The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was Aladdin. And although years later, after countless views of my family’s VHS copy of the Disney classic, I grew obsessed with the story and the characters involved (I seriously donned a Jasmine T-shirt nearly everyday for a three month period of my childhood), that first viewing was about something different. It wasn’t about my new favorite “person” Jasmine. It wasn’t about the love story, or the Jafar’s evil plot or the character’s quest for validation and adventure. For a three year old with popcorn butter on her fingers, what engrossed me was the spectacle. A larger screen than I’d ever seen was projecting colorful images of dancing middle easterners, personified monkeys and tigers, and a genie who would grant three wishes. I was hypnotized by the magic—by the soundtrack I’d be humming for days to come, by the size of Aladdin’s face projected on the cinema screen, by the magic sweeping carpet ride through the city. I didn’t understand the story beyond the basics, or the plot’s homage to past classic stories, or the fact that Scott from Full House was the voice of Aladdin, but the movie-experience alone of sitting in that cineplex chair before my feet could touch the ground, wide-eyed and enthralled by simply the sights and sounds I was experiencing was enough to hook me for life.
What struck me while watching Hugo was Martin Scorsese’s ability to capture young viewers’ imaginations again. In the same way that I was swept up in the color and magic of Aladdin, a new generation of movie-goers would be hooked with the enchanting snow-globe of a world Scorsese had created. They wouldn’t understand the, at times, slow moving plot in its entirety. They couldn’t understand the blatant and subtle references to the silent film era from the Méliès classics being filmed, to Buster Keaton’s name printed on the movie theater marquee, but they could understand the magic and the spectacle of a mechanical man, movie-magic, and the 3D snow falling in front of their eyes. They would be swept up in Hugo’s run through the frozen city wearing shorts, and Isabelle’s love for books, and the intricacies of operating the clocks at a train station, as well as the wonder of living amongst them. The children would be swept up in the adventure.
But Hugo is not just a children’s movie. In more ways, it feels like a cinephile’s movie. It’s an opportunity for someone well-versed, or even casually-versed, in film history to completely geek-out and marvel at how far cinema has come. Perhaps Scorsese is the Méliès of our generation—his vast film library and accolades surely put him in the running—but “Hugo” doesn’t so much serve to applaud the artist behind the film, but instead admires the way that film history itself has unfolded.
The story follows Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the clocks of a train station and masters running them. But his real passion lies in getting an old and rusted mechanical man, who works much like a clock, operating again. It was a project he shared with his late father and Hugo is certain that a message from his father lies in the metal and shifting gears of the mechanical man. But a crotchety old shop owner (Ben Kingsley) stands in Hugo’s way until his sweet granddaughter Isabelle (played by the precocious Chloe Grace Moretz) befriends Hugo and helps him on his journey. What they uncover is nothing short of cinema-magic, past and present, as it becomes apparent that the shop owners’ famous name is Georges Méliès and that he’s spent the second half of his life trying to hide his past and the fact that he was the most applauded screen “magician” of the silent film era.
From the opening sequence until the final “fade-to-black,” the film spends every second teaching the audience, and ensuring that anyone who may have lost sight of the wonder and escapist qualities of the cinematic experience will jump right back on the movie-bandwagon, as the film provides, in plot and style, a crash-course in film history.
So where do you start in this lesson on film history? Of course, you start where it all began—the silent film era. And Hugo’s opening sequence is a perfectly crafted and subtle homage to the feel of silent film. The first five minutes before the film’s title appears on the screen is very quiet. There is little dialogue and a simple score as the viewer is asked to voyeuristically (another aspect of early cinema—capturing life as it is) observe life at the train station through Hugo’s eyes. We are introduced to several minimal, and a few trivial, plot points in this sequence. Much like silent film’s penchant to introduce multiple ensemble plots and characters such as in D.W. Griffith’s silent-epic Intolerance (1916), Hugo does the same—introducing a woman with a dog who frequents the station and the older man’s crush on her, the classically sweet woman who sells flowers from a cart, and the diabolical station inspector with a squeaky leg brace. This entire sequence has the feel of silent film—from the outlandish physical gestures of the characters to make up for their lack of dialogue, to their minimal subplot purpose and voyeuristic qualities, and their transition to the plot-point we know will carry the most weight—Hugo’s interaction with the toy shop owner, George, who accuses him of being a thief. These storylines reference the early days of film before narrative worked its way in, before movie stars were staples. It was about the pleasure of watching life on the screen—watching a 30-second reel of a baby laughing, or a man play a prank with a hose. In the early 1900’s, pleasure in film was achieved by observing the everyday, and Scorsese’s opening sequence acknowledges that.
Once established, the film quickly moves to reference the next era of film—the talkies. As Hugo’s story becomes more complicated and we begin to understand his back-story, motivation, and conflict, the film represents the transition to more narrative-based and character-driven storylines. Suddenly, dialogue is crucial. Isabelle is a character whose entire being is wrapped up in what she says. Her character is intelligent and confident—spouting vocabulary words like “clandestine” and “superlative” from the countless books she’s read. You believe her adoration of literature in the way she talks about the books, in her tenor of voice, and the syllables she stresses. If we were asked to understand this passion for books by reading title cards as she expressed her love, we wouldn’t get it. Isabelle is dependent on her dialogue—it’s a facet of her character. When she recites by heart a Christina Rosetti poem, we believe her. We believe that someone so in love with words and stories could be the granddaughter of a film artist equally enthralled by the transformative qualities of film. Sound in film is critical at times. We need to hear George’s voice bellow through the train station when he calls for the station master. We need to hear the clank of the wrench that Hugo accidentally drops from the clock near the station master’s feet that terrifyingly risks unveiling his secret identity. The film represents the critical move from silent film to talkies.
But not only does the film represent the ways in which sound has evolved, but storytelling as well. It shows how acting has evolved—from outlandish gestures, to subtle break-downs. In a silent film, George Méliès’ emotional crumble as he recalls his past would be shown with exaggerated sobs, but in modern cinema, his subtle emotional collapse is more effective. The film shows how acting has evolved, how the camera has developed. It’s now free to sweep and dance across a set whereas before the camera was mostly stationary. It showcases the power of close-up—now in 3D, and the importance of reference and homage, and artistic backlighting like the beautiful shot of Isabelle and Hugo sneaking into a theater and watching a silent film. What is marveling about the film is the way in which the elements of film past and present occur simultaneously—the old gentleman with the crush continues to pursue the woman with the dog in a silent film style, even as Hugo and Isabelle continue on their adventure with rich back-story and modern visuals—papers fluttering in a whimsical array, snow falling, the view of the city from Hugo’s dangerous hiding spot along the outer ledge of the clock. It’s a mixture of styles, but it all comes together in a seamless way, possibly because each style originated from the same place. Hugo shows the evolution of the filmic experience, but each element came from the same initial piece of celluloid back in the early 18th century. It’s all cut from the same cloth.
But the magic ingredient that makes Hugo a lesson in how far cinema has come is the fact that the film is in 3D. The same train that made early viewers duck as it came into the station towards them, now literally pops from the screen. If the first viewers found the magic of a jump cut exciting, imagine how they’d experience 3D movies today. Scorsese doesn’t just use the technology because it’s there, he knows how, and it’ll hike up the ticket cost, but he uses it because it’s a perfect representation of where cinema is in 2012. It makes sense that a movie applauding the life of film and its roots would be shot in a way that showcases the entire spectrum—we went from stuttered still frames in kinetoscopes, to sound, to Technicolor, and finally to a 3D pop up world. Hugo is like a snow globe that the viewers are allowed to shake and shudder as the story unfolds in their hands. The viewers are reenergized, they’re recharged by cinema. In the same way that the first viewers marveled at the simple images, or even the way I was once captivated by the color and music of Aladdin, we’re left to experience the newest element of film in its relatively early days with wonder and enchantment that 3D visuals can provide. And all the while, the wonder of the medium brings to life the old classics—the pleasure of watching Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon come to life in Scorsese’s retelling is fascinating. Viewers who may have never encountered Méliès films are asked to respect cinema’s roots with films they’d likely never had the opportunity to see, in the same way that film students forced to watch countless Méliès’ shorts in the first week of every film history class, can now appreciate the spectacle of early cinema so much more just by seeing it through Scorsese’s modern lens. Scorsese keeps film past and present alive. He keeps us marveling at its art and craft. And he guarantees that we dream of the endless possibilities of where cinema could go next and what it can accomplish.