Friday, December 16, 2011


Martin Scorsese's Hugo, based on the book by Brian Selznick and adapted for the screen by John Logan, has been hailed as one of the best films of the year by a multitude of critics and cinephiles.  It was selected as the number one picture by the National Board of Review, it has been nominated for Golden Globes and it will no doubt be nominated for the Oscar.  I like the film a lot.  It's a feast for the senses.  It's a master-class in film craft.  It has moments that are arguably more moving than anything else I have seen this year.  When we left the theater my wife exclaimed: that movie was made for you! And yet, although I don't want to be persnickety, I couldn't quite let go of these nagging questions.  Oftentimes critics tear into a film for no other reason than to prove that they can.  The tiresome assumption that a critic must always be critical irks me to no end and often sends me stomping my feet like Paul Reubens in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, shouting: "But but but!  Why does everybody have a big but?"  But still I have a but.  I have a few buts, because I can't help but feel there's something mildly dispiriting about a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese making a children's film like this.

Peter Bogdanovich has noted that b-movies have become the new a-pictures and through this lens one simply can't compare a movie like Hugo to great Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas.  The press kits all insist that this is Scorsese's most 'personal' film yet, but I find that about as easy to swallow as I did when they said it a few years ago about Gangs of New York.  The story is the utterly charming saga of an orphan boy living in a train station, who inadvertently discovers a shopkeeper's secret, and, together with the shopkeeper's niece sets out to redeem one of the great forgotten silent-era filmmakers: George Méliès.  We know Scorsese himself 'survived' his childhood by escaping into the movies and discovering a lifelong passion for film history and preservation.  But, did the same filmmaker who used to record neighborhood conversations on his tape deck and play them back for co-writer Mardik Martin (to meticulously capture the real voice of his characters as research for Mean Streets) really overlook the fact that everyone in his 1930s Parisian fantasia speaks English in an English accent? Like I said: persnickety, but it's there just dangling in front of us.

On the other hand, the movie isn't really about reality, it's about the dream world of the movies.  Seen through this lens, the production recalls the Dickension world of David Lean's Oliver Twist as much as it evokes the work of its ultimate subject George Méliès.   As I discussed in my profile on De Palma, there are filmmakers who work hard to remain invisible in the telling of their story and there are filmmakers who constantly want to remind you that you're watching a movie.  Scorsese has always been the latter type, but I've also felt that his attention to detail in recreating the reality of his stories was what gave his best films their electricity.  More than any other filmmaker in history (excepting Bergman and maybe Fellini), the pull between documentary realism and cinematic wizardry is what gives a Scorsese picture its resonance. Here he discards that realism and the result is a pseudo-chilren's film.

It has the look and feel of a family film and it embraces the gentler emotions that allowed a young Steven Spielberg to win over a major audience, but its deliberate pacing and slow-growing mystery may prove too demanding for attention-challenged younger viewers.  Although it evokes the wonder of youth, Hugo is really a lovingly-crafted ode to the founders of cinema. The movie is often wondrous and it is easy to become transfixed by the remarkable craft on display.  The 3D storytelling is arguably the best I've seen and those less persnickety than me will argue that the form fits the content; because the film's real subject is a filmmaker/illusionist who was a pioneer of early special-effects, the use of modern special-effects and technology to tell the story seems uniquely justified.  I still find 3D distracting.  No matter how good Scorsese is at immersing us in his story, the 3D yanks me out.  But, perhaps it's unfair to demand perfection from a man who has delivered so many spectacularly brilliant movies.  Perhaps, his true intention in working on such a large canvas is to preserve both the memory of auteurs like Melies and the movie theater experience itself  -- which is currently being threatened by the sophistication and relative low-cost of modern home theater technology.  Hugo is a big-screen movie and the paradox is that even though I'm burdened by these modest apprehensions, I can't wait to see it again.