For a while we were unsure what Scorsese would make next, he had a number of tentative titles flittering around his IMDb oeuvre (Sinatra, Silence, I heard You Paint Houses, etc.), all of which sounded good and expected but none of which are yet to eventuate. Instead the title that managed to first take hold as ‘In Production’ was the strangest one there, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It was a children’s film which followed a young bereaved boy who lived in the walls of a Parisian railway station; a story which couldn’t be further than what one would expect of the master movie-maker Scorsese. In a way though that film is also still unmade, for if you were to check your local cinema for it they would likely say, “Cabret? Don’t you just mean Hugo?”
Now it is not a new thing for a film to have its title truncated during production, but the act is usually symptomatic of a studio interfering in the process as a whole. When the title is shortened this is a sign of simplification, the movie being made smaller so as to better fit within smaller minds; which in this case is fine, given that it is a kid’s film, right? Well no because this isn’t really a kids film, at least not in the modern sense of the genre. Not only does the film open with an extended sequence of virtual silence, but the story that it tells is dark and stilted, the themes nostalgic in nature and the laughs mined from the trains station antics are lame, not even up to the usual childish level of slapstick. Everything on the surface is so subtle and underplayed, which is infinitely strange within this genre of character archetypes and crazy sound effects.
For me this was fine, I have the patience and faculties to follow such a film as will all adult audiences, however the apparent intended audience may not, or to be more specific may not want to; the members of the audience that i saw it with within that age group were certainly unimpressed. To be honest I was too, there is a difference between followable and favourable and as an adult experience this film only functions as the former; it is otherwise far too shallow and simpleminded. Scorsese, for all his infinite wisdom, is seemingly not willing to bow down deep enough into the world of children’s cinema and instead settles into something messy midway.
Thankfully though the man still manages to make the hell out of the movie, regardless of what it is or for whom. The two leads both give good performances and they have the photography to thank; the way that Scorsese shoots Hugo’s eyes is enough to completely convey the emotions of his character. In fact the film as a whole looks just lovely, if only that were enough to excuse the content for being lacklustre. The 3-D effects really elucidating the microcosm of life that is this grand station, the smoke and snow swirling in front of the screen is enough to put you within the scene. Being able to simply experience some of these shots is nearly enough for the film to earn your entry fee.
What ultimately redeems the film is the fact that, thankfully, there is much more to it than the title and trailer suggest. The real reason that Marty made this over those other movies becomes clear around halfway through; Hugo is actually a movie about movies. Film is represented metaphorically in a multi-faceted manner: starting with subtle special effects – Hugo’s remembrances are accompanied by the flickering of projector – moving through non-literal re-enactments -Hugo watches the lives of the stations other patrons through a screen (in the films best use of the layering effect) in a manner akin to James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – and eventually overtaking the story entire when it is revealed that Hugo is not the films only character of interest.
George Melies is a man after Scorsese’s own heart and the man’s story is surely also one that struck him there. Thou he is well known now for his famous voyage to the moon there was a very dark and tragic period in his life where he and all his works were forgotten and this ends being the basis of the film’s final act. Scorsese is a lover of cinema and these shows during the flashback sequences that he has constructed to show Melies in his heyday. These docu-montages are the films obvious highlights and visually they are just amazing; somehow those oldest of effects, painted backgrounds and hokey costumes, look the best in this most modern of mediums, 3D. There is such a joy in these scenes and such an earnt reverence for the art-form that in comparison the titular orphan’s story really shadows. For all the time that the film spends with Hugo I can hardly recall the point of his story, but I came out of the cinema ready to preach for the conservation of film – a cause that Scorsese spearheads to this day – despite Melies getting a strong short thrift of things.
When Scorsese and the studio sat down to discuss the duration of the title I only wish that he had excised the Hugo portion from it and the film itself, instead of focusing in on it. There is potentially a passable movie to be made out of Hugo’s adventures, a Nim’s Island for the new decade, but a feature dedicated to Melies, where Marty’s passions clearly lie, could have been something absolutely extraordinary. Instead of following his heart as Hugo would have done Scorsese sold out like Melies and the resulting movie is as practical as a rubber heel and only a little bit more entertaining. I am torn between loving and hating this movie almost as much as the film itself is torn between its many pairs of identities and as it clasped for a compromised middle-ground so too shall I, even though it makes me sad to do so…