Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wonders of Hugo

The greatest wonder of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the production design of Dante Ferretti. In the film’s leisurely prologue, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned boy who lives in the station and winds the many clocks, moves through the set for the Gare de Montparnasse that is much more than a little world film set. It is all of Paris under one roof. Here, Hugo weaves through busy shopkeepers and people rushing off to trains, pursued by Station Master (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his black Doberman, and he passes the café proprietress with her long-haired dachshund and the shy old man whose fancy for the woman is thwarted by her snapping dog, and we easily get a sense of the size of this world within a world, with its alleys and passageways into attics and clock towers. We hardly ever leave the station, except in flashback or to go to Isabelle's house, but we don’t need to. Here, all the world’s a train station.

Of the wonderful performances in a fine cast, my favorite is Sacha Baron Cohen as Station Master. He is slender and ramrod-stiff, impeccable in his bright blue uniform, but any authority is lost when he runs haltingly with his leg in a rusty brace, gets caught up on a train door, and dragged down the platform, a wonderful routine fit for the silent film era to which Scorsese's film pays tribute. An orphan in his youth, Station Master captures runaway orphans hiding in the station so that they can be sent to the orphanage where they will learn life the hard way as he did. Cohen is controlled, thoughtful, sensitive in every glance and articulation, and his smiles attempted to please the pretty flower salesgirl (Emily Mortimer) he loves are a laugh. But the film is led by the performances of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle, the girl who joins Hugo in his quest to fix a mechanical man and understand the message the automaton delivers. As the young girl who has only found adventure in books, Moretz is especially talented and graceful in her role. Cutting out a tendency to overact, Ben Kingsley delivers a fine performance as filmmaker Georges Méliès, and it is magical how CGI transforms Kingsley into the young Georges, the stage magician who becomes a cinematic magician.

Wonderful is the masterful eye of Martin Scorsese. He captures the dazzle of Paris as seen through the number panels of the massive train station clock, the huge moon reminding us of Méliès’s moon-shot masterpiece. He keeps the camera on the faces of Hugo and Isabelle so that we might feel their sense of wonder. I also admire how he never rushes a scene. Here the pace is thoughtful, careful, often taking the time to emulate the wordless demonstration of a silent-film-like scene. Then he turns around and dazzles the eye with a clock tower stairway chase that elongates the tower in Vertigo to a hyperbolic degree or with a room full of swirling drawings.

Hugo is about the power of books and movies to transport readers and viewers to other worlds. It is about a boy’s search for a family. It is about the history of silent films, and the magic of cinema. It is an enjoyable film whose wonderful elements never amounted to a wonderful experience for me.

Especially during the sequences that document the emergence of silent films, from the Lumière brothers’ first cinematic showing and the creations of filmmaker Georges Méliès, I felt on the outside, looking in on a curious, interesting documentary that never made me feel the magic portrayed. As an amateur filmmaker, I found it fun to watch the trickery of filmmaking, how a story can be told with a camera focused on a single set inside a glass studio, and how the special effect of a magical disappearance is done by freezing the action, taking out the character, continuing the action, and then later cutting the film to fit together. Of course, I knew all this already, but the film failed to generate the thrill in response to the magic that I readily identify as thrilling. I felt as though the dramatic story had been pushed aside to allow time for didactic documentation of silent filmmaking, the life of Méliès, and the importance of film preservation. It is always clear that this is a film by a passionate filmmaker. (You can see the delight on Marty’s face in his cameo as a photographer capturing Georges and his glass studio.) But the sense of excitement and dazzle falls a little flat.

The Méliès flashbacks and the Méliès tribute sequence are interesting, curious, and informative, but the drama and magic of Scorsese’s story about a young boy and girl discovering the past is lost in the documentation. I never felt the same thrill as that generated by the opening prologue. As a sequence that is obviously a nightmare, the famous 1895 train wreck generates neither suspense nor impact. A repeat viewing, I'm sure, will reveal other tributes to filmmaking seeded throughout Scorsese's film, and it will be fun to discover them. The film is meticulously made, but like Hugo in the crowded train station, the story gets orphaned within the meticulous filmmaking.

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