It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hugo and The Artist

In the midst of the annual awards season, two fascinating films have been released: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011).  While Hugo attempts to redeem the overlooked – outside of introduction to film courses, at least – career of film pioneer Georges MélièsThe Artist takes viewers back to Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the industry was transitioning from the production of silent films to early talkies.  Hugo is one of the best films of the year thanks to Scorsese’s potent mixture of heartfelt redemption, film history lecture, adventurous dissection of three-dimensional space, and support of film preservation. A heartwarming but nostalgic dollop of cinematic whipping cream, The Artist, however, never goes beyond the superficial.

Admittedly, Hazanavicius’s film is formally intoxicating and emotionally affecting.  The moment the 4:3 aspect ratio fades up to a premiere screening of fictional silent film star George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) latest opus, we are transported back to the days of a cinema defined by flamboyant gestures, title cards, and a live orchestra – one housed in ornate picture palaces, whose exotic architecture would put most modern museums to shame.  The film finds tremendous (yet, for us, unheard) applause as Valentin milks the crowd, along with his cuddly Jack Russell Terrier, with a post-screening appearance.  When the duo retreats to the street for a red carpet appearance, George accidentally knocks into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and the two share an awkward kiss.  Soon, Peppy finds herself on the front page of Variety while George’s film, as his producer (John Goodman) observes, has been buried inside the paper.

Soon, Peppy uses her newfound cultural capital to propel herself into the film industry, just as the studios are beginning to experiment with sound recording technology.  George shrugs off the development, and a title card informs us of his thoughts:  “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it.”  He leaves his contract at the studio and descends a staircase only to reunite with Peppy, who is ascending the same staircase.  The staging of the scene symbolizes the arcs of the characters.  Peppy is a performer willing to explore sound.  She is, after all, a dancer, and the musical was one of the founding film genres to come out of the exploration of sound.  George, on the other hand, clings to tradition and pours his savings into another silent film production.  Peppy’s star rises, while George’s crashes, along with the stock market.
The problem with Hazanavicius’s Valentine is that it is so terribly familiar, pulling the bulk of its playbook from one of the most beloved films about Hollywood in the history of, well, Hollywood:  Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  On the surface, they both focus on the awkward transition from silents to sound, yet the similarities go deeper into the structure of both films.  First, George meets Peppy outside the premiere of his latest film, just like Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).  Moreover, Peppy and Kathy are not just regular women but devout admirers of their silent film flames.  Finally, the floundering careers of both men – rendered obsolete by audio – are resuscitated by their admirers via the same Deus ex machina:  the musical.
The cinema scholar in me was both disappointed and whisked away by The Artist.  The plot is familiar, and it never attempts to reach the level of formal audacity that Hugo finds.  For instance, the interjection of a surreal sound sequence could have been taken even further.  Moreover, I wish Hazanavicius had altered his technique along with the progression of time, as the evolution into sound technology cast long shadows over film form (no more glorious camera movements like those in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise!).  I wish he had given his characters more to do than inhabit the stereotypes of the silent era.  In the end, the film seems too perfectly geared towards fair-weather cinephiles.  The film is willing to test the waters of the period but never willing to go beyond the tried and true.
Yet, I also admire the film as a potential introduction, a fun primer with which to kick off a Film History 101 course, and a gateway to lead youngsters and newcomers into a deeper appreciation of the medium.  The expressive performances Hazanavicius elicits from the dapper Dujardin and the stunning Bejo are perhaps the film’s greatest gift because both actors embody the silent style of performance perfectly (the film also features James Cromwell, the son of two studio personnel to work through this period in history).  Watching the two of them gives one the impression of the uncanny.  I just wish the rest of the film provided that sensation.
Where The Artist fails, Hugo succeeds.  Instead of dealing in broad stereotypes of the silent era, Scorsese – guided by Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), constructs a tale of redemption about one of its actual founding figures (even if it wraps itself in the elegant fabric woven of both fiction and non-fiction).  Moreover, the film is a memorable oddity in Scorsese’s always watchable filmography.  A PG-rated film that doesn’t feature one once of bloodshed or a single curse word, Hugo lacks Scorsese’s most superficial identifiers.  It’s also the first film that Scorsese has shot digitally and in 3D.  In other words, it’s a change of direction that looks unlike anything the filmmaker has produced before.  Considering the longevity of Scorcese’s career, one of the accomplishments of Hugo is that it showcases the talents of a filmmaker willing to take risks…while also chronicling the career of a filmmaker who took risks and lost.   

Whereas The Artist is a silent film with the exception of two scenes, Hugo never completely latches onto that formal philosophy.  The first twenty minutes rely on imagery and minimal dialogue to establish the life of young Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) as he guards the clocks of Montparnasse Station, oiling the sprockets and cranking the gears of the mechanisms, while watching the city life pass below.  He evades the awkward station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), while watching two elderly folks flounder at love (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour).  Twenty minutes go by as Scorsese allows us to inhabit the unique 3D version of 1930s Paris that he, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and set designer Dante Ferretti have constructed.  We don’t know where the film is headed; we are just asked to bask in the glow of Scorsese’s city of lights.  Thus, while Scorsese’s vision of cinemas past has sound, he focuses – at least initially – on the sheer spectacle of early silent cinema, not on the performers.
When the film finally touches down, we discover that Hugo was orphaned when his father (Jude Law) passed away in a fire at a museum.  The father and son were hard at work on fixing an antique automaton when the fire hit.  Hugo now feels compelled to finish the project, hoping that it will fill the void his father left when he passed away.  Hugo targets an elderly shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley), whose small toys provide him with an ample amount of gears and sprockets to finish the automaton.  One day, the elderly man catches Hugo and steals his notebook, filled with sketches on how to finish the repairs, and the young boy is forced to enlist the shopkeeper’s niece, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), to help him complete the repairs.  When they finally fix the robot, they discover that Isabelle’s uncle isn’t merely an elderly shopkeeper but the forgotten pioneer of cinema, Georges Méliès.
Hugo is less of a kids’ adventure story and more of a love letter to early cinema.  The film doesn’t have a traditional antagonist, nor does it have clear objectives.  Scorsese simply wants us to appreciate the roots of the art form that he holds dear by first mimicking it, then pushing us to acknowledge the greatness of Méliès and his inescapable influence on all that came after (the French filmmaker, a pioneer of early special effects, also unintentionally made a few 3D films), and finally to  support the cause of film preservation and restoration.  The film is as much an homage as it is a history lesson, and it’s mixture is more nuanced than that of The Artist, providing more potent fulfillment to cinephiles and film historians…although I remain curious as to how children will receive it.  (I hope it succeeds, but this has not been a good year for sophisticated films for children.   Hugo scribe John Logan also scripted the philosophically similar Rango, another great film that missed its key demographic).  It’s a film history lecture that intersects with an awe inspiring investigation of 3D imaging that would have made Méliès proud.
Moreover, the film has more going for it than the strengths of its subject matter and director.  Kingsley perfectly balances his anger and frustration, masking a deep-seeded kindness that he is incapable of exorcising.  Newcomer Asa Butterfield is able to use his sapphire eyes to run a spectrum of emotion from devastating loss, curiosity, and discovery.  I admire the film’s structure for avoiding many narrative stereotypes, such as making the inspector into an evil buffoon, while allowing the story to run off on world establishing tangents like a trip to a book store or a stop at a cafe.  However, the film could have buttressed the relationship between Hugo and his father a bit further.   The boy’s relationship with his father and the lack of a connection with his uncle (Ray Winstone) serve as his central motivations.  While Scorsese and Logan vaguely establish this relationship, they miss some key opportunities to reinforce that motivation. However, I acknowledge that this is largely splitting hairs.
In the end, watching Scorsese honor Méliès both in content and in the exploration of a new form of moving images for two hours is like watching a master magician conjure up variations on established tricks.  Hugo is magical film about the magical beginnings of the cinema of attractions and, without a doubt, stands among the strongest films of the year.
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