2011 has shaped up to be a strangely soulful year for cinema. There’s been a few thoughtful blockbusters, a number of small pictures breaking new ground, and this itch viewers (and creators) seem to have for movies about movies. The most high profile of these films are Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Both films come to theaters on the same opening weekend and each, on the surface, will certainly leave audiences skeptical about their prospects. However, the films are surprisingly compelling in their own ways. They are complex films to consider on their own but together they also provide great insights. One film is a thoughtful exploration of the nature of history, dreams and cinema as an art form tucked inside the casing of a children’s movie. The other is a frothy romantic love story, light on its toes, tucked inside the casing of an art film aesthetic.
Hugo has been championed as a children’s film yet the plot is so dense it’s virtually impossible to put to words. The film tells the story of a young boy named Hugo Cabret who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. He spends his days maintaining the clocks, a job he has inherited from his now deceased father and drunken uncle. Hugo encounters an old toy store owner, played crotchety by Ben Kingsley, who hires Hugo after catching him trying to rob rorm his shop. Hugo’s initial goal is to build an automaton left by his father, but the mechanism takes on a strange importance to the old man. The store owner turns out to be pioneer filmmaker George Melies, whose given up films and essentially given up on life. The second half of Hugo turns into a history lesson about movies as Hugo Cabret attempts to reinvigorate the old master’s love for the movies.
Martin Scorsese masterfully weaves a film that manages to use virtually every aspect of cinema’s potential. Told in 3-D, this film will convert many skeptics to the potential of this new format. Instead of just sticking 3-D images on the screen, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson gave the images a sense of aura. No frame goes unfilled, instead always adding literal layers to the depth of the atmosphere going on. Hugo is the first picture I’ve seen that I never want to watch in 2-D. The spaces are given breath when they are vast, as in the train station, but where the technology flourishes is in the intimacy of Hugo’s smallest areas, such as his apartment in the walls. 3-D actually has as much potential to heighten intimacy as it does to give greater breath to the scope of an image. Perhaps 3-D’s greatest asset is how it brings the viewer closer to the subjects on screen. Thank Martin Scorsese for teaching us this.
Besides the exquisite cinematography, Scorsese also brings his storytelling back to a very innocent form. There are moments, such as the station inspector timidly approaching the flower girl, that are handled with the moment to moment detail of a silent picture. The races through the train station are also ripped right out of Buster Keaton movies, fit with pratfalls and sight gags. Unlike The Artist, Hugo’s referential nature is not portrayed as pastiche but instead woven into a film that openly expresses its love affair with the history of cinema.
The part of movies that American tend to avoid entirely is their ability to create essay structures about a given subject. Somehow, Hugo manages to write itself a knowledgeable textbook entry about the history of movies. Many will not know the story of George Melies and fewer would have cared to hear about it prior to this film. However, the package Scorsese creates effectively explores the notion of a dream, allowing us to feel that innocent sense of discovery and invention that met moviegoers a century ago as the form began to take its shape. Scorsese actually stuffed a very heady history lesson into his two hour 3-D adventure film. The approach will be seen by some as unwieldy or “incomplete,” yet to me it perfectly conveyed the exact dreamlike structure that Scorsese tries to comment upon.
Hugo is the kind of film that will divide viewers. Some will be turned off by its seemingly laborious gushing over the purest pleasures of cinema. Many people just go to the movie to see a bunch of stuff happen and then leave. For others, movies are a complete window to the world. They can document the most realistic crevasses of human life while also imaginatively painting a fantastical portrait of dreams. Unlike any other art form, cinema combines elements of music, painting, motion, drama and more to elevate viewers into a sweeping level of reverie. Movies are a serious matter for Martin Scorsese, hence why even in all its joy, Hugo remains a smart and knowing picture.
The Artist, a French production, takes on that time in Hollywood when silent movies abruptly died, dragging with them, the grandiose stars of the era. At that point new stars, with classic voices, rose from the bottom up, stealing away the glory once obtained by the older icons. This plotline is literally the exact one that The Artist purports, with only the romantic addition of the fact that an old silent star helps a young starlet begin her career only to be usurped by her. But the actress doesn’t forget the kind gesture and winds up helping the old man rise back to fame. It’s simple, concise, and handled as is silent films were never actually all that intelligent.
The Artist takes on a similar topic to Hugo but provides a polar opposite experience. Where Hugo invents a world entirely unseen in an effort to give a meta-history lesson about a specific subject and, in turn, relates the pleasures of that subject via similar methods, The Artist simply pretends to be about silent movies and the simplicity associated with them. I find it interesting that The Artist, a picture whose plot can be summed up far more easily than that of Hugo, has captivated so many adults. What does The Artist actually say and why was it made? To me, the film plays like a referential pastiche gimmick that’s allure rest solely on the comfort it provides the viewer.
The Artist is not a bad movie. In fact, The Artist offers us a nice social look at where seemingly intelligent viewers find their kicks. It’s in black and white and almost completely silent, yet, the story itself has a much simpler tone than almost any legitimate silent film. Take, for example, The Passion of Joan of Arc, an artistically rendered retelling of a classic story that utilized the uncomfortable intimacy of the close up to become what is still the very best cinematic representation of the tale. That film wasn’t trying to “be a silent film” but instead trying to use the creative devices afforded its art form to tell the most effective narrative possible.
What hurts The Artist is that, in some ways, it’s actually quite disrespectful of the pure powers of the silent cinematic image. Hugo absolutely loves what movies are capable of but understands that at the core you need to have something unique and interesting to say. The Artist thinks of itself as above a medium that it essentially parodies for two hours.
The shining points of the film are in its technical achievements. The costumes, especially the meticulously crafted dresses, are a remarkable sight, rising out of the black and white to sparkle with a wonder that probably affected viewers in the 1920s and 1930s. The music, while what you’d expect from a silent pastiche, is fresh and new. Without the score to carry a piece like this, The Artist could have been a mercilessly boring experience. Instead, the film hits all the notes like a good carbon copy should. The performances are sturdy. I didn’t find myself as charmed by the relationship of the leads as many will but they do certainly have a sense of chemistry.
Someone recently told me that The Artist reminded her of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. Besides this being categorically ridiculous, the real issue is that Trouble in Paradise was made in 1931 and The Artist was made in 2011. One was telling a wonderfully giddy story of two lovers who are each too egotistical to realize they are meant for each other. The simplicity was due to limitations of the form, yet the developments were the new discoveries of the time. Trouble in Paradise was elevated by creative writing. Details abound in Lubitsch’s film and, like always, have a touch of grace that can’t simply be summed up. The Artist, on the contrary, is a referential experience.
Perhaps to some The Artist will play as a more digestible history lesson than Hugo. To me, the lesson learned from The Artist and Hugo is that the pleasures of cinema come from inventive thought not soulless renditions of the past.