Martin Scorsese has stepped into the light of family filmmaking and forgotten the tools that made him a legend. Never before has 3D been so well utilized, immersion to the point of our indifference. Acclaimed as it is, “Hugo” has tricked it’s way into the hearts of quality starved old men who regard it’s respect for the original magician as masterful in itself. We want to love what’s happening, but are shown only pretty pictures. Scorsese loses his edge to appeal to the dullest of even meager intelligence, somehow failing to remember that the king of family moviemaking, Walt Disney, traumatized as often as he inspired. “Hugo” is idealistic without being interesting, even as it opens the door to a type of movie Scorsese should have made long ago.
For the longest time, since his debut, critics have confused Martin Scorsese’s content for his style, the stories he chooses to tell with the way he chooses to tell them. His is a stylized opera (second only to Brian de Palma‘s), and it’s only his lens that has up to this point been trained at the grit of New York’s underbelly, the “realism” of the streets and it’s people. “Hugo” is a bold change of direction, not in the approach but in the object of his fascination. For the first time Scorsese extends the artificial flourish of his technique to the very world he’s exploring. Never before have his scenes and sequences played out on so obviously unreal sets, in the realm of CGI and computer enhanced imagery. This allows the disturbing nature of a little boy lost to be seen as fable, of suspense in the full knowledge that nothing can end badly in places of dreams and nostalgia.
At heart, and his camera has been evidence of this, Scorsese has always been more suited to the magic of “The Red Shoes” than the nightmare visages of a “Taxi Driver“. “Hugo” is a step toward a place he’s never explored, a place of consequence but magical imagery; of mythic visions in full view of myth. It gives “Hugo” a shield from criticism. Instead of fusing the soul penetrating curiosity afforded “Raging Bull” with the fantastical of the story at hand, he allows the thin veneer of fairy tale and cliche to be our only point of interest. Everything plays on the surface, never giving us the feeling that something awaits us if we only dig a bit deeper. By being so charming, we are insensitive to not be swept away in it’s bullshit.
In it’s clumsiness of storytelling, shoehorning plot points into places as convenience necessitates, never organic to the characters situations and emotions, I felt hurled and disrespected by a script which is shown tremendous attentions in one instant then feigning disinterest the next. The approach is a smack in the face from someone you love, admire, who’s opened themselves up to us and found kindred spirits in our mutual love of a craft.
Characters appear and disappear without rhyme or reason, a bookseller, a pair of fatties whose every concurrent appearance is questionable at best, a train station security guard who’s only quest seems to be to round up orphan children. The crux of the story is always present and (maddeningly) always changing, as it appears that Scorsese hardly cares until we arrive at the flashback of Georges Melies rise and fall as a magician of celluloid. Is the movie about movies or a little boy? About two fatties falling in love or two children going on an adventure? Books play a larger role in the narrative than film, but it’s the movies that take precedence because Scorsese is more invested in film than the books he hasn’t read.
Scorsese himself seems to be aware of the stories lack of intention or drive. The last shot of the movie (a pale and underwhelming long take that serves only to remind us of greater accomplishments) attempts to reconcile the various threads and make them cohesive, then falls short and feels the need to apply a tacked on voice over of little consequence. “Hugo” splits itself between two stories then makes us stop caring about the movies namesake to focus on a bitter old man. The story of a little boy lost is just a route to arrive at and romanticize a period of film history and one if it’s great practitioners. By losing his narrative focus and failing to make us sympathize, Scorsese fails to stand on the shoulders of the great directors of artifice as their successors.
Earlier I referred to Scorsese’s slap dash approach as a smack in the face by someone you love. I rescind the statement and replace it with this: that a man who has so actively supported the preservation and virtues of celluloid would readily and grandly abandon film for inferior video is a smack and more. It’s a betrayal in the name of an inferior motion picture, character in exchange for 3D.
The movie is what it is, but it’s in the 3D that we have a culprit as to the movies debilitating shallowness. In utilizing and mastering a new toy, Scorsese has abandoned the effort’s necessary to make us care; to delve deeper and make the movies artificial facade a plus instead of a hindrance.
Every digital shot in the movies running time is a 3D picture to be lost in, and in the process we lose the actors, their faces and feelings only another object in the shallow immersion. A sweeping overhead shot through a hallway of death, arriving at a close-up of Travis Bickle. Jake La Motta allowing himself to be pummeled into a kind of temporary redemption of his self hatred. Violent or not, Scorsese has always reveled in the feelings of character, of their psyche and unique perversions. In a family film, he had the opportunity to show us children wiser than their years, threats to their very lives, and triumph in the face of fairy tale (but no less life threatening) adversity. “Hugo” allows for all these then does nothing with them. Spectacle trumps sympathy.
I’m not so perceptive as to notice this in and of it’s self. Like the “chicken” scene snapped me out of the masterfully inane spell of “The Social Network“, it was only after a small sequence of touching simplicity that I felt the flaw of the whole movie.
Sacha Baren Cohen‘s train station detective stands at a small bistro within the palatial interior of the station itself, his eyes betraying a crush on a cute as a button flower girl (Emily Mortimer). One of the useless fatties can’t help but notice, and says a word or two to the effect of: “Just go talk to her.” He moves in, a tall and slender and authoritative man reduced to a pile of well meaning sweetness. He “just talks” and proceeds to embarrasses himself, and her, and the woman at the bistro, and us. An old battle injury is the last straw. Defeated, he turns with a final farewell. Her brother died in the same war. She takes a flower from the wall of colorful flora around her and carefully places it on his uniform’s lapel.
For all the soaring computer created shots, for all the beautiful sets and wonderful performances, for all the absorbing 3D, nothing had prepared me for two actors meeting, flirting, stumbling, bumbling. Feeling. Here was the empathy I sought, the mastery for which Scorsese is renown. Straight out of a Chaplin masterpiece (“City Lights”?), into the 21st century, and still as affecting as ever.
Bergman regarded the face as the most intriguing subject available to a rolling camera. “Hugo”‘s final shot is a close-up of a mechanical man. Scorsese has traded flesh and blood for the latest toy, and forgotten what matters.