Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Scorsese’s lyrical lecture on the importance of old movies

Of all of the three-D movies I’ve seen so far (granted, I haven’t seen many; dull, crummy movies are still dull and crummy no matter how many dimensions they’re presented in), two of the best are Avatar (the movie that really got the latest 3-D craze going) and Hugo (the movie that tells a story about one of the pioneers of movies by using the latest technology).

One of those movies looked terrific but had a weak story cribbed from dozens of previous sources. The other looked terrific and told a wonderful story based on an imaginative and intelligent children’s book.

Guess which is which.

This not a trick question.

Some people express surprise that Martin Scorsese would make a children’s film after making violent, adult fare such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Why should this be a surprise? Scorsese is a storyteller; the skills are the same whether you’re doing films about mobsters or prize fighters or eccentric businessmen or Michael Jackson videos. Go take a look at Scorsese’s bio and see how many different types of films he’s had a hand in as writer, director, producer or occasional actor. This is a guy who loves movies so much he’s spearheading the effort to save as many old ones as possible.

The central story of Hugo is about the rediscovery of a pioneer of movies and some of the films he had made. Right up Scorsese’s alley.

The book also about redemption, remembering the past and struggling with the loss of family. Quite a plate for a book for children.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is no ordinary kids book, though. For one thing, it’s 534 pages, but saying it that way is quite misleading. There are pages filled with type, yes, but then many are filled with drawings, which often take over the storytelling. The book’s one chase scene, for instance, is told in drawings, and boy, does that save time and words.

The author, Brian Selznick – cousin to David O. Selznick, producer (Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, King Kong) – is both author and illustrator. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who possesses an automaton his father was working on until he was killed in a fire. An uncle takes Hugo in, teaches him how to wind the clocks at a Paris train station, then disappears. Hugo, in order to survive and keep out of the clutches of the station’s Inspector who wants to put him in an orphanage, takes over the caretaker duties. In his off hours, he tries to repair the automaton using parts he steals from a toy vendor. The vendor catches him, takes his notebook and threatens to burn it. Hugo appeals to the toy-maker’s ward, Isabelle, for help, and eventually they discover the truth about the old man. The automaton provides an essential clue, and, in the movie, it’s fascinating to watch the thing at work. This one, of course, is a special effect, but in their day, such mechanical marvels really did do some amazing things.

Scorsese, of course, tweaks the story a bit. In the book, Hugo and Isabelle refuse to tell each other the obvious plot points until it becomes annoying. The movie lessens the need for this, but it also leaves out Isabelle’s slamming a door on Hugo’s hand, thus preventing him from winding the station clocks, which fall behind, which leads the Inspector to figure out Hugo’s secret, who then captures him. In the movie, Hugo’s capture stems from a different set of circumstances, but in this case, the book is better.

The book’s drawings gives us glimpses of 1930s Paris and Hugo’s world in the train station, but Scorsese’s use of 3-D immerses us. There are the usual 3-D gimmicks, of course – a guitar neck sticking out, a wrench falling from a great height and into the viewer’s face, a pendulum slicing into the frame, a locomotive engine careening out of control and into the audience. (The latter recalls an early silent, black-and-white film of a train pulling into a station that caused audience members to duck and scream. The bit is shown in Hugo, causing a few chuckles from the “sophisticated” modern audience, including one who almost shouted “Look out!” to a woman who he thought was about to be beaned by a meatball during a 3-D trailer for Cloudy with Meatballs.)

Scorsese goes beyond these gimmicks. We see ceilings high above us, the massive walls around us. We’re jostling among the travelers hurrying to meet a train, a scene which turns to terror for Isabelle when she’s knocked down and nearly trampled; we feel each jab in her ribs, wince at the sight of a foot aimed at her head. Scorsese knows how to use 3-D as a device to tell an entire story, not just make us dodge the occasional object. The storyteller again, gently lecturing us about the past and why it’s important to save it while entertaining us using all the tools he has available to him. For instance, when the kids climb high into a clock tower and gaze out over 1930s Paris at night – yeah, that’s real movie magic.

(The movie also does a better job with period costumes and architecture. Note to Selznick: If you’re going to use drawings to illustrate stories in historical times, a little research helps with the verisimilitude.)

And who is the filmmaker pioneer the book and movie are about? Well, reviewers already have let that cat escape from the bag, but if you don’t already know, go read the book or see the movie. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll actually learn something.

In an entertaining way, of course.

3 responses

  1. The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review.

    December 4, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  2. I want to see it. I just haven’t had time or the energy to drive into Santa Fe. Weather has been particularly awful. Btw, really like the white type on black background. Very readable.

    December 6, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    • See it when possible. In 3-D. And thanks for the readability comment, I was a bit concerned about the white-on-black.

      December 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

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