Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" (2011) review

Here’s a film that resonates on yin AND yang–on your visceral AND your intellectual sides. It’s one of those rare films you find yourself thinking about for days after–bits of dialog surface in your mind, or a spectacular image, like the one above, re-ignites your imagination. In the picture are three highly beautiful things: Paris, friendship, and a complex machine–for me, that means beauty, cubed! And what you see here is just a closely-cropped image. In the 3-D version of the movie the shot is four times bigger, rendered in crystalline depths of field, and its quality is repeated in virtually every scene in the film. Check it out. I’m confident you’ll see why Hugo‘s has affected me so.

Your recall of a film like this, with its masterful, purposeful 3-D, is qualitatively different than the way you remember a typical movie. Scorsese’s immersive 3-D magically transports you. It is as if you have occupied the movie, as if the film and you have history.  This Holiday-season feature may land its gritty filmmaker, for the first time, on the Family shelf for many Christmases to come, a wondrously unlikely turn of events paralleling that the storyline of the movie-maker’s in the film, played by Ben Kingsley.

I assume you’re familiar with the plot, a traditional orphan-waif-makes-good tale. Scorsese’s choice of this narrative, conveying messages of survival and finding redemption in a corrupt, hostile world, should find a highly receptive audience in December, 2011. Restoring abandoned virtue,  finding the lost, and turning personal fasting into communal feasting are going to resonate plangently amid today’s dangerous global economics.

But what Scorsese does with the old story is what I want to praise here. Especially impressive:

  • The film’s look– it’s a cohesive thing of beauty, from front to back. As the images in this post attest (all from the film’s official site), this is no ordinary-looking film.  With its digital wizardry, the film’s designers have recreated the most modern city of its time–Paris in the 20s. This movie brings you effortlessly into an alternate universe. I suppose Hugo still stuns in 2-D but it really is as good or better than anything I’ve seen (including Avatar) in 3-D. Pay the extra for the glasses. 
  • The film’s playersBen Kingsley as the passed-by film genius, Sacha Baron Cohen as the martinet station cop, the kids who play the leads, the cute comic sub-plot players–everyone looks and acts as they should, getting out of the way of the story and furthering the film’s transportative powers.
  • The themes–Folks will probably be writing about this film for a while, but the messages that resonate with me–

    • the message that man is a natural technologist–Hugo’s father, played by Jude Law, bequeaths his automaton, and his passion for machines, to his son before he dies in a (symbolic?) museum fire. That Hugo’s surrogate father is also magical with machinery is no coincidence, and even Hugo’s “evil” father, the station master, is involved with (or in his case, connected to) his technology. In one of Hugo’s few lines, he says, “I like to fix things,” an ergo sum statement for 21st century homo sapiens sapiens.  And what is the wonderful city of Paris, France, seen from the heights of Hugo’s clock-tower, but a magical, dynamic, man-made machine? 
    • the message that film is a distinctive narrative technology from the industrial age. There is a sequence that neatly gives the whole history of cinema and helps the viewer appreciate the medium’s 19th century, industrial-age roots even as s/he appreciates what the 21st century Scorsese, an inheritor of earlier technologies and master of his own sound and vision tools, is doing with it. For the first cinematographers, film was an extension of magic. Appropriate, then, that Scorsese provides his audience a magical experience in Hugo.  If the implicit message of the film medium (its premise) is that beauty can be created from a machine, then Scorsese has fulfilled the medium’s promise here. A movie-maker’s movie, this.
    • the message that film is but one narrative technology–that books preceded and were necessary for its development. There are many beautiful scenes in  Hugo  that I would love to visit again and again. But the main ones (you would expect an English teacher to feel so) are set in the bibliothèques and libraries. With Borges I claim that paradise should be an endless day of learning–an endless afternoon in the library. If you are a bibliophile or a cinephile, you really should see this movie.  The innocent love between Hugo and his little girl-friend develops amid books. And amid books (such as those of Jules Verne, specifically referenced in the film) is where the imagination of the first cinéasts was nurtured–in the heart of the industrial age community, the library. One might claim the same central place in the 20th century for the cinémathèque, just as, so far in the 21st century, people come and share their stories in front of computer screens.  The point is, film, books, or folk tales, it’s all about the narrative, not the narrative devices (message, not medium).

Narrative, whatever its form, may be  homo sapiens sapiens most splendid achievement.  And while I am not an expert, I would say that Hugo has got to be one of the most splendid film achievements of Martin Scorsese’s long and splendiferous career.

As Hugo and his father do their automaton, the viewer of this movie can study and dwell on its details. It is a man-made beauty reflecting mankind’s capacity to create beauty, regardless of mode. 

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