Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2011


When the moon hits your eye...

Martin Scorsese bares his movie-loving soul in joyful cinematic fable 'Hugo'

Paramount Pictures
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee and Jude Law
Rated PG / 2 hours, 7 minutes
Opened November 23, 2011
(out of four)

Hugo was released just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, but it might as well have been Valentine's Day. Because this is, without doubt, one of the most affectionate love letters ever crafted - a gushing, chocolate-covered, cream-filled, arrow-through-the-heart, heart-on-its-sleeve cinematic sonnet.

The conventional wisdom was this: In taking on an adaptation of Brian Selznick's bestselling children's book, Martin Scorsese was making a dramatic left turn, a rare foray not only into PG territory, but into accessible family entertainment. Little did the purveyors of said conventional wisdom know that this was, in fact, the ideal canvas for Scorsese to explore his passions, his obsessions and himself.

The object of his affection is the cinema itself, and the dreamers of dreams who created the medium, nurtured it and loved it. The key figure is pioneering French filmmaker George Méliès, seen here as a bitter old man (played by Ben Kingsley) whose life and work has been all but forgotten, and who spends his days running a toy store in a Parisian train station.

Almost no one knows about his past - not his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), not the denizens and fellow merchants who occupy the station every morning, not the mysterious orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who keeps stealing knick-knacks and mechanical parts from Méliès' shop - nor, he suspects, would they care. He's resigned himself to going through life in anonymity, harboring a secret that, at this point, he'd just as soon forget.

Of course, in this array of characters, his secrecy and quiet sadness are hardly unique. Hugo is a sad case, having lost his father (Jude Law), a clockmaker, in a museum fire some time ago. He's been hiding out in the nooks and crannies of the train station ever since, winding all the clocks every day, avoiding the orphan-hunting Inspector Gustav (a fantastic Sacha Baron Cohen) and trying to bring back to life the mysterious automaton his father found not long before he died.

The origins of the automaton, and what it all means to both Hugo and Méliès, reveal the centerpiece of the film, both emotionally and thematically. It was built by its creator with a sense of infinite wonder - a mechanical yet beautiful evocation of everything that could be dreamt or filmed - and later rediscovered with that same sense of awe. Now, sitting dormant inside the walls of the station, it is a symbol only of pain and loss.

But there's magic hidden in there somewhere. Hugo knows it as well as we do. And so the adventure, childlike and profound in equal measure, begins.

The more I think of Hugo, the more surprising it seems that Scorsese was able to get away with it. The film is fanciful and sweet, yes, but it is also an intensely personal expression of love for film history, and for the importance of film preservation. Anyone who knows anything about Marty (or has heard him talk at any length) will know this subject matter is as close to his heart as just about anything he's ever approached as a filmmaker.

If parents and loved ones of aloof cinephiles like myself and countless others ever want to understand us, Hugo is a good place to start. This movie gets us, and gets the power and the possibility and the magic that this magnificent art form can offer us every time we step into a theatre. That indelible sense of longing is written on every frame. This movie believes in movies, and the transformative qualities they can have. (And if you think this review is emotive on the subject, just wait until you see the movie.)

And as specifically personal as the film will feel to many of us, it wraps its preoccupations inside a story that touches on universal themes, and does so with naked vulnerability.

Consider the frailty we see on the faces of Méliès and Inspector Gustav as they try to forget their respective pasts. Or the nervousness of Hugo's mannerisms - the hesitation in the way he speaks, the serene determination in his eyes - as he goes through each day one slip-up away from being discovered once and for all and tossed into an orphanage, the lasting dreams of his father sure to be lost and forgotten.

There are so many great touches in Hugo - so much to sink your teeth into. The clips from classic silent films of the era - Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd. The recreations of the sets from Méliès' own classics, and the pieces of those actual films (most notably his legendary A Trip to the Moon) we get to see on screen for ourselves. For most, it will be for the first time. (By the way, the Méliès films that have been preserved are available on DVD and, in some cases, online for free.)

Off the top of my head, Hugo seems of a kind with Fellini's Amarcord and Woody Allen's Radio Days - extremely personal and somewhat autobiographical (if, in the case of Hugo, abstractly so) films that hearken back to the childhoods of their respective makers.

But one thing I'm struck by even more, at least in terms of recent history, is how Hugo may be part of a larger trend of further legitimizing so-called "children's" cinema for modern audiences. Just look at some of the filmmakers who've trekked into family territory in recent years - Spike Jonze with Where the Wild Things Are, Wes Anderson with Fantastic Mr. Fox, and now the high king of the modern crime drama making a grand personal statement in a film like Hugo. It's exciting, isn't it?

In Hugo, Scorsese shows us a warmth we may not expect, embracing cinema as the love of his life, and offering to wrap us up in its embrace. His passion is embodied by the masters of the silent era - most notably, of course, Méliès, the ultimate architect of dreams and the inspiration to the filmmakers and to Hugo Cabret himself. With that in mind, I think I can safely say that for a great many of us, Martin Scorsese will always be the George Méliès to our Hugo.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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