see Scorsese's humorous message to filmmakers. He is taking this technology, too often exploited for computer generated spectacle, and using its full effect for the most dramatic of landscapes, the human form (in this case, if we pay attention to Gustave's dialogue, the face). It is not unlike what Scorsese's spiritual father, Elia Kazan, did with the new "gimmick" of Cinemascope in East of Eden, showing how a technique, derided by Fritz Lang as only being "fit for funeral processions and snakes," could magnify intimate human moments, bridging people to landscapes. Hugo takes us to the sources of cinema and its myths, but it also brings the machine back to its primary subject, the human being.
Certainly, in discussing the relationships between men and machines, Hugo makes one think of Chaplin and Modern Times, where the mechanical processes of mass production drive the workers insane, so much unlike the workers’ utopia of Vertov. Chaplin obviously loves technology, and has perfected its use in films, but as I stated before, he disliked how the popular gimmickry of a new technology, like sound in 1927 or Cinemascope in the 1950s, could get out of hand and overwhelm the human element in a work. And for Chaplin, nothing is quite as powerful as the human body, which he uses almost like a ballet dancer. One of the funniest scenes in Modern Times involves a bit of indigestion brought about by some coffee. The body is at war with the machine, voicing (or burbling) its consternation, for alongside the interior gastro blurps of the Tramp, the only human voices we hear are through technological buffers, such as the factory boss who appears on a big screen to interrupt break-time (this is until the finale, when Chaplin sings). The “Machine,” literally swallowing people in Modern Times, is exploited by assembly-line capitalism at the expense of the real human beings who make Civilization work, an idea central to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. (An interesting note on Modern Times when applied to a discussion of Truffaut, Hugo, The 400 Blows, theft and plagiarism vs. emulation and honor, and relationships between separate works of art, is that Chaplin was sued by the film company that financed Rene Clair’s A nous la liberte (1931), but Clair, another influence on Hugo, said of the allegation, “I’m very happy to be a modest realtor to a man to whom we are all considerable debtors,” and “If he has borrowed a few ideas from me, I’m honored.”)
In Hugo, I think we should then notice that we are watching a film about workers. Whatever it’s an all-star cast is playing an assortment of characters – Christopher Lee as the bookseller LaBisse, Richard Griffiths as the news vendor Fricke, Emily Mortimer as the flower vendor, Frances de la Tour running her café, Sacha Baron Cohen being the station inspector, Georges Melies at the toy shop, and of course Hugo Cabret – or his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) – working the clocks that dictate everything, to say nothing of the numerous station workers and engineers running the rails, Hugo is a rare period film in how it has a disregard for the ruling class. It’s the little people who make the machine work, a theme that should resonate during the bad economic times of today with enormous wealth gaps, where the rich have historically low tax rates, apparently needed to help them “create jobs” – even though they’re not being created. Hugo is, like so many other films this year coincidentally or deliberately, an OWS film just as it is an Information Age work. There is a negative idea of the machine, like in Hugo’s dream where it overwhelms him, and a positive one, where the machine ties to a sort of deeply felt faith in one’s significance.
Hugo looks out of his clock tower at the world and says how he always imagined the whole world was “one big machine.” And machines, he knows from his father, have no superfluous parts. Everything fits together and makes the whole work. “If the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part.” In spite of what the assembly line methodology has said since Henry Ford put it to use, to say nothing of the Great War that preceded Hugo Cabret and the Greater War that will follow him, he needs to believe in his purpose, a meaning standing up to the absurdity of death and amnesia, where billions are sent to the existential chopping block.
But regardless of Hugo’s optimism, consoling its major characters of meaning and purpose and so making it the most optimistic of Scorsese’s pictures, we learn that there are extraneous parts to machines. They go on to make other machines. Georges Melies created his beloved automaton for magic tricks in the late 19th century, and after seeing the Lumieres at work (and after they refused to give him one of their cameras), he took the extra parts of the machine man and constructed his very own film camera. Unlike other children's films, the world of Hugo is meaningless, but an activated imagination, like Chaplin in Modern Times or the dying bureaucrat Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, makes meaning and ties synapses to extended objects. Metaphors, as one reads in the work of linguist George Lakoff, are the building blocks of language and thought. A lie or an illusion is structurally vital to opening up the world. The automaton is cinema, and cinema is history, and the history of the world is a life. Hugo is artificial as it is real; Hugo is Hugo Cabret, the wind-up film (much like how I read Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is also about a sort of machine-man, and is for me the most well-structured film I’ve seen this year), which leaps across genres to encapsulate the meaning of literature and painting. A "father" is a biological father, or is a spiritual father. Theft is a crime, but it is also selfless and necessary. It is a lie to say that the automaton’s drawings are literally messages from Hugo’s dead father (Jude Law), but the boy takes them as such, and a metaphor becomes a bridge that opens up cinema’s spiritual father, George Melies, to redemption. The drawing, on its own and produced by independent clockwork, means nothing. But when a creative imagination is applied to it, Eden is found. The associations become the consonance of Hugo Cabret’s personal myth.
All of these characters are functionaries, and have an uncanny machine element to them. The drunken uncle Claude Cabret has surrendered himself to marking time, saying “time is everything” and counts the number of seconds in a minute, the number of minutes in an hour, and so on. He is blocked off from anything beyond that, trapped in the concrete position of his clockworks. Georges Melies, as a tragic toy salesman, is the same, as the clock reflected in his eye indicates. What is the meaning of a flower? Nothing. Yet tell that to the flower seller in Hugo, whose flowers are symbolically powerful in how they communicate treasured sentiments. Or the books of LaBisse, only paper and binding until they are read and then applied by human imagination, which again is attuned to the synaptical function of a metaphor and symbol, having a leg in the real world and the other in infinity. There are no accidents in Hugo for Hugo Cabret, and so when he bumps into LaBisse and the old bookseller’s volumes tumble in front of him, LaBisse says, “This book [a volume of Robin Hood] was originally intended for my godson. But it now seems that it is intended for you, Monsieur Cabret.”
STRANGE LOVE: ART SYNAPSE
Hugo’s accomplice, Melies’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), says that LaBisse sends books to good homes. “He’s got real purpose,” says Hugo. And the way LaBisse tells Hugo and Isabelle where they may find a volume on Film at the library is with the specific knowledge of a machine. He tells them precisely where to go, like he is his own reference system. (The strange laughter of the Michael Stuhlbarg's film historian, Rene Tabard, also sounds like the emissions of a robot). The content of the books, meanwhile, leaps off the page and into the soul of the reader, determining their reflections, ideas, and actions. When Isabelle sees Hugo crying, she tells him that crying is okay, because “Sydney Carton cries, and Heathcliff cries," a pairing of Romantic figures from A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights. Elsewhere there are moments like where Isabelle mentions her affinity to Jean Valjean (while Gustave the Station Inspector certainly looks a lot like Les Miserables’s antagonist for Valjean, Javert), or how LaBisse’s bookstore is “Neverland, Oz, and Treasure Island.” Some of the clunking lines of John Logan’s screenplay, which feel too much like the drivel from other children’s films (Isabelle’s excitement for “adventure!” for example, or the way she uses her new vocabulary, picked up from the books she’s just read), is somewhat justified. While Gustave interrogates Hugo, Isabelle brings up her cat named after Christina Rossetti, the poet who writes in those synaptic branches: “My heart is like an apple tree” or “My heart is like a singing bird.” The imaginative individual dwells in two worlds, where mythology comes alive and the dead walk with life – which is a good definition of cinema. But to just see a thing as it is, completely reduced and concretized, blocked off from all associations, is to be a machine at its most lifeless and inhumane – leading to broken lives, wars, and Holocausts, the “bitter earth” voiced by Dinah Washington’s closing-credits song of Shutter Island, Scorsese’s previous film that had a special interest in “protocol” and how human beings were equivalent to paperwork at death camps, and were to be controlled by lobotomies. Hugo and Isabelle, meanwhile, become their forebears in film and literature, from the poor heroes of Charles Dickens (we may think of Oliver Twist, and Isabelle refers to Nicholas Nickleby) to Harold Lloyd, whose Safety Last! is the film the children watch in the cinema, as thieves – much like Francois Truffaut would often sneak into theaters. Also like Truffaut, they emulate the work and don’t passively consume it. Hugo hangs on the Montparnasse clock, just like Harold Lloyd hangs from Safety Last’s clock. History recurs, through art and life, endlessly.
But keep in mind how Gustave, though he claims to love “Christina Rossetti” (he mumbles her last name, evidence that he really doesn’t know who she is), rejects this imaginative perspective. He says he loves poetry, “just not in the station.” “Work in different shops,” he adds. It’s much like how a typical audience, surrounded by economic imperatives in their daily lives, will approach art. Art, especially movies, are just entertainment, and as many a critic hears when film discussions start brewing, “I don’t like to think while watching movies.” The movie begins, and it’s instantly over when the credits run two hours later. Nothing is taken with the viewer. Art and Life are neatly compartmentalized in a very efficient, machine-like manner. The art can’t breathe. And as literature, poetry, sculpture, music, painting, and cinema are called the Humanities for a reason, we can see why a more mechanistic, digital world governed by zero-sum business interests results in the sort of love letter an investment banker writes to an internet date (I maintain that this email is evidence why funding for the arts is actually important). There’s a sort of Cartesian dualism, Scorsese realizes, for people when it comes to the movies and life, which is why the 3D element becomes meaningful here, as the content gets closer to the viewer (Steven Soderbergh had a similar idea at play in Contagion, which was originally going to be shot on 3D cameras). We are too much like Gustave, keeping things in “different shops.”
Critics have complained that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Gustave is a cog in the machine of Hugo, his comic scenes of slapstick throwing things off-course in an otherwise great film. I must admit that I am not watching the same movie that they are, as at a very basic level, I find his scenes quite funny, bringing a welcome levity to the proceedings. But if his scenes are somewhat dissonant with the bulk of Hugo, maybe my interpretation was set on a different rail of input after noting his mechanical appendage at Gustave’s introduction. We see a leg held together by some contraption, squeaking at awkward moments and getting in the way of Gustave’s attempts to flirt with the lovely flower seller. He is a broken man and so, yes, he is a cog. But he also represents the dominance of the machine over the humane, and his attention to his functions are so reductive that he has no problem with throwing good people out of the way while chasing a child like Hugo. He cannot produce a convincing smile, which keeps his flirtations with the flower girl awkward (bringing up the cows’ “lovely udders” when evoking country life, for example).
But Cohen’s comic persona is, like the film, also reaching out to forebears, and maybe that figures into my delight with him here. Richard Corliss correctly points out how Cohen bears some similarities to the great Peter Cook of Beyond the Fringe, but he’s also similar to Peter Sellers, be it as The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau, or more significantly, Dr. Strangelove. One of his hands is gloved in black leather while the other isn’t, much like Kubrick’s Strangelove, also an incapacitated machine man who embraces the way of the machine and efficient methods of extermination. (It's also fair to think of Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, another canonical film comedy that has themes of machinery linked to humanity). Strangelove’s name references a duality of love and death, his Nazi impulses overwhelming when nuclear holocaust begins to excite him. Gustave’s presence feeds into the technological themes in Hugo just as it neatly fits with a concern about the past. Scorsese reaches out to his godfathers, Truffaut to his, and Sacha Baron Cohen, likewise, to his ancestors of British comedy.
The Law always represents a completely concrete and closed-off sensibility, so unlike Nature. The tight cage of Gustave is much like the one in which Antoine Doinel sits in The 400 Blows, a film where authority inflicts art without understanding it. Gustave is delighted to send boys to the ominous orphanage, courtesy of a policeman who doesn’t seem to understand the processes of nature. In a couple amusing dialogue exchanges, the lawman tells Gustave that his wife left him. “She’s pregnant,” he says. “Is it yours?” Gustave asks. “I don’t know.” “Have you had relations with her in the last year?” “No.” “Hmmm.” Later on, the wife has returned and Gustave is offered the role of “godfather” (the third reference to being a ‘godfather’), something for which Gustave doesn’t feel fit. But later, after Gustave has found his heart through a process of identification (where Hugo’s malfunction is equated with Gustave’s maimed leg, just as the Flower Seller finds kinship with Gustave in that her brother was killed in the Great War, where Gustave suffered his injury), we see him with a more able-working appendage and a better smile (“I’ve mastered three of them!”). He declares, “I’m now a fully functional man!”
In the Information Age, we are all cyborgs, but are we reconciled to that machinery or do we surrender to it? At the orphanage, where Gustave himself was raised, one learns to “follow orders,” just as one learns “you don’t need a family.” Gustave’s cyborg standing bears some relation to the post-human ideas in The Departed, where workers are also cyborgs, tied to information technology gadgets, the film’s opening theme song being The Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping Up to Boston,” the lyrics telling how a sailor lost his leg and is looking for a wooden one, a false appendage to complete him. Gustave, unlike the tragic characters in The Departed, is redeemed by tying cybernetics, or his method of governance, to other human beings. For Scorsese, family isn’t necessarily a concrete bloodline, but refers to one’s relationship to the past, enabling one to see the bigger picture. The seemingly extra parts are working in another machine, linked. The allusion may not be at all deliberate, but Hugo’s final act showing Hugo run through the train station to deliver Georges Melies his beloved automaton bears some resemblance to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006), where Clive Owen’s character halts gunfire between soldiers and insurgents by holding a newborn child, something that the infertile world of 2029 hasn’t seen in decades. There is a binary in the film, between machines and nature – steel cages for illegal immigrants, ubiquitous screens, mind-numbing virtual games, pharmaceuticals, and basic military force, while Michael Caine’s former hippie lives in the woods and is surrounded by kittens and pot. As people with guns close in to kill him, how does he fight back, however absurdly? He requests that they pull his finger. We see the spirit of Chaplin in such a technique, where the scatological becomes a symbol of freedom against machine minds and machine hearts.
“Where is the father?” is asked by a schoolteacher during an English language class in The 400 Blows. Antoine Doinel doesn’t know who his real father is, but he has a spiritual one in Balzac. In Hugo, James Joyce sits in a café along with Salvador Dali, but his presence doesn’t seem too accidental, being that his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, was also searching for a spiritual father separate from the provincialism of Dublin, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Ulysses was a novel adopting myriad literary approaches that tied it to its forebears in literature: Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, biblical writings, and of course Homer. Joyce is Stephen Dedalus, whose name implies that he’s the mythological Daedalus who fashioned “wings of art” to escape from the Minotaur’s maze, just as he is Hamlet – while he explains that Shakespeare is not Hamlet, but the Ghost – and, as Stuart Gilbert’s notes indicate, Stephen is Telemachus, searching for his father Odysseus.
Hugo Cabret is another variation on the son searching for his father, the archetypal orphan. There is a close kinship between Monsieur Cabret and his son, and Scorsese and John Logan bring up a particular mystery regarding the Mother (which I think is original from the Selznick novel). The automaton, another orphan and so a double for Hugo, abandoned to the Parisian museum where Monsieur Cabret works, associates with the absent mother. Hugo’s father believes the automaton came from London, “where mother comes from.” The father corrects Hugo, saying that Mother was from Coventry, but went to London. We don’t know if she actually left Hugo’s father for England, or if she probably met him in London, and has since died. The sorrow of Monsieur Cabret may have led him to the movies, “our special place” according to Hugo, where the two Cabrets could see dreams "in the middle of the afternoon.” The past, and hope, comes alive for Hugo’s father. The two work to fix broken machines that give an absurd and bitter earth meaning.
When Hugo looks at the automaton, the sound of a film projector is heard, and Hugo slips into memories of his father. Again, the automaton doubles for cinema, a form of technology enlivened by the yearning of a human heart defiantly scripting its illusions. The “message” that the automaton writes, after Isabelle’s mysterious heart-shaped key is turned in its slot, is a picture from A Trip to the Moon, showing a rocket smash into the Man on the Moon, the name “Georges Melies” signed below. The coincidence ties the automaton to Hugo’s dead father, swallowed in a museum fire that seems to be exuded from hell (or one of the dragons in Melies’ films). Hugo remembers that his father told him the first film he ever saw involved such an image.
Melies' image of the moon, a spectacular illusion, was the father’s entry into the world of dreams, the Moon itself being a potent symbol for reflection and illusion, being that what we see when we look at the moon is not the actual moon, but, like cinema, the sun’s light reflecting on its surface, an idea that Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick built into AI: Artificial Intelligence, another masterful fairy tale about the real, the “orga,” dueling with the illusory, the “mecha.” The association may or may not be deliberate, but Jude Law’s presence in Hugo connects it to AI, where he played the skeptical pleasure-model robot, Gigolo Joe, helping the child robot David (Haley Joel Osment) on his archetypal quest for the Mother, similar in so many ways to Hugo’s quest for the Father – the fulfillment of both journeys being a fabrication, just as it is ecstatically and emotionally real. Hugo, and Georges Melies, certainly bears relation to Spielberg, who is kind of Scorsese’s bright and more optimistic double, the great manipulator and showman second only to Cecil B. DeMille. AI is Spielberg’s most accomplished work, I think, because its sentiments are tempered by Stanley Kubrick’s reductive skepticism, making the film skeptical of its own manipulative nature, which is so offbeat (because so many of us are resistant to identifying with David’s naked emotional attachment to “Mommy”) and so very different from the easy emotional resolves of many other Spielberg fantasies.
Encountering the Moon, the ultimate reflection and clarifying light through the darkness of night, we encounter our deepest self. The ties are not concrete but infinite, so much like the process of cinema watching or book reading, where we become Jean Valjean or Oliver Twist, or can even feel sympathy for a despicable character like Jake LaMotta. The borders of “different shops,” to use Gustave’s phrase, are blown down and the family opens up to the broader human comedy. We are the film, and we are (like “The Man In”) the Moon. There are three references to “God-parents” in Hugo: Isabelle to Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory); Monsieur LaBisse and his godson, for whom the volume of Robin Hood was intended; and the policeman’s proposition that Gustave be godfather to a (presumably) illegitimate child. At the climax of the story, after Gustave has saved Hugo – along with the automaton – from being crushed by a train, Georges Melies saves Hugo from the orphanage by pronouncing that he is Hugo’s father, and he, in a sense, is, just as he is a universal father to all of us, being the progenitor of film narrative. The truest parent, transcending the biological, is the spiritual father like that with which we see Jesus Christ identifying in The Last Temptation of Christ.
3D builds the symbolic railway between the world of the film and the audience watching it, making the illusion real. We identify and find ourselves in the art, instead of compartmentalizing it into some distant vacuum separate from life. Films are another dimension set alongside our empirical existence, like dreams, themselves playing a prescient role in Hugo’s story. Historical incident and dream exist side by side, like the famous 1895 train crash at Montparnasse, which replays in Hugo’s anxious dream (an event that he probably would not know about), and is fantastically adapted by Georges Melies into one of his color-tinted films, while Melies himself, honored at the film’s conclusion, exits the frame as Ben Kingsley and re-enters as the actual Georges Melies, who cast himself in so many of his pictures. The film historian Rene Tabard writes a book that takes us to Chaplin, Griffith, Caligari, The Great Train Robbery, Sherlock Jr. and Buster Keaton, and to the source of all things, Hugo being a film with relation to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in how it seeks to return to a lost Eden, climbing through branches of endless relation in pursuit of a Root, a fulfillment of Eternity not different from that which Gilgamesh and Parzival quested. Tabard the character is himself fictional, but Hugo gets his name from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, which influenced The 400 Blows and Selznick’s book. Everything connects and breathes life through the perfume of art.
Who are we truly? The people we “truly” are, according to this endless associative process leading to infinity, correlate to the archetypes of our fictions. We truly are, according to Melies, “wizards, mermaids, travelers, and magicians,” in the private movies of our lives, fueled by imaginations enlivening a static world of facts, numbers, and lifeless machinery. There is religious significance to cinema, something Jean Cocteau, another great French filmmaker and theorist, explicates when he addresses the “burning brush of the footlights, the solemnity of the red curtain, the stage manager’s baton that signals the start of the play and calls for an almost religious hush.” Cocteau’s philosophy of the cinema mirrors Hugo’s themes as he writes, “Cinematography is a marvelous way of giving form to individual dreams, while allowing a great number of people to take part in secret things, to harmonize and drive out solitude,” and later adding, “The darkness of cinema comes to resemble that of a human body in which a crowd of individuals are dreaming the same dream together.” For Cocteau, cinema is “the machine that gives shape to dreams.” “The hypnosis it induces in us is such that it becomes hard to tell where it ends. Even when a film breaks away and, having devoured us, revolves with a curious and detached life of its own, more distant that that of the stars, the machine in us is still subject to it and will not be wiped clean.”
Carriere, writing decades after Cocteau’s death, continues the religious incantation while describing cinema. “For the duration of the film, it briefly isolates a group of people from the rest of the world. As if, escaping life’s turbulence for the space of two hours, the audience could forget time, could stop growing old. The modern cave shelters us from the oldest of evils.” Art, and most especially the Promethean light-capturer Cinema, is the defiant stance against Death, “death” being defined by Andre Bazin as “the victory of time.” Hugo is replete with statues, from the funerary figures leading to Melies’ apartment to the bishop’s tomb locked away in the museum attic, where Hugo’s father ponders the revolutions of globes. The automaton is another statue, and the filmmakers designed about a dozen separate automatons, slightly changing the visage of the figure from scene to scene, the final automaton – the last image of the picture – having a faint Mona Lisa smile (Leonardo DaVinci being an important artist who helped introduce a realistic sense of perspective into painting, much like 3D cinematography, where iconic figures who transcended reality were now human beings duplicating reality spatially). The statues in Hugo are premonitions of Death, though Bazin notes that “the primordial function” of the statuary art is “a preservation of life by a representation of life.” The statue is a preservation from a second, “spiritual death. A spiritual reality where symbol transcends models.” Among the more recent adult fairy tales Hugo resembles, it's fair to include Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy blending the illusion of performance and grim present reality of a desperate situation, shadows broken, looming, and resurrected to embolden poor individuals. Art represents the artist saying “I Am” and “I Was” (like Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe says in Spielberg’s AI), or Christ conquering death through resurrection in Last Temptation, whose death may be Scorsese’s previous “happy ending” before Hugo (one could make a similar argument, though, for Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead).
It’s like a spiritual “animism” where the soul leaps from object to object, the metaphor moving synaptically: as in Rossetti’s “The Birthday” poem, the heart is not just a heart, but is like an apple tree or a singing bird, the Automaton is the Movies, and Hugo Cabret, whose name – clearly an allusion to cabaret, and so denotes performance on a stage – is himself the moon, the automaton, the director, the audience, Heathcliff, Jean Valjean, Oliver Twist, Antoine Doinel, Charlie Chaplin, Papa Georges, and finally you. The clockwork is the City of Paris, as is the very dust between the individuals making it work. We are the film, we are cinema, we are the Father, the Mother, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the explored leaps, perhaps we find our functions. A flaw of Hugo may be the role of Isabelle, who seems at times a pointless character, making it ironic when Hugo ponders what his role is in the “great machine." He says that Isabelle must also have an important function, but we may wonder with him about it. For a few scenes, I was reminded of Laura Dern's Sandy in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, who is helping out the protagonist on his adventure. Isabelle's passion for adventure is similar to Jeffrey Beaumont's love for mysteries (Hugo and Isabelle are even rushed into a room with an ominous chest, much like Dorothy Vallens -- a kind of visitor from Oz in her own right -- sends Jeffrey into her closet when Frank Booth -- "Daddy" -- comes home, Georges Melies, whose art is truly "In Dreams," being the angry Papa knocking on the door). Isabelle's role, however, becomes clear at the end when she begins writing down the story, adapting her reality and passing along the torch of creativity and interpretation, keeping the dead alive and bringing us “home” to a lost paradise. Hugo is about the search for that garden, the “ghosts” of the past lingering and taunting, Georges Melies being not unlike the satanic angel cast out, as we see a Luciferian statue on the way to his doorstep. The critic, Tabard, has an important role too, the critic being, Scorsese realizes, a figure so often discarded and dismissed by the public (to say nothing of artists). The critic’s passion is of the same stuff as the artist’s, his drive to keep the past alive and reintroduce it to those who have aged (like Mama Jeanne) the same as a director.
“I don’t care if you’re Jesus of not,” St. Paul says to Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, after he's accused of lying about Jesus' story. “The resurrected Jesus will save the world and that’s what matters.” The lie of Scorsese, the myth of the resurrection, is like Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth.” This is Scorsese’s mythos at play in Hugo, Last Temptation, and most certainly in his documentaries on Bob Dylan and George Harrison, where factual nitpickers like Bill Wyman complain about the absence of facts. The myth composed within the fabricated illusion of artisanship is more powerful than the facts that merely account for life, hurling bodies in a passive and deadening stream of reductionist existence like the soldiers marching home after the Great War, where men had seen things more outlandish and frightening than any Melies fantasy. Melies' films fell out of fashion and the disillusionment brought about his rejection. “Taste had changed. I hadn’t.” His films become dust and ashes, melted into the mass-produced heels of shoes that become like those soldiers' endless and repetitive footsteps to nowhere and nothingness, such as we see almost consuming Isabelle on the train station floor ( this is another wonderful allusion to Parisian cinema, namely Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise, also about theatrical performers, and having a famous production wrought with tension between reality and illusion, as it was shot during the German occupation).
Cinema is consciousness, as indicated when Hugo’s memory runs like projected film while he looks at the automaton. The shutter is in our head, and so is the projector. Memory – and so cinema – is resurrection. We are all “waiting to work again” when we hit our funks and limitations, plagued with un-meaning, disorder, and sorrow. Unactivated and passive beings are themselves lifeless automatons, not unlike Chaplin’s factory workers in Modern Times or Lang’s in Metropolis, the systematically abused children of The 400 Blows or the manufactured mechas in AI, the scientist in The City of Lost Children or the absurdly rational leaders of Gilliam's Munchausen, or the screen-addicted populace of Children of Men. Life has no meaning other than the meaning for which we are programmed, giving rise to intuitions that grasp and reach outward to other beings. Tabard says of Melies’ movie studio, “It was like something out of a dream. To my eyes, it was nothing short of an enchanted castle, a palace made of glass.” His inner camera-eye isn’t so different from Andrew Laeddis in Shutter Island, or maybe a computer creating Pandora in Avatar. The human author’s heart, for better or worse, fashions a world to fly us out of a meaningless maze of darkness and confusion. While so many efforts during the recent 3D have flown much too close to the sun, plummeting to a dreary, footworn floor of pure machine dominance, Hugo escapes and soars to show us ourselves.
Recommended Reading, Quoted Here:
The Secret Language of Film by Jean Claude Carriere
What is Cinema? by Andre Bazin
The Art of Cinema by Jean Cocteau
A Cinema of Loneliness by Robert Kolker
Listen to The Niles Files show on Martin Scorsese's Hugo, from Tommy Mischke's Nite Show on WCCO Radio.