Guest essay by Michael in Florida
Right after the first dreadful Hugo trailer premiered in July, I conjectured that Hugo was Martin Scorsese’s Schindler’s List, i.e., a film outside the director’s comfort zone. After seeing the film several times now, I can safely say that prediction turned out to be prescient, but for a different reason. While both films stretch their respective filmmakers as artists, they remain anchored to their hearts and their obsessions, arguably turning into their most personal works. Scorsese’s cinematic touchstones are still evident in Hugo: society’s self-loathing outcasts, living on the fringes with a last chance at redemption. The final shot in Hugo is a closeup of a machine, built with a movie camera’s parts, which brings the two grieving lead characters together. Georges grieves for a lost passion and Hugo grieves for a lost family. The machine is the redeemer of the forgotten artist and the abandoned thief. It gives their life purpose. If it sounds autobiographical, it is.
In a speech he delivered two years ago right before he started principal photography on Hugo, Martin Scorsese said that “making films and preserving them are the same thing.” Losing a film through deterioration would be as if it was never made at all, as if it never existed. This is something that Georges palpably feels in Hugo.
“Time hasn’t been kind to old movies,” claims Hugo’s fictional film historian René Tabard. An allegedly non-fictional New York Film Critics Circle member (whose name escapes me at the moment) implies a big fat “who cares” in response. In his review for Hugo, the NYFCC member writes that “Scorsese pretends to honor cinema history by exaggerating the importance and wonder of movies that are frankly unwatchable, only notable as historic footnotes.” He goes on to say that Scorsese’s celebration of Méliès is disingenuous as if Méliès is not a figure worthy of honoring. It’s ironic that the contrarian persona created by this critic is the one who brings up the subject of ingenuity. Between he and Scorsese, only one of these men wears an open cinematic heart on his sleeve, while the other carries it way up his tightly-buttoned and starched ass. Scorsese has argued that “motion pictures are part of a continuum, a living on-going history,” not a footnote. Hugo’s silent film homages aren’t self-reflexive and gimmicky, like an extended SNL digital short.
In that same speech in 2010, Scorsese quoted William Faulkner’s “the past is never dead, it is not even past.” Earlier this month, he said that “100 years ago [Méliès] pretty much did everything we’re doing now.” But not only does Scorsese stretch as an artist in Hugo, he creates new ways of expressing himself and, I dare say, creates new film grammar. There’s an intense closeup of the Station Inspector’s face as he interrogates Hugo while Sacha Baron Cohen’s nose and chin seem to push through the flat screen and hover over the audience. This type of “hyper-closeup” (as I’ve labeled it) could not be accomplished without Scorsese’s artistic use of 3D. Adam Cook on Mubi.com refers to this new technique as an “extreme foreground close-up.”
It’s a totally new kind of shot suggesting a violation of space that couldn’t be accomplished any other way. The hyper-closeup is unnerving, but Scorsese attempts to go further by making the form and content of the Station Inspector’s dialogue one and the same. The “face” synonyms attempt to undercut the danger of the spatial invasion. “Seems Maximilian doesn’t like the cut of your jib young man. He is disturbed by your physiognomy. He is upset by your visage. Why would he not like your face?” asks the Station Inspector. Every time he says a “face” word, his own face pushes further out into our faces.
Scorsese as innovator also occurs in a more emotional vein later in the movie’s climactic film academy gala. Essentially, there appears to be a very deliberate reverse zoom ending with a closeup of Ben Kingsley on stage. Traditionally with this kind of camera move, the foreground retains the same space, while the background appears to change. But Scorsese’s innovation seems to be a variation of a Méliès in-camera trick. It’s as if an ethereal Kingsley floats closer to the camera, gaining size through forced perspective. Amidst all the talk of “immersion” and “depth,” it’s the intimacy between Kingsley and the camera that is a testament to the artistic possibilities of 3D’s future.
But the eccentric NYFCC member can’t see beyond his own limitations as a critic and instead chooses to infantilize Scorsese, preferring he not grow as a person nor advance as an artist. He would rather Scorsese remain frozen in a time capsule as the “poet of the streets.” What a quaint moniker. Regardless of what this condescending crank says, Scorsese does look back to his roots. As he said about his style in the aforementioned 2010 speech, his intention “was to tap into the powerful cinematic experience” that characterized his filmic forefathers. Regarding their films, he said that “always within the spectacle was a strong story on a more human scale” which he also strove to emulate. He didn’t forget that lesson with Hugo. He just made the story stronger and more human and the spectacle more relevant. What more could you ask for? Only one Best Picture hopeful this year looks thoughtfully back to our cinematic past, while simultaneously looking boldly toward its future. That film is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.