Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hugo: Or, Young Scorsese in Love

 Oh, hello.  I swear I didn't mean to set down the pen for so long.  It's actually been a very eventful few months.  There was much frolicking around the New York Film Festival, and my extensive foray into the films of '11 has kept pace ever since.  I've even managed to work in some revival screenings of favorites - the exhilarating Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mesmerizing Red Desert - so suffice it to say I've been having a good year.  And yet it's telling that it took a film like Hugo to inspire me to reopen the Library after what has been my longest absence since I first got it up and running.  Hugo, you see, is my favorite kind of film, a movie fueled solely by a burning passion of movies, and as such, it's a movie about falling in love.  That is was made by the reigning cinemagician of the day was just too perfect.  And now, awestruck and inspired, I've returned to recount what dazzling sights I've now seen.

You likely only know the vaguest details about Hugo, Martin Scorsese's first sojourn into the family film, and perhaps more significantly, the current 3D craze.  Residing within the walls of a Parisian train station is a mischievous waif who embarks on what's sure to be a wild and magical adventure.  So the trailer indicates.  That it reveals little else is just as well, for it allows even those who get a whiff of what's coming derive not-insignificant wonderment from the artfully handled reveals.  But I've already made up my mind to lay the cards on the table, so while this is not a film which hinges on any grand twist, should you prefer to remain in the dark, now is the time to turn away.  Just do so with my most enthusiastic endorsement on your mind.

Down to business.  Movie about movies come in all colors.  There are the clever, insider baseball kinds (The Player), the ones who take rapture in the creative process itself (8 1/2), and the one's that do or die based on your tolerance for name-checking (hi Quentin!).  And on the rarest of occasions, there are those that lovingly crafted odes to the medium itself, which without fail win me over every time, whether they're maudlin (Cinema Paradiso), erotic (The Dreamers), or practically perfect in every way, which I may prematurely be stating, is how I'm feeling about Hugo.  I mean, this film gets quite literally to the core of the medium, what with a budding cinefile stumbling upon the aging George Melies in (of course) a fucking train station.  And no one but no one was better suited to bring this story to the silver screen than Marty Scorsese, as not a director alive (save Godard...perhaps) possesses a better command of film grammar, nor a more deeply rooted love for his chosen profession.

And we're back again to love (or have we ever left the topic?).  Here it's a quantifiable object emanating from every frame of the film, though how much of that translates to each member of the audience will vary considerably.  While in no way inappropriate viewing for kids of any age, I suspect many will find the first half especially an exceptionally nice nap.  More than a few adults will sympathize with this as well, but I don't doubt that those who have a genuine love for movies will find within Hugo the ultimate validation for their obsession.  Here we get an automaton reminiscent of Metropolis, and our hero hanging Harold Lloyd style from a clock hand, and a runaway train breaking off the rails (and through the 4th wall!) as it careens through the station.  And of course the great Melies himself, illuminated late in the film though the most magical and heart-wrenching flashbacks you'll ever lay eyes on.  The honest devotion of Scorsese's achievement is enough to silence any cries of pretension, and those who find it overlong, my reasoning is that I'd rather spend a slow hour in a world as enchanting as Hugo's than a quick one anywhere else.  The movie isn't too long.  Your attention span is too short.

I haven't even scratched the surface, have I?  Perhaps some specifics then.  The cast populating Scorsese's Parisian snow globe circa 1930 is an absolute dream.  As Hugo, Asa Butterfield makes the ideal mirror image of any young artist or dreamer, not the least of whom would be Marty himself.  Chloe Moretz provides a nice foil, what with her literary aspirations aligned to counter his cinematic ones, and she delivers with great relish a handful of precocious adjectives ("clandestine" being my favorite).  There is Christopher Lee in a marvelous brief turn as a bookseller and Michael Stuhlbarg nearly stealing the show later on in full film preservationist glory.  We all could have used a little more Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, but their parts were the minor details that really elevated the show, and love him or hate him, Sacha Baron Cohen has all the mannerisms of the stars of silent cinema in his bones, and nowhere has this daring been put to better use.  Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory are better still.  They're situated right at the emotional crux of the only film this year to bring tears to my eyes (three times, but who's counting?) and they breath such humanity into Georges and Jeanne, but also sadness, fear, and eventually wonder.

Technically, Hugo is no less an achievement.  Scorsese's use of 3D is never flashy, and if not absolutely crucial to the viewing experience, here marks one of the few instances where I've found it add to, as opposed to cheapen, the overall impact.  Thelma Schoonmaker's editing reaches new heights in the artfully constructed flashback sequences, Robert Richardson's photography thrives from being ever curious of its surroundings, and Howard Shore's score may even top his exceptional work in A Dangerous Method

But my superlatives are starting to sound silly.  It's abundantly clear by now that I love movies that love movies, and that Hugo is practically my new gold standard.  But while I'm here telling, Scorsese is out there doing a bang up job of showing, and you really won't find a better argument for why movies can mean so much to people than this film here.  And so that's what brings me back to this site, hopefully with a little more frequency, but certainly with a reignited passion for the medium I'm writing about.