Tuesday, 27 December 2011

“Films have the power to capture dreams”

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.

For, even though with its focus on the youthful machinations of Hugo, and even with a very hopeful joie-de-vivre inherent in its tableau the film still entertains the darkness. For in the same way that a fellow filmmaker has made a film rooted in mirth where he too is unable to completely expel the darkness, Scorsese does not let in the light at the expense of darkness. In fact, the light inherent in Hugo comes from the darkness. The jollity emerging from the manoeuvrings of the potentially villainous policeman are mixed with the very vibrant threat of foster care, Hugo’s adventures to watch the films are tinged with the sadness of his father’s death and even Georges’ comeback is a happy moment because of all the grief preluding it. Carrying the legacy of his dead father in his mind Hugo is determined to repair the broken automaton left to him, acquiring materials for the repair by pilfering. It’s a dangerous existence for on orphan in 1930s France and a running theme of the film which despite its ultimate specificity in assessing the importance of dreams and art, does not shirk at the chance to examine the milieu of the world its characters inhabit – as clear as it is that this is a world of make believe.

One of the things that’s most enchanting about Hugo is Dante Ferreti’s production design. His emphasising of the pretty, illusory cadence of this Paris does not – oddly enough – prevent the film’s most vociferous themes from finding their realness. I do not doubt that the embellished nature of the film’s presentation could be mistaken for an overly inundated production and even an overly garish one. But, with Méliès history playing such an important part of it such particular interest in visual detail is not bizarre. One of the film’s most beautiful scenes is a journey to the films of Méliès, such a beautiful piece of enchantment that the “real” world of the film and its beauty pales in comparison. A film about silent film necessitates visual detail, and it prevents Scorsese from paying as much attention to his actors. Or, at least, I think it does. I feel about the actors in this the same way I feel about them in The Last Temptation of Christ - important for their general contribution, but not specifically important. Butterfield’s childish cadence is difficult to replicate and he certainly is winsome. If anyone rises above the general offerings of the cast it is Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen McRory. Baron reveals a surprising adeptness for physical comedy. Inspector Gustav’s scenes are probably the scenes where Scorsese is least adept. They don’t teem with was much glee as you’d anticipate, but Cohen thrills nonetheless. McRory, with less screen-time is even more charming although I’m not sure I miss her so much in the film because she’s good, or because the film is lacking in the feminine.

Typically, Scorsese’s mode of directing always strikes me as of the Wordsworth type. Back in the Romantic period Wordsworth’s concept of seeing the poet as the main part of the artistic process was somewhat revolutionary. And, for Scorsese I’ve always felt that his inclinations were the main force behind his films – call it indicative of him being an auteur, if you will. And, with Hugo Scorsese’s history with film preservation still makes it a stemming from Scorsese’s consciousness specifically. But the film, more than any in his oeuvre I’ve seen other than maybe New York, New York is more about feeling than thinking. It recalls the proffered words of another Romantic poet – Keats – who yearned for a life a sensation and not thought. And, with its sweeping photograph, idiosyncratic editing, mellifluous score and deliberately flamboyant performances it is a film which, I feel, depends on being lost in that world. And, I do get a feeling of being more thrilled by isolated portions of Hugothan the complete whole of Hugo, but I am enthralled by the actual offerings of the film on its own. I suspect it’s one which could do well with a second viewing and then, I think that the very response to Hugo one focused on random non-specificities than the whole is just the way that a dreamscape works dulling your senses and drawing you in at the most peculiar of moments. And, more than anything, that just might be the barometer for adjudging a film like Hugo.

* 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.


Dan O. said...

The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review Andrew.

Marcy said...

The more I think about it, the more I think that Hugo is the kind of film that Scorsese would definitely make (and of course, he definitely did). It's not so much a departure, but a slight variation in degrees. Scorsese has always been fascinated by man's fixation on certain things, ideas, and dreams, and Hugo is not much different. Now that I think about it, Scorsese's versatility comes from the kinds of settings, periods, and traditional "genres" he's willing to explore, rather than the differences in story and character.

I like the Scorsese/Spielberg quip because I definitely don't think this is Scorsese's "Spielberg movie," mainly because Scorsese can't make a Spielberg movie. While Scorsese dabbles in sentimentality and can't quite go any further, Spielberg throws himself into it, soaring Williams score and all, which is, strangely enough, reasons why I like both directors.

Anyway, I just want to applaud you on this review, Andrew, because it has given me a lot to think about.