“…The train in the La Ciotat station still keeps arriving, a century later. It’s still possible to put oneself in the position of the frightened spectator, which means that there is something in cinema that is of the past but not past” –Serge Daney
Cinema is always in a state of change. Consequences of this constant flux become more obvious in retrospect, as movements come and go and film form evolves. One of the clearest indications of cinema’s major shifts lies in its technological advancements. Today’s changes are anything but subtle—we can notice them as they occur before us. Regardless of where one stands on the topic of cinema’s health as an art form, it can be agreed that it is going through some of its most monumental changes. Indeed it is even technically switching mediums, as the digital revolution is rendering celluloid obsolete. The utterances of “the death of cinema” seem to come in greater number as a result, but maybe it is yet another case that illustrates people fear what they do not understand. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), new technology is revealed to be not a danger but a challenge, and an opportunity to explore new potential in filmmaking. The essentials of film form established over a century ago remain intact, and Hugo acknowledges this while also expanding cinema’s capabilities. In the film, Scorsese interlaces the history of silent cinema with what is one of his most personal stories.
Notably, Scorsese is America’s foremost cinéaste. He is a hardcore cinephile, probably the most outspoken of the kind, who knows and deeply cares about the history of cinema. His cinema-centric documentaries and involvement with the Film Foundation attest to this. The story of this family fantasy film concerns a young orphaned boy living in a train station in Paris. It integrates the true story of Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley)—the pioneer of fantasy and, even fiction, cinema—into its narrative. The history of early cinema becomes a key element of the movie, with references to the likes of the Lumière Brothers, Edwin S. Porter, Harold Lloyd, and D.W. Griffith, to name a few. This makes for a most peculiar marriage between form and content, in which the newest cinema technology—Hugo is shot in 3D on the Arri Alexa, a state of the art digital camera—is used to tell a story about the oldest. In doing this, Martin Scorsese is bridging the gap between the beginnings of cinema to now, as the aforementioned changes revolutionize the medium. Moreover, he is bridging the gap between the era of celluloid to the era of digital, and emphatically trying to establish and maintain cinema’s lineage in a new age.
At its core, Hugo is a love letter to the cinema in general: its magic; its intangibility; and its capabilities. However, the film is aggressive in integrating silent film history, making Hugo not just a love letter but also a plea. Scorsese wants to reintroduce these works into public consciousness, and to reinforce their integrality. There is a digression completely devoted to silent era history, during which Scorsese appropriates images from The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920), The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921), The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926), and Pandora’s Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929), among others. To see these films on a big screen in a multiplex in 2011 is no less than a small miracle, and Scorsese’s insistence on explicitly sharing these films, their images, and their history, reveals that his intentions are more complex then just paying homage. The gesture is a noble one, unheard of in contemporary mainstream cinema, in which the history of movies forms the core of the film, and the audiences’ participation in appreciating this history is an experience built into the narrative. This is a bold artistic decision. Hugo is no small film: at a budget estimated at 170 million dollars, it is Scorsese’s most costly film. Surely, fellow cinephiles will revel in Hugo’s ciné-centric content, but Scorsese clearly hopes to convert those less familiar with cinema. In wrapping this dose of cinephilia in the context of a whimsical, adventurous film, Scorsese actually may succeed in this ambition. In one sequence, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is the goddaughter of Méliès in the picture, uncover a book on early cinema history at the Film Academy Library, and an astonishing montage of the aforementioned films flashes by. The two young characters are dazzled by what they have unearthed, at the history at their feet. The effect had on them by the book is in essence had on the audience by Scorsese’s intense editing. The sequence evokes Woodrow Wilson’s supposed quote upon seeing Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1914), in which he remarked that the film was “like writing history with lightning”. Here, Scorsese seems to be doing just that—a lightning history montage.
Hugo accurately traces Méliès’ history with cinema, beginning with his days as a magician at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin who attended the first Lumière Bros. screening in Paris in 1895. Méliès tried to acquire a cinématographe, the all-purpose movie-creating device that the Lumière Brothers invented. It could film, print, edit and project (with slight modifications), and was the most impressive early motion picture camera. Scorsese portrays Méliès’ first encounter with cinema, as he discovers Arrival of a Train at a Station (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895), and immediately is drawn to this new medium—right then and there an artist and his art form are bound (look for a cameo from Michael Pitt in this scene). Determined, Méliès created his own camera by modifying a projector, although, for metaphorical purposes, Scorsese changes this detail. He saw film as a new sort of magic, and was the first to explore its possibilities of making the impossible possible. He is rightly linked to contemporary filmmakers like James Cameron, for being the pioneer of camera tricks and special effects, but that attribution is too limiting. Disparate viewers, such as popular audiences, science-fiction fanatics, surrealists and avant-gardists have revered Méliès—a testament to his legacy. Notably, experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage claimed ”I took my first senses of the individual frame life of a film from Méliès”1. Ultimately, Méliès was cinema’s first storyteller, and many of his innovative techniques forwarded film form, regardless of genre. Hugo lovingly recreates his Star Films Studio, which along with Thomas Edison’s Black Maria, was the first of its kind. Its greenhouse like design made it possible to film with natural light, but notably, by 1897, Méliès “may have been the only filmmaker in the world to have photographed under artificial light”2. He “was responsible for the development of the cinematic tradition of the trick film”3, but his innovations were instrumental in the early exploration of the medium, and all filmmakers, not just those whose specialty is in the fantastic, are ancestors of Méliès. Scorsese uses this notion to make Méliès into a metaphorical presence in Hugo.
Sadly, there is a fall that followed Méliès’ rise, when his films were neglected after WWI and he destroyed much of his equipment in a fit of despair, turning his back on the cinema. A sequence in which Méliès recounts the details of his life and career creates some of the film’s most emotional moments, and it is where one of Scorsese’s central ideas is located. The majority of Méliès’ films (he made hundreds) were lost, and after he gave up filmmaking he opened a toyshop in Gare Montparnasse, where Hugo is set. In the film, Méliès desperately tries to forget the past, but Hugo and Isabelle discover his identity. This rediscovery of his past and his work rejuvenates him and restores meaning to his life. Méliès, who symbolizes cinema’s past, is used to illustrate the dire importance of appreciating the history of filmmaking and therefore in film preservation. Scorsese articulates the need to preserve film in a literal sense, but also in terms of restoring it to public consciousness. The fragility of celluloid has always made it a vulnerable material, but fragile also are the memories of cinema, with an equal need of protection. In Hugo, initially A Trip to the Moon (1902) is the only film of Méliès remaining—he had sold many of his prints, which were made into shoe heels, and the rest were thought lost. At the end of the film, after Méliès is rediscovered, over eighty of his films are found. He presents an evening of his newly found films to an appreciative audience and then a montage of his works ensues. Scorsese pays tribute to Méliès not just by showing his films, but in a generous gift renders the montage in 3D, with countless Méliès films shown in a way like never before, including A Nightmare (1896), The Music Lover (1903), and of course, A Trip to the Moon, with the iconic shot of the rocket hitting the man in the moon’s eye wonderfully reinvented. The sequence is another small miracle, and a deeply moving gesture. Doubtlessly, Méliès, would have been delighted to see his films in this way, and to know that he was being appreciated and discovered by audiences so many years after his time. As far as being a tribute to Méliès, Hugo is most successful for being made with his spirit of invention and imagination. In a broader sense, Hugo is impressive for balancing this intention with different allegorical layers.
Film history lives and breathes in the compositions of Hugo, whether Scorsese is explicitly appropriating images from other films, or more subtly quoting them. The mesmerizing shots of 1930s Paris are a digital channeling of Rene Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930). The image of Hugo hanging from a clock hand, now made iconic by the film’s poster, is an obvious quotation of Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923). At one point of the film, Hugo and Isabelle actually sneak into a screening of the Harold Lloyd classic. These references are woven into the language of the film. At one point, when Scorsese wants to communicate the devastation of WWI and a sense of hopelessness, he cuts to a Max Linder movie poster in the rain, evoking the iconic silent star’s post-war depression and suicide. Scorsese exploits the famous anecdote of how the first cinema audiences reacted to Arrival of a Train by gasping and trying to move out of the way. Using the 3D effect, he revives this sensation for 21st century audiences when a train comes charging towards Hugo and barrels through Gare Montparnasse. Simultaneous with this reverence for early cinema is Scorsese’s exuberant, even experimental, exploration of new technology.
Hugo reveals 3D’s ability to strengthen and expand film form with new possibilities of depth and movement. Indeed, Hugo is by far the most sophisticated 3D film yet made, but Scorsese finds himself in a position not so dissimilar to Méliès, in which he has the opportunity to invent new ways to make movies and to tell stories. Thus, the film’s retrospective concerns are beautifully melded with Scorsese’s willingness to explore cinema’s future. This gap bridging of early to new cinema and from old to new technology in effect transcends these very conceptions. The changes undergone by cinema do not separate it from its past—It is almost a Malickian notion, but applied to the whole of cinema rather than the whole of existence. The essence of cinema that was birthed in the flickering light of Arrival of a Train exists in Scorsese’s digital, 3D images of a different train arriving, over a century later.
Two examples of 3D effects in particular find Scorsese not just modifying form but also adding to the vocabulary of film. In one unsettling close-up of Sacha Baron Cohen, as the Station Inspector, his face slowly moves closer and closer to the camera, and consequently closer to the audience. His face intrudes a zone of space normally left free between viewer and film. The effect is discomforting, and completely new. Calling it a close-up does not suffice. It is a new shot in film grammar, an “extreme foreground close-up”. Another example of 3D innovation comes in the application of a dolly zoom. The effect of a dolly zoom, depending on its execution can be subtle or pronounced. Take for instance its original usage in Vertigo (1958), in which it is a shocking gesture meant to communicate the vertigo experienced by the film’s protagonist. Next, consider the more subtle usage in Scorsese’s own Goodfellas (1990), in the wide two-shot that slowly dolly zooms in on Robert de Niro and Ray Liotta at a diner table. In Hugo, Scorsese uses a relatively slow dolly zoom towards the end of the film, for a shot of Méliès on stage. The effect of the camera move is transformed. Nowhere near subtle, it actually provokes a physical response to the confusing distortion of planes of vision, as the foreground and background interact with greater prominence. 3D does indeed add a new dimension to filmmaking, and Scorsese’s innovative use of 3D form could be used for any type of film, be it a family film like Hugo or a serious adult drama. When asked whether he would like to make movies in 3D for now on, Scorsese said:
“Quite honestly, I would. I don’t think there’s a subject matter that can’t absorb 3D; that can’t tolerate the addition of depth as a storytelling technique. We view everyday life with depth. I think certain subject matters aren’t meant for 3D but you have to go back to Technicolor; when it was used in 1935 with Becky Sharp, [directed by Rouben Mamoulian], for about 10-15 years, Technicolor was relegated to musicals, comedies and westerns. It wasn’t intended for the serious genres, but now everything is in color. And so it’s just a different mindset. Granted once the technology advances and you can eliminate glasses that are hindrances to some moviegoers, so why not? It’s just a natural progression.”4
With all these innovative touches, Hugo is nevertheless easily identified as a “Scorsese Picture”. Several recurring motifs from his work are present, the film’s overt stylization link Hugo to the creative peak Scorsese reached during the early nineties, from Cape Fear (1991), through The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), to Kundun (1997). Arguably, this streak of films makes for the most robust demonstration of formal excellence in Hollywood filmmaking history. That Hugo is a family film should be not a deterring factor. Scorsese has always worked with different genres, oftentimes blending different ones together. Undeniable in Hugo is Scorsese’s personal stamp, and what lies at its very heart, his quasi-autobiographical presence within the film.
Like with many of Scorsese’s films, he locates himself within it. Hugo is a lonely character, isolated from the vast Paris that surrounds him, rendered as an infinite cityscape in the film. Scorsese was also isolated as a young boy, stricken by asthma that kept him from playing outside with other children. He developed his relationship with the real world and the people around him through cinema much like how Hugo watches the lives in the train station as if they were stories unfolding just for him. The shots from his point-of-view as he watches people usually have a frame within the frame, giving us a sense of his viewpoint and its similarity to a movie frame. Some sort of revolving gear frames Hugo’s eyes in one instance, as he peers from behind a clock, as if to simulate the shifting from frame to frame of celluloid moving through a projector—his personal moving pictures. Hugo peering from behind the clock at the station recalls the image of the young Henry Hill watching the gangsters from his window in Goodfellas. Hugo has a special relationship with cinema. His father used to take him to movies on his birthday. When Hugo and Isabelle sneak into Safety Last, one image is just of the projector light, which in 3D radiates beyond the screen, basking the audience. Then in an image that has recurred in Scorsese’s films, such as The Aviator and Kundun, the characters are framed with the projector’s light radiating right behind them. Speaking of Kundun, it bears mentioning that that film was actually the first of Scorsese’s to feature images from Georges Méliès. In one sequence, the Dalai Lama’s first encounters with movies are portrayed, and he too forms much of his relationship with the world through the moving image.
A key element yet unmentioned in the film is the automaton that Hugo is trying to fix—A broken mechanical figure discovered by his father. When it is introduced in the film, Hugo sits down next to the automaton and a series of flashbacks explain what happened to him and his father. The distinct whirring of a projector running a film plays on the soundtrack, and light flashes on the automaton as Hugo remembers these moments, implying the figure’s figurative relation to cinema—ultimately it is articulated as an instrument that transcends isolation. The automaton links Hugo to his father; his memories; Isabelle, who possesses its key; and Méliès, its original maker. Essentially it establishes all meaningful connectivity he has to the people and world around him. The importance of relationships and their connection to movies is highlighted by warm gestures linked to cinema experience—when Isabelle places her hand on her Godmother’s shoulder after watching a film, or when she thanks Hugo for showing her Safety Last, referring to it as “a gift”. For Scorsese, cinema is everything, but nothing without people. Richard Brody of The New Yorker labels the automaton as “a kind of living cinema”, and like with Scorsese and cinema, Hugo “keeps and fixes” the automaton5. It is even with parts from the automaton that Méliès built his first movie camera. This object, then, is one of the principal metaphors of the film, and injects the final shot with mysterious power, as the automaton stares into the audience (framed not unlike the final shot of Casino, but with opposing emotional connotations), and the relationship between creator, viewer and cinema culminates with unification. The cinema is reborn here, but it is neither the first nor the last time. Cinema, as with art, as with life, is of a cycle without ending. Hugo is a marker of an immeasurable intangibility; it could be set at any point: cinema’s rebirth is a perpetual process. Like the automaton, it merely requires someone to tinker with its clockwork to keep it going. Be it through the eyes of the automaton or the eye left unmarked on the man on the moon, cinema and viewer watch one another, and through this mutual gaze form meaning. Such is Hugo, to make this dynamic explicit in its final moments. Although it is a film with several layers of meaning that contains within it cinema’s past, present and future, it is also a testament to the movies and how they matter to a man whose life intertwines with them, on screen and off.
It is also about cinema’s relationship to time. The machinery of the automaton, of cinema, is linked to the gears of clocks, and to the world as machine. Cinema is linked to memories, history and time. An important motif in the film is of the statues throughout the city. These works of art are foregrounded in the mise en scène as if they are watching over the film’s events. One statue points to the cinema as Hugo and Isabelle stand before it, and in one shot, Scorsese cuts from an extreme close-up on a pocket watch to a statue in the foreground that almost appears to be looking right at it. The link between art and time is expressed unequivocally.
In spite of its technological advancement and numerous transformations, cinema retains an essence and its connectivity to history. Hugo is a proclamation of cinema’s enduring power. Méliès’ films are still a pleasure to behold, and Scorsese wants to share this, both as a way of reintroducing early cinema into public consciousness and also to signal the need to preserve and honour these and other vulnerable works. As Scorsese himself says, “…Movies are the memories of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive”6. Scorsese embraces the new digital era of filmmaking, but Hugo beckons for this new age to be film conscious even as cinema expands, worlds apart from its origins. By appropriating images from the works of Méliès, Porter, Griffith and others, the presence of early cinema in present cinema is literalized, and Scorsese sustains the century-spanning lineage of the art form. The integration of Méliès’ story into Hugo further solidifies the significance of the relationships between history, fiction, creator, and viewer in what could be called the sociology of cinema. Like with the automaton, the clocks at the train station, and how Hugo sees the world, every piece has a purpose in order to make sure everything functions as a whole. This is no more intricate than the construction of Hugo itself, a film made beautiful by its invention, reinvention and regard for a past that ceaselessly informs all that has and will come, in cinema or otherwise.
1. Hammond, Paul. Marvelous Méliès, London: Gordon Fraser, 1974.
2. Frazer, John. Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of George Méliès. Boston Mass: Hall, 1979.
3. Popple, Simon, and Joe Kember. Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory. London: Wallflower, 2004.
4. “‘Hugo’ Helmer Martin Scorsese Ponders 3D Future And How ‘Taxi Driver’ Would Have Benefitted.” Interview by Mike Fleming. Deadline New York.
5. Brody, Richard. “”Hugo“: Martin Scorsese’s Cybercinema.” The Front Row. The New Yorker.