Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hopes for Future Filmgoers -- Reflections on "Hugo" (2011)

My love affair with movies began with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It was 1982 and my dad, my uncle Bob, my cousin Jack and I were all waiting in line to see it. I'm sure I had been to the movies before, but never like this. People were lined up around the block to see this picture. The theater only had a couple screens, so this movie was an event. You could smell the invitation of popcorn from outside amid the buzzing of excited voices, shuffling feet, and the sounds of the street. When the line started moving, my heart pounded with the energy only a 6-year old's heart can generate. We handed the tickets over the usher and entered a cathedral. The neon lights, the popping sounds of the popcorn machine, the swishing noise of the soda fountain, the heavy muffled thump of the theater door closing behind us were overwhelming and intoxicating to me. I didn't even need for the lights to dim and the moving pictures to start playing to fall in love with going to the movies.

But when those lights did dim, when those images started flickering on the screen...I was able to go places I'd never been, feel things I didn't know I could feel, see things I could only dream of. Some people have church; I have the movies.

I hope there's a kid out there whose first movie going experience is Hugo. He or she won't have to wait in the enormous lines, because I doubt this movie will blow up as big at E.T. did (times are different now, and beautiful movies like Hugo seem to make their biggest impact on home video), but I hope this kid gets to experience the movie theater on the same religious level. I hope he or she is enraptured by the scents and sounds, and ultimately finds that when the lights go down, their lives will never be the same.

For a kid, Hugo will be a discovery. It is a film rich in detail, layered like the gears of a clock. Martin Scorsese has used his powers to create a world that immediately feels both familiar and fantastical at the same time. As an seasoned man, he can still see the world as a child sees it, with wonder. For an adult, like me, Hugo is a beautiful reminder of why I love this artform, what it means to me, and why it needs to be shared and preserved.

The story is a simple story of an orphaned boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives in the clock tower of a Parisian train station, where he secretly maintains the clocks after his drunken uncle abandons the post. Hugo lives the life of a mouse, quietly going about his business and sneaking out to steal food and other items right from under the watchful eye of the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). One of the people he steals from is a toy shop owner, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who is more than he seems. Hugo steals parts -- gears, screws, coils -- for a project he is working on in secret. When the toy shop owner catches him, he confiscates Hugo's prize possession, a little notebook full of detailed plans for his project, and Hugo will do anything to get it back. Hugo must enlist the aid of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Méliès's god-daughter, to help him.

Hugo, you see, is trying to complete repairs on an automaton, a robot built for a specific purpose. His father (Jude Law) had discovered it in the basement of the museum where he worked and together he and Hugo made repairing it a time for bonding. After a fire in the museum took his father's life, Hugo found himself an orphan, left to the devices of his drunken uncle. All Hugo had left of his father was the automaton and he continues to fix it, hoping the machine will have a message for him from his father when it is finished. Little does Hugo know, though, just how meaningful that little machine is to the lives of everyone in the tale.

Eventually, the two friends discover that Isabelle's god-father is none other than Georges Méliès, the famous French film director, whose Voyage to the Moon is considered one of the early classics of cinema. Their discovery is not only a surprise, but the opening of a door into the history of film. You can feel Scorsese, the film geek, shining through in these moments, as he intercuts clips from early silent films by Méliès, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others into his. He makes a connection here between the past and present, maybe even making a point that the way to find the future of film is by revisiting its glorious past.

Martin Scorsese, directing here his first family film, and his first film in 3-D, has found a story in which to weave a special magic. It may also be Scorsese's most personal film. In a lot of ways, Hugo seems to be his voice, especially in moments when he conveys to Isabelle his love for movies. In one key scene, Hugo discovers that Isabelle has never seen a movie, and he is taken aback. He loves them so much, he expresses to her, because they can take him anywhere he wants to go. It's a touching moment, and one of the finest in any film Scorsese has directed.

Indeed, this may be one of Scorsese's finest films. It is most certainly his strangest, merely because it does not employ the usual band of gangsters, killers, and psychopaths. Yet, it fits perfectly into his catalog as it is really a story about outcasts, and Scorsese has a true affinity for the outsider, whether it be an alienated loner like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a Jewish-Italian mobster like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, an anti-social, self-destructive boxer like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or a downtrodden orphan like Hugo Cabret. Actually, every major character is this story is an outcast, from Hugo to Georges, who believes he is a forgotten artist, to  the Station Inspector, whose disabled leg from an injury in the first World War has made him insecure around the train station's fetching florist (Emily Mortimer). Scorsese puts these characters together like clockwork.

Not only is this film strange because of its content, but also because of its form. Scorsese was the last director I'd ever expect to use 3-D, but it turns out this was both a novel and brilliant decision. He uses the 3-D technology in ways only James Cameron has been able to rival. Each shot feels very picturesque, the 3-D bringing a stunning depth to the screen. This is the way 3-D was meant to be used, not as a gimmick to force people to fork over an extra wad of cash at the box office, but to enhance the way pictures tell the story. It shouldn't be surprising that one of our best directors was able to do just that.

The effect of all these parts is that Hugo casts a two-hour spell, drawing us in to its world from the opening shot and never letting us go. For a brief part of the experience, I felt like that six-year old kid again, sitting in my church -- a movie theater -- experiencing this new world the likes of which I'd never seen. All the jaded attitudes from years of movie going, sitting through countless bad movies, were stripped away and I felt like I was watching something new.

I hope there's a kid out there who has that same experience with this movie.

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