Friday, January 6, 2012

Hugo: The Magic of Movies

Roger Corman transformed Martin Scorsese – abracadabra! – from a student of cinema into a commercial filmmaker. Hired by Roger on the strength of some student films to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972), Scorsese showed he could work fast and cheap, mixing pathos with an ample helping of blood and guts. The following year, when Scorsese set out to make Mean Streets, he looked to Corman for financing. Roger duly noted that blaxploitation films were doing well at the box office, and offered his protégé $150,000 if he’d change his Italian-American thugs into black ghetto types. It was an offer Scorsese could refuse, and he’s gone his own way ever since.

It’s easy to think of Scorsese, over the course of his forty-year career, as a poet of urban violence. His best-known movies – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed – practically revel in bloodshed. Their impact is so powerful that it’s easy to forget the wide range that Scorsese has explored in such atypical films as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun. The fact of the matter is that Scorsese loves movies of all sorts, and perhaps his greatest passion is for preserving the great cinema of years gone by.

Which is why Hugo is, among many other things, a valentine to movie history. Adapting The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an award-winning illustrated children’s novel by Brian Selznick, Scorsese combines his devotion to state-of-the-art movie technology with an homage to movie pioneers like Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. The story of a French orphan waif who lives in a Paris train station is rendered visually magical by Scorsese’s dramatic use of 3-D cinematography. And the plot, hinging on an automaton that sketches out a scene from Méliès’s fanciful 1902 A Trip to the Moon, allows Scorsese to incorporate footage shot by the French film pioneers and to salute their contribution to today’s cinema.

I don’t know the Selznick novel, so I can’t comment on the fidelity of the film adaptation. But I found myself enthralled by Scorsese’s mastery of his craft. Nothing in the film seems extraneous: though two hours long, it is as tightly constructed as a sonnet. Partly this is due to his use of motifs that tie all the plot strands together. One is prestidigitation: the sleight of hand that produces magic tricks. Two other motifs intricately connect with the film’s 1931 setting. One involves trains, which in that era were both glamorous conveyances and powerful sources of danger. And, since Hugo has secretly taken his late father’s place tending to the train station’s clocks, the cogs and gears of huge timepieces dominate the film, which becomes in its way a meditation on the passage of minutes, hours, days, and years.

Cogs and gears also suggest early movie cameras. And Scorsese’s bustling train station, with its web of social relationships, allows him to slip some adult social commentary into a children’s story about a boy finding a family. The comic villain of the piece, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is a uniformed station inspector who sees it as his duty to chase down and incarcerate young urchins. Only gradually do we understand that the brace on his leg, which comedically impedes his movement from time to time, is a sad souvenir of World War I. And that many of the other adult characters are also quietly remembering what they’ve lost in the War to End All Wars. A war that put an end to magic, at least for a while.

(Here's a detailed review of Hugo with plenty of spoilers.)


  1. I missed this at the theaters, and wish I hadn't, as apparently the 3-D added a lot to the proceedings.

  2. It certainly did, especially in a spectacular opening sequence involving a train coming into a station. Wow!