The antiquities of cinema are rescued from oblivion twice in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—the first time within the plot, as French archivists in the 1930s bring to light the forgotten films of Georges Méliès, and the second time in the theater where you sit, as lovingly restored excerpts from these same films stretch toward you in 3D. This second rescue is needed to validate the first. As Scorsese understands, the great majority of moviegoers today know as little of Méliès, the mystery man at the heart of Hugo, as did their counterparts eighty years ago. And so, to ensure that the audience will care deeply about this story of loneliness dispelled by a communal embrace, and neglected genius given its due, Scorsese confirms Méliès’s greatness by daring to concoct one of the odder climaxes ever conceived for a holiday blockbuster—a triumphant nonnarrative montage of moving images more than a hundred years old.
Now that I’ve spoiled the ending—having alerted you that insect men will gambol on the moon, mermaids pose in Neptune’s lair, skeletons dance, landscapes erupt and multiple heads of Méliès change into musical notes—I should emphasize that these images are more than restored in Hugo. They’re improved. The best preservation prints, from the deepest French vaults, lack the pizazz that Scorsese and his digital wizards have imbued into Méliès’s films. Not only does the Man in the Moon now hover so close that you feel you could touch him but the motion in the frame has been smoothed, the tinting intensified and the surface cleaned and polished until the antiquities match the modern gleam of Hugo as a whole.
The fantastic requires no such high gloss of illusionism in the source material, Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel for young people, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The book’s densely textured black-and-white drawings, their volumes mottled rather than cross-hatched, evoke an old-fashioned atmosphere, and the deliberate stiffness in the way Selznick poses the figures keeps the action at a remove from the reader—exactly the sort of remove that Scorsese avoids, or rather annihilates. It’s fine for a book to remain apart from you, an object of contemplation as it rests in your hands; but Hugo must satisfy popular expectations of a movie. It pulls you into the images, surrounds you with them and makes you want to pretend that its imaginary, Depression-era city is immediate and real—an act of persuasion that begins when the camera swoops down from the rooftops of Paris to the Gare Montparnasse, along a crowded passenger platform, into the concourse and up at last to a station clock mounted high in the wall, behind whose face the young, penniless orphan Hugo can be glimpsed as he hides and spies.
Magic? Of course. Méliès (here represented by a goateed and crotchety Ben Kingsley) did tricks and created illusions on the French stage before he took to cinema in its early days and did the same sorts of things on screen; and Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the fictitious boy who survives by secretly living in the railway station and tending its clocks, will undergo something of an apprenticeship in magic as he comes to know the elderly, disappointed filmmaker through a friendship with Méliès’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Scorsese’s astoundingly successful erasure of the marks of age and technical crudity in Méliès’s films—an act that in effect collapses the past into the present, in a movie that is ostensibly all about history—might therefore be understood as something more than an excusable response to commercial imperatives. It can be justified as the best magic trick of all.
A review of Hugo could end with that. Is the film filled with wonder? Yes. Will it show you a wonderful time? Without a doubt. Although Scorsese is himself a senior filmmaker—he is as old today as Méliès was in 1931—he romps through Hugo with an exuberance that ought to shame the mumblecore generation. He sees to it that his crowds are made up not of extras but of people, dancing and flirting their way through the railway station. (Additions to the book’s story by screenwriter John Logan help populate the station with incidental characters and gently comic courtships.) Like the people, the surrounding air seems fully alive, indoors and out, as Scorsese keeps it perpetually animated with steam and snow and drifting cinders. When Hugo, ever alert for his chances, filches breakfast from the station’s shops, the camera is as quick and furtive as the boy’s hunger. When Hugo and Isabelle enter into a tense confrontation with Madame Méliès, the angles chosen for the close-ups shift along with the characters’ emotions. Scorsese even has the energy to invent a new use for 3D. He gives you, as he must, the usual chutes-and-ladders rides and pop-up-book effects, only better; and then, in a scene where Hugo is endangered, Scorsese unexpectedly converts 3D into a psychological vehicle. The Javert of this story, a clumsily, comically menacing Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), leans into the trapped Hugo for an interrogation, and you abruptly see the grinning cop through the boy’s eyes, as a head that grows larger and larger as it floats forward, threatening to bump into your face.
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Everything’s a surprise, a delight, a tug at the heartstrings in Hugo. Nevertheless, I have a few questions.
What are we to make of the looming clockwork in the movie, the wind-up figures, the speculation that all the world’s a machine and the men and women in it merely cogwheels? This theme, which comes directly from Selznick’s book, has a special force when translated onto the screen, not least because Scorsese’s inventory of machines prominently includes movie cameras and projectors. Hugo reminds you that film was a late invention of the age of automated gears and levers, an era whose greatest symbol was the steam locomotive. And yet by the 1890s, when the Lumière brothers recorded their Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and projected it for a reportedly alarmed public, the era’s prevailing big-machine model of nature and society was already breaking down. So here’s another reminder from Hugo, one that’s less plainly stated in the script: movie culture did a lot to encourage this epochal departure from a mechanistic worldview. The cranks and cogwheels of cinema paradoxically manufactured something insubstantial, such as an onrushing steam locomotive that wasn’t actually there. You might say that from the start film wanted to escape its mechanical origins; it was always trying to reach beyond the camera apparatus and stage machinery of Méliès (enchantingly reconstructed by Scorsese) toward the frictionless, dimensionless computerized conditions under which Hugo was in large part created. In that sense, Hugo’s digitized 3D versions of the Méliès films are not a betrayal of film history but a fulfillment.
But if that’s the happy ending, then I have to ask what makes cinema so sad. In Hugo, films are strongly associated with the broken artifacts and illegible messages left by a dead father, and with the ghosts haunting a man who lives next door to a snow-shrouded graveyard. You might explain away this sense of loss and sorrow as a requirement of the story, which must give the characters something to overcome, whether they’re engaged with cinema as audience members or as filmmakers. Scorsese does a fine job of helping them along in this effort, allowing his people to appear in the standard image of joyful moviegoing—a view of the characters in theater seats, rapt before a screen—and also bringing Monsieur and Madame Méliès back to their younger days in a flashback, to show them having a blast in their all-glass studio. The tone, at last, is warmly redemptive, and it’s the machinery of cinema that effects the reconciliation. Yet the ghosts of sighs linger on.
I think a clue to this underlying pathos might be found in Scorsese’s inclusion of certain excerpts of archival footage that have been left more or less unimproved, so they look foggy, jerky and achingly old. These are documentary images of the First World War. They advance the plot by helping to explain Méliès’s descent into obscurity, and as a subsidiary function they elicit a touch of sympathy for the Station Inspector. But intentionally or not, these scraps of war footage also complicate Hugo’s otherwise simplistic account of how the movies evolved and what they’re good for.
The Lumière brothers failed to see film’s potential to tell stories, we are informed, and the stories best suited to film are the most fanciful. The movies, according to Hugo, are a factory of dreams. But they’re not—at least, not exclusively. Nor were Méliès’s dreamlike images preserved by a dapper archivist working in a grand and well-appointed French Academy of Film, as Hugo would have it. The chief savior of early French cinema, and much else, was in fact a great lump of a man named Henri Langlois, who must have bathed infrequently, because the tub of his apartment was entirely filled with cans of old films. Such was the storage facility available to the Cinémathèque Française in its early days. Scorsese knows this, and he knows that his own reputation was built not on dreams and visions but on startlingly vivid portrayals of Italian-American life on identifiable streets of New York City during specific years.
These are the matters guiltily suppressed in Hugo: the stubborn ungainliness of facts, and the persistence of an observational tradition. What’s covered up and mourned for in this wondrous film is precisely the real. The result is a peculiarly telling sense of loss—because just as the movement away from a mechanistic worldview characterized the years when film was invented, so does a willful blindness toward society’s industrial base now characterize the era that has given us Hugo. Our economy, our very lives, are supposedly all about information and the creation of intangible value; the ultimate symbol of our technology is not a steam locomotive but a glass screen on which colored lights pop up and vanish. Dazzle is all that counts, and brilliant entrepreneurship. We’re not meant to think about the factory where people build the magical glass screens, or the overflowing landfill into which these charmed objects will soon be bulldozed. I don’t claim that Hugo hauls this industrial past out of the social unconscious and into common view; the movie is anything but a protest film. But trust an artist as complete as Scorsese to sketch the shadows into his pictures, even when the tone is bright and colorful. It is probably not a coincidence that he has designed and shot the central piece of machinery in Hugo, a clockwork automaton, so that it sometimes resembles the demon robot of Metropolis, that crack-brained epic of airy visions and subterranean slavery.
This is where the review of Hugo really does end: with the hope that audiences will love the film’s surface pleasures (as I did) and also register, just a little, the shadings in the background, which do as much as the 3D glasses to give these marvels their depth. And having said that, I will append a coda, dedicated to another senior American filmmaker and to the persistence of the Lumière tradition.
Contrary to what Hugo would have you believe, the Lumière brothers did not simply abandon cinema. They saw there was money to be gained, and so they licensed their equipment to operators who wandered the world making travelogues and exhibiting them to the public. Under ordinary circumstances, these actualities (though an astonishment during their own era) might appeal to today’s audiences as little as would a full-length screening of the unimproved version of Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon. But at the risk of resorting to the dreaded argumentum ad hipsteros, I will point out that the avant-garde master Ken Jacobs has discovered that these Lumière travelogues are actually 3D movies. They weren’t meant to be. But if you take a strip of cheap plastic and hold it in front of one eye (as Jacobs directs the audience to do when he shows his Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896) the images unfold with all the magic that Méliès himself could have engineered. They’re beautiful, poetic, touching and a little sad—charmed artifacts of an industrial past that may be forgotten but has not been lost. The real can also be wonderful, no digitization required.