Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hugo and The Avengers: A kind of magic

They say Hollywood's a machine, but no machine would have greenlighted the 170 million dollar budget of Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The cast features no big box-office draws and, while Martin Scorsese might be the greatest living American film-maker, he has yet to deliver a blockbuster hit in forty years of making movies. Hugo is not only set in the past, but seems in some ways a throwback, filled with simplistic characters and stock situations, and adhering to a convention, questioned by Milos Forman's Amadeus and taken apart by Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, that period films set in continental Europe must be peopled by British accents. Reviews have said Hugo is Scorsese trying his hand at a children's film, and perhaps they've said this because of the simplicity of the storyline and the fact that the main character, Hugo Brevet, is a young orphan, but the film offers few thrills, and the mixture of history and fiction at its heart is hard for children to appreciate.
Who, then, is Hugo made for? It is made for people like me, adult bibliophiles and cinephiles. For people like myself, and there aren't all that many of us, as proven by the film's dismal box-office numbers, Hugo is magical. It takes us back to a time when entire new worlds opened up through books. The last time I felt that way was while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude at age sixteen or seventeen. Hugo brings back that magical newness in combination with the most unchildlike of emotions, nostalgia. We feel like the food critic from Ratatouille who, on taking a bite of the dish of the film's title, finds himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, transported back in time to a precious memory from his rustic childhood. Scorsese orchestrates this play of magic and nostalgia by exploring more flamboyantly than anybody has so far the extravagant visual possibilities offered by 3-D 2.0 (the sweeping opening shots of Casino were impressive enough, but they don't hold a candle to Hugo's breathtaking aerial view of Paris that moves seamlessly into a bustling railway station before following the main character through a succession of intricate corridors leading to rooms leading to ladders leading to more corridors), while telling an intimate story made from an old-fashioned mix of sentiment, comedy and coincidence. It's a unique and unrepeatable melding of past and future.
Briefly, now, to the story itself (spoiler warning): In 1931, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in secret within the walls of  Paris's Gare Montparnasse. Hugo has taken over his uncle's job of keeping the giant clocks of the station ticking, in the hope nobody will realise the alcoholic uncle has vanished. He feeds himself by stealing, and also pinches widgets from a toy store in the station's concourse to repair an old automaton that his father was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is caught by the store owner, who turns out, in the end, to be a once-renowned film-maker named Georges Méliès.
Méliès is well-known to film buffs as the pioneer of cinema as fantasy. His most famous movie, made in 1902, involved a journey to the moon. By the time the first World War broke out, Méliès was out of fashion. He had to close down his studio, sell off his props and his beloved automatons, and even hawk his negatives for the silver that could be extracted from them. He ended up running a toy store much like that the one depicted in Hugo.
In the early days of cinema, the days of Méliès pomp, the medium enchanted adults, made them feel like children. Scorsese replicates some of that enchantment felt by early viewers of cinema. But in telling the story of Méliès after his downfall, he reminds us of the dangers inherent in using a technology that is improved constantly and makes what went before feel dated. Books don't date the way films do. Of course, language changes and literary fashions change, but we don't find Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction awkward in the way Méliès's films look awkward today. It's impossible to say which film will age badly and which film will stay vital: who would have predicted, around the time Scorsese made his first film, that Singin' In the Rain would still seem like a masterpiece in 2012 while My Fair Lady and West Side Story would be virtually unwatchable? There is a warning inherent in Hugo that not only will the magic we feel watching it today not be replicable by films until another radical breakthrough in technology is achieved, but it might not be experienced by succeeding generations watching this same film.

Had Méliès been alive, he'd probably have made a film like The Avengers rather than Hugo: a funny, action-packed, cutting-edge entertainer, an unabashed crowd pleaser. The budget for The Avengers, around USD 220 million, wasn't that much greater than the amount allotted to Hugo. For that money, we get an inter-galactic war; a proper good versus evil tale with the appropriate outcome after a frantic climax; a bunch of A- and B-list stars playing familiar comic book characters; and great 3-D, CGI and motion capture. Hardly surprising that The Avengers, like Avatar before it, will realise over ten times its budget. According to Holywood's rule of thumb, a film needs to take in twice its budget to show a profit. At the moment, Hugo has barely scraped past its production expenditure, and will probably never recover marketing costs. I'd like to thank all the people at Paramount Pictures who let their good taste over-ride their accounting skills.


VV said...

Great review. Hugo became one of my favorite movies of all time as soon as I saw it. It has been a long time since I was so deeply moved by a movie. Every character- including Borat!- touched something. And as you put it, the realization of the *impermanence* of magic and enchantment creates such a profound and gut-wrenching experience. It made me think of all the things that I had found so magical at some point but it remains an unsharable enchantment today, because the time has passed. And the opening scene ... breathtaking is right .... Scorcese, for all his disavowal of 3D, managed to show in that one scene how 3D is meant to be experienced (as opposed to James Cameron et al's simplistic use of 3D to create quick, shocking movements aimed at the audience). And I became quite obsessed with automatons and Melies (and others experiementing with photography and moving images) :):). The kinds of automatons using simple gear technology centuries ago is astonishing! -- VV

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, VV. Can you believe they almost didn't release Hugo in India? It's just ending its two- or three-week run.

adrian mckinty said...


I hated Hugo. The 3D made me nauseous and I found the plot to be pretty boring and illogical (to take one example, if he faked his own death in WW1, how did the returning soldiers reject his post WW1 movies?) I thought the male lead was an uncharismatic child actor and but for Sasha Baron Cohen's John Cleese rip off performance I would have been out of there. I think you're right about who the film was for: film buffs. Scorsese very cleverly and deliberately made it critic proof with the Melies stuff and few critics realised that the whole Melies plot was a McGuffin with no bearing on the rest of the story; but by including it it meant that if you didnt like Hugo you could only be a vulgar boor who knew nothing about the history of cinema. Well played Mr. Scorsese, well played.

I thought you might like this piece from Will Self:

It reminded me of your defiant stamp at Oxford in a sea of apathy and conformity.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Adrian. Found Hugo's storytelling rhythms to be very stale, and the dialogue and screenplay very stilted and cliched. Kind of like it was force-feeding the viewer the sense of wide-eyed wonder that it was trying to be about. A good indication to me that the storytelling was shaky was the use of background score - once you realise how constant and obvious the use of music is, it gets exhausting to watch the movie.


Anonymous said...

Also, a lot of people have been raving about that opening shot. It might have been more impressive if all the people you see in the station weren't computer generated. The camera rushes past them but they seem to have the waxy look of Tintin's characters.


Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, I read your post on Hugo, of course. Didn't comment then because Hugo wasn't released in India in conjunction with its international rollout. I think the distributors here fell for the idea that it's a childrens' film and waited for the summer vacation.
Plenty of other friends whose views I respect have disliked Hugo, too. I can see why, and I've sort of indicated that in my post. Everything said about the plot's deficiencies is pretty apparent. My question is, would someone like Scorsese not see those deficiencies, and be able to work around them? Of course he could, and would. That's why I suggest he decided to *emphasise* those deficiencies by heightening the old-fashioned feel of the entire narrative (the Brit accents, stilted speech etc). This he did to provide that cutting-edge / dated, magic / nostalgia combination.
Now, it's entirely possible that a given viewer will miss the magic, in which case they won't catch the nostalgia either, because then it will seem just an old-fashioned story riddled with holes rather than a self-conscious retelling of an old-fashioned story riddled with holes and absurd coincidences that enraptured us when we were children which, when paired with the marvellous use of sets, special effects and 3-D, returns us to the same feeling of being enraptured.
Everything hinges on how entranced one is by the opening scenes; if you're hooked then, you stay hooked; if you aren't hooked, the film just starts mildly interesting and gets progressively worse.
In my case, my appreciation had little to do with Melies; I was fascinated long before he was revealed to be who he was. Of course, in my interpretation, it's important for him to be Melies so the film then self-reflexively comments on its own inevitable obsolescence, adding one extra layer to the magic / nostalgia formula.

As far as the 3-D making you nauseous goes, I think your local theatre is diddling you; you've mentioned more than one 3-D film that made you feel that way, and they looked perfectly fine where I watched them.

Girish Shahane said...

And Adrian, thanks for the link about not rising for toasts. We had such a basic invocation at LMH, maybe there would've been more consternation had it been an elaborate prayer like at St.John's. Though I dined at St.John's a couple of times, and none of the non-Christians seemed to have a problem with standing.
I also, of course, didn't stand for the toast to old Cecil Rhodes at the final formal dinner; a couple of people at my table joined me for that one. Though the Scholarship is pretty embarrassed about the man, they just toast 'The Benefactor' or something like that and, of course, the Queen.