December 24, 2011

Hugo (12/24/2011)

Lettergrade: B

I had trouble building up much enthusiasm to see Hugo, honestly. We ultimately watched a DVD screener of it the other day, which I know is not the right way to really show off the visuals, the sets, and the gorgeous Robert Richardson photography. A big screen at high resolution certainly would have given the film a bit more power and seductive glitter, but I'm not sure those things would have entirely reconciled the awkward way in which the picture starts as a magical fantasy about an orphan boy who keeps the clocks in the old Montparnasse train station of 1950s Paris and then makes a hard transition into a PSA about the real-world importance of film preservation.

I understand that this Martin Scorsese movie follows Brian Selznick's graphic novel / novella quite closely in that regard, but this is a curious kind of historical fiction in that it takes events that really happened involving film pioneer Georges Méliès and sticks them into whimsical, fantastical version of Paris, which feels like it never really existed, at least not the way we're seeing it here. That combination simply leaves me unsure of what to think… if you want to tell a story about the way in which Méliès's film company folded after WWII, how he had to sell many of his prints off to a company which boiled them down to make shoe heels, and that he used that money to open a modest toy shop, I think there's an engaging movie there somewhere. If the goal is to tell a fantasy story about the boy in the station, I think there's a decent, if not a little mundane, story there too. Perhaps Selznick felt that he really couldn't really get children to sit through the second half the story without the sugar coating of the first half?

Similarly, it's clear that Scorsese is a bit more interested in where the film ends than where it starts. His use of the camera is, as always masterful, and the allusions and tributes to early silent cinema are subtle and astute. Of course, I cannot imagine that there's a single young person out there who will understand or appreciate all these references (or will be inspired to look up the works of Georges Méliès as a result), but since much of the film has essentially been designed as hardcore pornography for film scholars and historians, I'm not sure that such things really matter.

A few of my wife's siblings took their kids to see this movie on the same day that we saw it. The group was pretty well split: Laura's sister-law-in and her son had something of a "well, it's okay" reaction, whereas her sister and brother had tears and running down their faces at the end. There was a similar split in our living room… I sat there thinking, "jeeze, well this really took a turn," but then I looked down at Laura's head on my lap and saw tears welling up. "What's wrong?" I asked, thinking that she was in some kind late pregnancy pain that I had been oblivious to. After a beat, however, I realized that she had simply found the movie to be beautiful and moving.

Perhaps it's telling of our difference in opinion that such a reaction was baffling to me at first. Am I looking at this picture (and many another) too literally? Probably. Of course, all the "criers" in this scenario are siblings related by blood, so maybe it's just a family thing.


  1. My dear friend, I trust you will not take my dissection of your criticism here the wrong way.

    "I cannot imagine that there's a single young person out there who will understand or appreciate all these references (or will be inspired to look up the works of Georges Méliès as a result)..."

    You cannot imagine my son, then, whom you have met dozens of times, who is hugely into Melies now. (To the extent that he wanted me to make him the star of a Meliesian film, "The Disappearing Snowman" made in five minutes on my iPhone. A very instructive and engaging enterprise for him.)

    I think you missed rather a lot about this film. (Not least because it is the first film I've seen in which 3D is used as a genuine narrative device, and it all but essential to understanding a fairly rich subtext.)

    "If you want to tell a story about the way in which Méliès's film company folded after WWII . . ." "If the goal is to tell a fantasy story about the boy in the station . . ."

    If you want to do both, or rather, use these intersecting PLOTS to tell a story about how the inability to find or fulfill one's purpose makes one little more than a broken automaton, I guess you get "Hugo" as a result.

    You are erring here in several regards. One of my least favorite critical devices is the imputation of motivation to the subject of a critique. It's not possible for you to know the artists's intentions or the chain of events that led to his choices. Making an assumption on this basis (viz. "the film has essentially been designed [by Scorsese] as hardcore pornography for film scholars and historians") that will negatively impact the probity of your critique.

    Also, I'm afraid you're rather redefining fantasy here. I don't quite understand your implication that the orphan child's lonely life, split as it is between scuttling like a rat in the grimy walls of the Gare Montparnasse winding clocks, stealing bits of food to survive, is "sugar coated." It's more like something out of Bresson.

    I'll grant you the version of Paris is certainly the Paris of the imagination, populated by Joyce, Picasso, and Reinhardt all in the same cafe, all looking as if they've stepped out of a Lautrec poster, but inasmuch as magic, illusion and cinema are the three pillars on which the film is built, it seems appropriate.

    I might suggest viewing it again, in 3D if you can arrange it (it's still in a few theaters). Note a few things: how much of the film, from the very beginning, echoes everything from old silents to Jacques Tati; how when Hugo peers at the world through clock faces and wall gratings, the dimensionality is limited to the foreground (Hugo and what he's looking through) while the subjects of his gaze are flat and very nearly two-dimensional -- the effect being that of watching someone watch a movie.

    There's more as well, but I would suggest most of all that you drop your preconceptions about Scorsese and his motivations.

    You missed rather a lot on this one, old sport. Try again?

  2. I hope you'll forgive me for making comments like the "hardcore pornography" one, mainly for the purpose of a laugh, but I'll maintain that it's not a pejorative statement, necessarily, and also that it's not necessarily untrue. The Michael Stuhlbarg character is borderline orgasmic at certain points of the movie both when talking about Georges Méliès and later when talking to Georges Méliès, and I would guess that the film's many overt and not-so-overt references would be a sheer delight for those learn'd enough to catch them all (people like yourself, for example). My comment was definitely smart-assed and crass, I'll give you that, but that's deep in the DNA of pretty much every post here, for better or worse, but I don't think it's wrong. (oh, and it was also written after I saw the movie, not before… like the rest of the post).

    I get what you mean about walking into films with preconceptions of what the filmmaker was intending beforehand, but I'm not convinced that's what I did with this one. I hadn't read the book at the time (although I have since), and I didn't know much, if anything, about what I was in for or what the film was going to be, other than that I have friends who really liked it. I always try to go in with an open mind, and to let the movie tell me what it is and how I ought to read it, rather than try to be influenced by the inescapable marketing (which is often misleading anyway) or by what I've heard from other people. I think that's a particularly important approach with Scorsese as his films tend to be so unique and surprising (as this one is), and his command of the language of cinema is so remarkable.

    I think it's been well established at this point, however, that Scorsese really, really, really, really, really, really really, really likes movies and their history, and therefore it's not tough to spot what it is about this particular story that he likely found appealing. I honestly have less of a problem with making that fairly benign assumption than I do with reviews that that site Scorsese's illness stricken youth as his motivation for pretty much every movie he makes (as many major reviews do for this film in particular).

    I really do feel that the tone of picture when it starts is - if not "fantastical" - at the very least heavy on whimsy, and something that feels like it is not entirely of reality or history as we know it. You're right: nothing impossible or improbable happens here (nor does it in a movie like, say, Amilié, which I thought of more than a few times during this picture as we look over light-drenched vistas of Paris as Howard Shore's ceaseless accordion grinds away), but nevertheless I stand by my impression that what we're looking at is something a little "more than real," if for no other reason than how it looks.

    That said, the main point I was attempting to make in my original post is that the film kinda stumbled for ME PERSONALLY (and that's main thing I'm trying to express on this blog... not every one of a film's artistic merits, necessarily, but what my honest reaction was while watching the movie, rightly or wrongly, and why I believe I felt that way) when Hugo's plot, which did not feel like it was part of a Paris that ever existed, intersected with something that very much was a real part of history.

  3. A lot of what we see about Georges Méliès in this movie is based in truth, including how and why he became the proprietor of a small toy shop in Gare Montparnasse after his studio folded post WWI, and that his films gained great appreciation again later in his life. But this isn't HOW any of that happened. We're given points A and C, which are apparently very factual, but B, the events that take place in the middle of this movie because of Méliès's interaction with Hugo, is complete historical fiction and totally untrue, right? Méliès was not brought out of reclusion in part because of a boy who fixed up an old automaton with his now-deceased father, or because of any of what we see here. Automatons were real, but did Méliès really have one and did its resurfacing years after he thought it had been destroyed have anything to do with him coming out of seclusion?

    And once Papa Georges' identity is revealed, Hugo's plot seems to take a back seat to the proceedings until the sequence where he must return to Montparnasse again. When the movie begins, it feels like we are very much in Hugo's story, but it ends as Méliès's with Hugo somewhat as an observer rather than a participant, and it seems to me that Méliès's revival is ultimately given much more importance in the film than is Hugo finding a home. I don't think it's unreasonable to suppose, based on the early part of the picture (and the title), that this is Hugo's story. I don't feel that Hugo and Méliès's plot intersect or integrate well in the movie, as much as Méliès's plot largely takes over after a while, and I felt a strange lack of emotional investment (and ultimately, satisfaction) in that.

    I'm not saying that the movie is a failure movie because of these things (please note that I was positive overall), but I will point to them as major reasons _I_ did not feel the connection to it that others (and apparently you!) did. I'm fine with people thinking that such a reaction is ridiculous and narrow-minded (and apparently you did!), but what can I do about how I legitimately felt while I was watching the movie?

    Also please keep in mind that I do like the movie. I think our dispute here that I think it's a good movie, and you think it's a really really good movie. I don't feel a need to defend my honest reaction, but I think that if I'm going to bother to express it on the internet or elsewhere, it is incumbent upon me to describe why I felt that way, and I believe that my original post did that, oblivious to the film's many riches as it may have seemed to you. This isn't the Cahiers du Cinéma here. I'm not trying to be a great record of astute film criticism here… decorated surveyors of modern cinema (who actually get paid to do this) can easily run intellectual circles around me, and I'm not interested in writing posts like that anyway. There's enough of that tepid bullshit on the internet without me attempting my own pale imitation. I'm drawing thumbnail sketches which describe my reactions to the pictures I'm seeing while getting a few laughs at the same time (frequently, I'll admit, by taking some cheap shots, but I try to abstain from those unless there really is a point in taking them).

  4. I always try to underline my biases and limitations when I'm aware of them (such as the big one with this picture: the fact that I saw it in my living room at home, and not in a theater with an audience, possibly in 3D). The thing is, though, I have a feeling that a lot of people are going to see it that exact same way down the line. You may well be right when you say that in 3D _should_ be the way in which this picture is best seen, but the truth is that a lot of people simply _won't_ see it that way. Will this picture have the same impact for first-time once the spectacle is severely knee-capped like that? And what of people who don't have quite an extensive knowledge of film and art history… will they get much out of all the richness as it goes by? I feel like I know a little about that stuff (although your knowledge on these subjects clearly dwarfs mine), and although I understood that some allusions and references were being made at certain points (some obvious, like the train pulling into the station or the sequence that's on the poster where Hugo dangles off a clock ala Harold Lloyd in Safety Last), but many others only triggered fuzzy memories of undergraduate film classes while others still missed me completely. As such, I didn't necessarily get a lot out of those aspects of the film myself (again rightly or wrongly), but once again, I would imagine that Scorsese's artful weaving of those references is a delight for those in the know. Or to put it another way, that it's kinda like porn for film scholars.

  5. Ugh, I posted a lengthy and I must say, dashed clever response and obliterated it with an errant keystroke. So, you're stuck with this drivel instead.

    I hope my remarks did not make you feel I thought your comments ridiculous or narrow-minded. I just think there's more to the film than you do, and I do not feel it is "Hugo's story" or "Melies' story" as much as it is the story of both of them equally, and how they come to be "mended." The name of the film -- which irritates me immensely, the book is enormously famous and its title far more accurate -- is thus misleading. Likewise its advertising campaign (which makes it seem, indeed, like some kind of "fantastical" Harry Potter-esque adventure, from the typography to the poster designs)

    History v. Fiction:
    As you surmise, Hugo and the automaton are wholly fictional; Melies was "rediscovered" at his toy shop by film and art students, and though he did have a collection of automata, he did not make any of them himself, as far as I am able to determine. Likewise the story of Melies' fall from grace is considerably elided, and all of these bits of poetic license are in service to the story, of course.

    Paris and Fantasy:
    The Paris of the film is certainly one of whimsy, a "Paris of the imagination," but I think we can agree is is not of fantasy per se.

  6. "Film school porn:"
    My favorite movies, from The Searchers to the Seven Samurai to M always offer riches below the surface to those who look for them, whether it's social commentary, satire, or whatever. In the case of this film, the multiple layers of allusion to cinematic history and the overt paean to film preservation are like bonus content. Certainly the film can be enjoyed without pondering them, much as The Searchers can be enjoyed without deep consideration of, say, the value society claims to place on being "civilized" while it relies on the "uncivilized" to do what's necessary to preserve it, or Seven Samurai can be enjoyed as an action picture without dwelling overmuch on society's hypocrisy. Scorsese himself includes in his "Personal Journey Through American Movies" a terrific section called "The Director as Smuggle" which examines the deep waters navigated by such fare as Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie" which seem prima facie to be mere creature features, but pack a lot of subtext. Now, Hugo's more overt in many ways about some aspects of its "smuggling," but it's so loaded with allusions to everything from the Lumieres to Mack Sennett it's hard to list all of them. Do you need to "get" them all to enjoy the picture? I would argue you don't need to "get" any of them to do so, but that you will appreciate them if you do, and even if you don't, there is enough cultural memory associated with many of these allusions that on some level, you will recognize more than you think you do. I guess what I am saying is that I do object to your "porn for film scholars" metaphor because it's more than that. It's the very fabric of the film and it adds up to something for every viewer, whether or not they are semiotically inclined.

    3D or not 3D:
    Of course a great many will not see Hugo in 3D, and I am merely encouraging you to do so because it is the best use of the technique I have ever seen; it is, in fact, one of the only examples I can point to with any enthusiasm whatever. I have no idea how it may seem to the first-time viewer in 2D but I imagine the effect even on a small screen in 3D will be substantially diminished. But (venturing slightly into McLuhan territory here) I don't think it's entirely fair to judge a film very clearly designed as a theatrical spectacle based on a television viewing. We've discussed 2001 many times, for example, and it is in my opinion the greatest film ever made, but it is scarcely even worth watching on a television screen, even an enormous one. Perhaps "Lawrence of Arabia" is a more piquant comparison -- seen as it was intended, in 70mm, the scope of the narrative, the compositions, everything appears in a different light. It's still a damned good movie seen on a big-screen TV; but nothing beats seeing it as it was designed and intended to be seen. Whereas I don't think "Young Adult" would be similarly diminished -- not, apparently, that is could be, in your opinion!

    In any event, even after seeing the film, which had her weeping, my wife thought Melies a made-up surrogate for lots of real-life filmmakers of the era. (Jack set her straight, as we'd watched Un Voyage Dans de Lune many times). Likewise she probably missed 90% of the allusions we've discussed. And she thought it the best film she'd seen in years.

    In all good will,

  7. To paraphrase the great John Oliver / Dave Gorman "ConTROVersy" sketch from The Daily Show, "I appreciate the candor in your view, Mr. Sheehan, and I respect and tolerate your opinion."

    Also, I saw this article on The AV Club the other day, which reminds me of our chat here:,67044/

    See you at Mission: Impossible 4 on Monday!