Watching Martin Scorsese’s magical Hugo for a second time, (and I will see it a third) I found myself loving the film even more than I did the first time, perhaps recognizing that more than any of his previous films, Hugo allows us a glimpse into the soul of one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Certainly there were elements of his life in everything he has previously done, even his Catholic upbringing in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), one of his best films, but in Hugo we begin to understand the deep love and passion Scorsese has for the cinema, the reverence with which he holds the pioneers of the art form, his awareness that many films have been lost, and that terrible fear that he too may be forgotten in the years to come. That of course is the fear of all artists, that their work will be forgotten, not them necessarily, but the work.
A breathtaking love letter to the creation of the movies, Hugo is a whirl-a-gig of a film, its automaton a metaphor for a perfect creation, which happens when all the parts are working in synch together, and all the complicated pieces of creation merge together to create one true piece of perfection. And going deeper, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) is perhaps representative of every director who has ever lived, fearing that he will be forgotten, that his profound contributions to the art will never be recognized or remembered for what they were. Imagine seeing your great accomplishments forgotten in your own lifetime to the point that you are never discussed except in hushed tones by academics, and despite once being acclaimed, you are virtually forgotten. Worse, you are no longer to create the art you once did, which is the real devastation, no longer able to feel the joy of creating the magic you knew you created, bringing joy to those who saw your art, inspiring those to follow you, and advancing the art form with each new work. That must be the nightmare of all film directors and actors because cinema offers a degree of immortality does it not? John Wayne passed in 1979 yet I can grab a DVD off the shelf and there he is in all his glory on the screen in front of me. He is forever immortal, forever to be watched and admired, which is what great cinema, all cinema essentially offers. What is needed is an audience to appreciate, to remember, to watch the work and never forget it.
Hugo, based on Hugo Cabret, the children’s book, is a mesmerizing film in which the camera never seems to stop moving capturing the activity within the station as well as the boy’s constant activity and motion. We seem to be in constant motion throughout the work, zipping around the massive Paris train station which is the home of Hugo, the young orphan who refuses to be taken to the orphanage, into the streets of Paris, old movie theatres, and behind the scenes as movies are being made. He observes life happening through the many holes and windows that house the many clocks he keeps winding as his uncle showed him. A born fixer, he is working on an automaton his father found in a museum and was working on when he died. Hugo hopes he can get the thing going because he believes there might be a message from his father within the gears of the machine. Into his life comes a miserable old man who runs a toy booth in the train station, and a young girl, Isabelle, who lives with the grouchy old fellow. She will teach Hugo about books and the magic that lies with the covers, while he will teach her about movies, a relatively new art form that he adores.
Like Hugo and Isabelle in the film, Scorsese discovered film when he was a child. An asthmatic child he was forced to watch life go past from his window looking onto the street, and escaped through the movies. To be honest that is when most of us did, a film, a moment, a particular scene that attaches itself to our soul, never to be forgotten, locked into the landscape of our minds for all of time. For me it was a re-release of Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and the parting of the Red Sea. Walking into the theatre I was a cynical eleven or twelve year old, four and a half hours later I thought of film with awe, my mind whirling with its sheer possibilities. For Scorsese, living in New York, the choices were Italian cinema at the local rep cinema, Hollywood musicals, or whatever was on TV in those early days of that medium. Scorsese loved all films equally, be they an Oscar winning musical such as Gigi (1958) or a powerhouse drama like On the Waterfront (1954), he found equal merit in the B westerns of the fifties! With childlike wonder he still approaches his cinema in that manner, pulled in by the story, knowing what it took to make the film, understanding how every shot was conceived, how the film was cut together, yet still able to enjoy the entire experience of seeing a film. In Hugo, French director Georges Melies has been forgotten almost erased from history until a little boy discovers a secret about the man, and finds that they are linked together by the movies. That child could be Scorsese, filled with unabashed love for the cinema, reaching towards Melies to offer him help, allowing an old man some joy before he dies.
“We all owe a death”, Stephen King wrote, but in death we leave a piece of ourselves behind, be it the love our family has for us, our contribution in our industry or community, the ideals we instilled in our children, or our art if we were so fortunate to be able to have a life within the arts. Scorsese’s film pays homage to the ghosts of the directors long dead, but who live on in their extraordinary work, some of the films more than one hundred years old. He speaks to his friends and fellow filmmakers of the seventies who changed the face of cinema in their lifetime, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas and Spielberg, and to the directors of today who once sat transfixed as did he watching the flickering images on the screen in front of them. The difference being the filmmakers of today and tomorrow will have been educated on the work of Martin Scorsese. This magnificent new film, which I admire more with each viewing, is a stunning work of art from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever work in cinema. Inherently Scorsese understands that a film must have an audience, and that the audience must have a film worthy of their attention. After all, without an audience, who is the film for??
And I must comment on the use of 3-D which I dreaded seeing in a Scorsese film, thinking it would cheapen the work. Not at all, I suppose if anyone is going to know how to properly use 3-D it`s going to be Martin Scorsese. The 3-D never distracts from the film, not once, but rather enhances every frame, and I daresay that this is the finest use of that science in film history. I hope, I truly hope that before the critics saw this film, before anyone saw it, Scorsese gathered his friends from the seventies together, the beach house gang who once converged together in a cottage in Malibu rented by Margot Kidder to talk film. I hope he had the chance to show the work to Coppola, DePalma, Lucas and Spielberg, because the film speaks to them, to all directors, in so many ways. One suspects that had they seen it together, after all these years and so many films between them, tears of joy would be slipping down their cheeks with the knowledge that their friend saw into their souls and had the courage to put his onscreen.
Scorsese is Hugo. Hugo is Scorsese, but the director also recognizes Hugo is a great deal more.
Tags: Asa Butterfield, ben kingsley, Chloe Moretz, Hugo, John Logan, Martin Scorsese