Saturday, December 24, 2011


I wanted to discuss this here because I know Alek loved the film and will probably have some insightful things to say about it. Maybe he can help me and you see the light, because I didn't see what all the fuss was about at all. I went into the film knowing it was directed by Martin Scorsese, and from everyone I talked to was saying, it sounded like he'd made the next Black Stallion, E.T., or Babe - you know... really intelligently made and magical live action children's films.

But if it hadn't said Scorsese on the film anywhere, I would have sworn this had been directed by Chris Columbus. And no the circa Home Alone Chris Columbus. I'm talking the circa Harry Potter and Sorcerer's Stone Chris Columbus. The thing was painful. The story dragged, was filled with all those annoying plot devices that could be dissolved with a single real conversation, the acting was forced, the attempts at humor fell flat, and there were way too many uninspired chase scenes.

For me the only reason I'd recommend the film is for the flashbacks of George Melies in the studio. That was pure magic. I could have watched a whole film of that. Too bad those parts only totalled about 10 minutes, with the rest of the movie filled with shots of the actors trying to look really upset.

What's interesting is that I took my three older kids along to see it, and all of them loved it, and the oldest pontificated for a while afterwards about the themes and how Hugo helped Melies to see the value in his life and all that. So maybe Scorsese really was just aiming for a younger audience and wanted to make sure they got it.


  1. I’m sure you’ve heard the two things that everyone seems to say in their reviews: one) that The Invention of Hugo Cabaret was the perfect book for Scorsese to adapt because of his passion for early film and film preservation in general. And two) that it’s interesting that Scorsese’s first 3D venture is about one of the first pioneers in film effects. While these are both interesting facts, I think they are boring ones to focus upon. So let me try to tell you what I love about Hugo…

    Let me first say that I think all of the aspects of production were beautiful. Robert Richardson’s cinematography was charming and beautiful; the color palette was one of the most interesting ones I think I’ve seen in contemporary film. I recently discovered that the wide shots of Paris and the train station were designed to look like early experiments in color photography done by the Lumiere Brothers.

    The music by Howard Shore was, I hate to use these two adjectives again, charming and beautiful (what can I say? That’s what the film was to me…). The vibrato background of heavy strings gives the musical illusion of a cloud, and the high strings and accordion in the foreground present childhood wonder and mystery and awe in the world around us, while also giving a truly Parisian sound; all this is accompanied by a piano that is Liszt-like when it is slow, and sort of Cole Porter-esque when it is fast. All of these sounds synthesize to create something, dare I say it, dreamlike.

    And of course, the production design was superb, creating something completely equally fantastical as well as representative of culture in Paris in the 20’s. All around we see posters for films and hear French pop songs…you can even see James Joyce and Salvador Dali eating in a diner at some point (I only saw this when I was told it was there). But amazingly, these historical details don’t feel like dry details of the past, but add to feeling of magic that surrounds the train station.

    But your complaints mainly lie against the direction I take it? All right then, I am going to lay out what I believe to be the central theme in Hugo, and then I will try to address the problems you had with it…

    Theme: Film working symbiotically with humanity.

    I fondly remember a lesson you once taught me: that films are like parasites (they latch onto society and in turn affect society, and then later society gives birth to new cultural revelations that must be tackled by film and so on, so on). I believe this film makes a similar allegory: films are like machines. Contrary to how some may feel, this is not an insult. Films can truly enhance your life and help you gain perspective in this messy thing called life. In the moment, the world may seem chaotic and in disarray…order is seemingly absent. But film has always helped me put a frame around things so I could see the ironies and the correlations in this world. Film can be a glimpse of how fate works, a small look at the gears and clockwork of existence. And I truly believe that this insight has changed me, that the lessons cinema has taught me have made me a better human being. I hope this doesn’t seem to be a digression; I have presented this ideology because I believe that this way of thinking is at the forefront of Hugo’s philosophical framework.

    1. (The essay is broken up because it won't let me post it all at once)

      Many do not view film to be an art form, but more of a fad or a passing novelty, like the automaton in Hugo (a machine in man’s image, mind you). The machine is left in a museum, untouched, unkempt, unloved, and broken…it is simply there to be eventually forgotten and rot away (a clear metaphor for film preservation). Hugo’s father and Hugo take it upon themselves to fix it and make it work again, and as you remember, Hugo’s father dies in a fire that destroys the museum (where the automaton would surely have been destroyed if it were left there, this is reminiscent of the vault fire of 1937 that destroyed most of Fox’s pre-1935 film prints which are now lost forever). The machine becomes Hugo’s last connection with his father as he desperately tries to fix it (just as old film has become our time’s greatest connection with our past in the 20th century). At Hugo’s low point, he even begins to submit to the idea that the automaton is nothing more than a rusted pile of parts. But after care and effort, the machine is fixed. When fully repaired, it begins to draw a message (the track of music that plays here is even called The Message). Just as when we take the time to try to engage in the films we watch we can learn so many things…you’re old film professor, Dean Duncan, brings up this idea a lot in his book.

      I bring up the automaton as one allegory in the film that represents this theme, but it prevalent all over. Even the Station Inspector’s subplot with his broken leg: the gears at his knee work to hinder him through the entire film, and his outlook on life is stifled, and his personality has suffered because of it. However, when cared for, the device actually works and helps him through life (as shown when Hugo fixes it in the end)…and thus, by the end of the film he has indeed bettered himself as a person while his leg brace works symbiotically with him to help him walk; he even gets the girl in the end (which brings up another idea that I’ll get to later). And of course this theme is most prevalent in George Melies’ storyline. You’re son pontificated about how Hugo helped Melies see the value in life, a true and beautiful evaluation. I’m going to throw in a middle-man in that series of thoughts. Hugo helped Melies see the value in film again, which helped him see the value in life (also note how Hugo and Melies’ friendship begins when Melies has Hugo repair a mechanical mouse).

      If I’m correct in saying that the machines in the film represent cinema, then the poster says it all. Love is the key.

    2. Now let me try to address your concerns…


      “The thing was painful. The story dragged, was filled with all those annoying plot devices that could be dissolved with a single real conversation, the acting was forced, the attempts at humor fell flat, and there were way too many uninspired chase scenes.”

      Fair enough. If the film felt painful to you, there’s no way I can argue against that…it is what it is. Maybe the story did drag…maybe there were too many scenes with Hugo and Isabella going to bookstores and to a movie and walking and talking without any real plot progression. But it didn’t bother me. I was so charmed. I was too enraptured in the world and the experience and the ideas to worry about something as trivial as plot (I know I’m in the minority here, but I think that form is so much more powerful than plot, and this is a movie where form takes precedence). I thought the acting was great…it’s certainly over the top, but I think that really speaks to children the most, and the acting in films at the time was a very over-the-top style. I think that Asa Butterfield was a little wooden at times, but he’s a boy who lives in a train station…right? Who wouldn’t have a little bit of difficulty with social skills in that situation? Ben Kingsley was fantastic I thought…his frustration was so potent throughout the early film that when his joy returns at the end it was cathartic and euphoric for me. And Sacha Baron Cohen was one of my favorite parts; I thought he was charming and cartoony in just the perfect way.

      Maybe this next observation will change your mind about some of your complaints, or maybe not. I think it’s interesting that all of the subplots could be short films from the era. The old couple talking to each other, but the dog keeps attacking the man until he brings another dog and thus two romances are spawned as a conclusion. I could imagine that as turn-of-the century one-reeler. Same with the Station Inspector trying to woo the flower girl but fails because he is cruel and chases the orphan around (The Kid, anyone?). The gags in these parts are very much reminiscent of those silent shorts as well. The inspector tripping over the band and breaking the instruments, the dog biting the man’s leg, etc. You find the chase scenes uninspired, but I disagree…after all, most of the silent films of the time include comedic chase stations of someone with authority chasing a little rascal (almost all of Chaplin’s films as a matter of fact). Doesn’t a love letter of early film deserve to reference the content of its adoration? I think so, and I think it did so in a humorous, lovely, and delightful fashion.

      To be honest, none of the reasons I have given thus far truly explain why I love this film. I’m having a hard time describing it, myself. Think back to childhood: do you remember being truly enchanted by a film? So enchanted that you left the theater completely in love? So in love that your recesses and lunchtimes and walks home from school from that time on were entirely occupied by the world of that film? Instead of being a small child on a suburban sidewalk you were waving your wand and battling imaginary creatures, or searching for clues with a reading magnifying glass you took from your grandpa’s study…or you were shrunk and running from mice in the inner compartments your grandparent’s grandfather clock. You were transported elsewhere and felt such elated feelings that you couldn’t explain, and you didn’t need to. Nowadays, my childhood-self walking home on that suburban sidewalk seems as distant of a world as the magical castle of Hogwarts. Hugo is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that has reawaken those feelings that I forgot I had. And in the same way that I can’t really put my finger on what those feelings are, I can’t really explain all the reasons for my adoration of this film, because as much as I may try, a part of it will always be a mystery to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  2. All of your points make total sense, and I love the tie-ins you've mentioned about film and art and humanity, but I was just too hung up on the acting. I was thinking today that it seemed like a live action version of a Miyazaki film. Tons of similarities: independent child protagonist, no "villain" just difficult situations, charming old-world foreign setting, boy/girl relationships based on friendship rather than sexual attraction, etc. If the film had been made by Miyazaki, I probably would have loved it. All the overacting that is annoying in live action would have fit right in an animated film. Plus Miyazaki knows how to have fun and lighten up more than Scorsese does.