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Thoughts on HUGO, Post-2012 Oscar Ceremony

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Hugo should have won Best Picture last night.

I’m not saying that it was 2011’s best film (that would be Drive) or even that it was the best selection from the nine Best Picture nominees (I’m partial to War Horse and The Descendants, myself).  But Hugo is a great movie all the same, and—most importantly—it is a great Oscar movie.  Look through the Academy’s history, and you’ll see movies that look a lot like Hugo, movies of epic scope that still manage genuine intimacy and feeling without sacrificing populist appeal.

Does it enrich the viewing experience if you recognize the parallels between Hugo and director Martin Scorsese?  Absolutely.  Is such knowledge an enjoyment prerequisite?  Absolutely not: the film functions as an immersive, gently fantastical drama even if the name “Scorsese” doesn’t ring a bell (although God help you if it doesn’t).

I’m at a loss because not only is Hugo a textbook example of top-shelf Oscar bait, but it also makes the same moves that The Artist makes, except with greater precision.  Both pictures showcase real affection for the aesthetic of the silent film era; both rely on intertextual film allusions to better “educate” audiences on that era’s sociology/political/cultural atmosphere; and both films follow the same emotional journey: how the hero (Georges Méliès in Hugo, George Valentin in The Artist) must adapt to the changing times in order to find his place in the world.

What separates the two lies in their respective directors’ approaches to the material.  Michel Hazanavicius loves the silent film era; here’s the thing: it’s a shallow affection.  His film may have the monochrome sheen and Academy Ratio framing of a Casablanca, but you’d never mistake The Artist for an actual historical artifact (for one thing, its style is more fluid and expressionistic than most silent movies were.  Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin tended to favor the whole “point and shoot” aesthetic, while The Artist favors the film noir subjectivity of a post-Citizen Kane movie.  But I digress).  It’s too self-referential, too winking.  One of the first title cards has Valentin, on-screen playing a Douglas Fairbanks-ian adventurer, exclaiming “I won’t speak,” and from then on, the film is filled with countless gags drawing your attention to the fact that you’re watching a silent movie.  It’s more Silent Movie than The Phantom Carriage, more fetish than feeling—we never get The Artist in our bones.

Hugo makes no such stylistic pretensions; from the first frame—a dizzying tracking shot that begins overlooking Paris, then speeds through passengers on a train platform, only to rise back into the air and rest mere inches away from the title character’s yearning gaze—you know you’re watching something that couldn’t be made in any time period other than right now.  Scorsese may be traveling backwards, but he’s bringing state-of-the-art technology with him, and the visual wonderments come fast and furious.

A CGI-assisted camera take that follows Hugo through the bowels of a Paris train station’s inner workings.  Two photorealistic train crashes that riff off the famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat short film.  A simultaneous dolly zoom-in-and-camera track-out that makes star Ben Kingsley grow exponentially inside the frame without having his dimensions exceed the shot.  All those delights—and more!—and all utilizing the best 3D camerawork I have ever seen; you feel you’re experiencing these impossible tricks first-hand.

The distance between the time period and Scorsese’s cutting-edge technology creates an interesting tension; he doesn’t want to replicate what Méliès’ old films looked like; he wants to create the sensation audiences of the period felt when they first saw A Trip to the Moon or The Haunted Castle.  That’s a far more difficult goal.  We find ourselves approaching Hugo almost as if it were science-fiction (Avatar, perhaps) because we know the surrounding late 1920’s/early 1930’s milieu couldn’t produce such effects.  With that, Scorsese’s got us, and total immersion is complete.  You marvel at the achievement: Scorsese has absorbed Méliès and silent film cinema so thoroughly that we come to understand the cinematic past even as he paints it in modern 3D and digital technology (it is telling, however, that when Scorsese directly references early cinema, he presents such clips simply, despite their oft-stagy blocking.  Scorsese respects these movies too much to gussy them up, unlike Hazanavicius in The Artist).

In the end, Hazanavicius and Scorsese illustrate the difference between artisans and artists.  Artisans produce beauty with little soul, while artists offer such a flowering of soul as to become beautiful.  Funny, that The Artist‘s name belies the experience behind it, and funnier still that the Academy couldn’t see what it so often sees best in Hugo.

Paramount Blu-ray 2D/DVD/Digital Copy edition is an A/V marvel; I was worried that the film would lose some of its impact in 2D, but the transfer is so vivid and sharp (and Scorsese’s camera angles are so dynamic) that it maintains a three-dimensional texture.  The immersive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track also adds to the experience, alternating between Howard Shore’s gentle score and the more bombastic moments with aplomb.

Only the bonuses disappoint.  It’s not that they’re bad; it’s that the selection is so…meager.  We get five featurettes (Shoot the Moon: The Making of Hugo, The Cinemagician: Georges Méliès, The Mechanical Man at the Heart of Hugo, Big Effects – Small Scale, and Sasha Baron Cohen: Role of a Lifetime) totaling just under an hour.  With the exception of the Sasha Baron Caron bit (which isn’t as funny as it thinks it is), the information is good, but a movie with as much historical and cinematic interest as Hugo deserves more comprehensive treatment.

And yet I can’t recommend this Blu-ray enough; the movie is that good.  Director Martin Scorsese invokes the magic of early cinema with grace and magic; even if the Academy missed the boat, the rest of the world doesn’t have to.

Hugo streets on February 28th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.