Hugo: directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan
There is a scene in New York, New York taken from Francine Evan’s latest movie, a ten minute musical sequence overflowing with an forthright tongue-in-cheek nature, musicality and gaudiness that only the most ferocious of musicals would attempt at. It’s a gaudy sequence, in that it’s a bit bizarre in how audaciously it wears its emotions on its sleeves because even as everything in the scene adds to the development of plot it seems to exist more obviously as a strident show of style over substance, so that you’re lulled into the sense of thinking it’s not telling you anything when, really, it is. It’s the same way I think of Hugo*, Scorsese’s latest offering. It’s not that Scorsese has endured as a particularly cerebral director (what with his appreciation for the visceral, especially in the 90s) and the more I think of Hugo I think that it’s perhaps not as striking a departure from the typical Scorsese fare as it’s being marketed as. Scorsese has long been preoccupied with the relationship between a man and the thing(s?) he holds dear. Ostensibly, Hugo is about a boy. Really, though, it’s about dreams – the loss of them, the disillusionment which follows them, and the – often rare – blitheness which follows when they are regained.
It is apparent that on some level that Paramount hopes to use the tonal difference of Hugo as its biggest calling card – a Scorsese film for children. In fact, I’m not altogether doubtful that it’s an attempt to emphasise Scorsese’s movement into Spielbergian territory. In fact, before I saw the film, I noticed someone tweet disparagingly that in the same way that Spielberg could not succeed at making a Scorsese film Scorsese does not succeed at making a Spielberg film. I’d rather not enter into a debate on the merits of either director. One might argue that Hugo is fundamentally different from typical Scorsese, but that still would not establish much. There is still a painstaking attention to detail, and a precision which could be mistaken for mania. Consider it against in something like, say The Aviator, overflowing as much with production values and attention to its period’s detail. Replace Hugo’s appreciation with film with one for aviation and so replace Papa Georges with Papa Howard, and turn the film into something of a structural brother to Melvin & Howard and the film remains the same. What makes Hugo most different is its shift in focus, traditionally this would have been a character study of Méliès, but this time it’s through the eyes of the young boy wherein we meet the film’s true main character. It, in this way, recalls the inclinations of great artists entering a different phase of their lives and finding solace in youth – something of a defying act against mortality. But, not completely.
* Alas, I cannot take credit for being the first one to espy the parallels between Hugo and New York, New York Tom Shone mentions it in his somewhat disparaging review (also the place where the Scorsese/Spielberg quip emanated from.