Oscarbation: Hugo Goes Digital to Save Analog

12/16/2011 8:58 AM |

Can you make it look like this?

  • “Try to make it look like this.”

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are winding their pocket-watches. This week they take Film History 101 with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Hey, Ben, it’s kind of surprising that Hugo has literary origins, wouldn’t you say? It’s such a tactile and mechanical film—it’s so cinematic! Such an ode to the analog, the industrial, the mechanical—clocks, cranks, gears, trains, robots—so possessed of a nostalgia for all things pre-digital. So, though it tells the story of post-heyday Georges Melies, and restores appropriate awe and majesty to the works of the Lumieres, Edwin Porter, the silent comedians, the silent beauties, and of course Melies, I’d say it’s less a love letter to cinema’s origins than to its foundations: to light, legerdemain, and whirligigs. Did you think it was funny then that some of the movie’s most magical moments—the dance of the wind-up mouse, the epic train-crash nightmare, the jaw-dropping opening shot—are obviously achieved with the help of computers?

Wait, Henry, I missed the part where “pre-digital” and “literary” became antonyms. Despite a passing reference to the title character’s namesake Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and the film’s obsession with the very French origins of cinema, Hugo struck me as covertly British. Casting Ben Kingsley as Méliès and Ali G as the station agent has something to do with this. But more fundamentally the set of characters who inhabit the station, and whose daily activities and interactions we observe via Hugo’s voyeuristic clock-concealed gaze, struck me as profoundly Dickensian. (Plus any period piece about orphans in a European city will invariably evoke Oliver.) But perhaps this dual nationality is a symptom of Hugo‘s schizophrenic relationship to technology, being the first foray by a history-obsessed filmmaker (Martin Scorsese) into the shit-hot cinematic technology of the day (3D). Likewise, the film has a deep reverence for books—the Hugo-Isabelle dynamic is very much a preteen cinephile-bookworm romance—as something fundamentally distinct from film. Rather, Hugo posits cinema as the next form of magic, making much of Méliès’s previous career as an illusionist. Maybe we could say, if we want to be spokespersons for 3D, that the computer-generated three-dimensional imagery upon which Scorsese relies so heavily to conjure the magic of cinema’s infancy is the next step in the accelerating sophistication of visual illusions begun over a century ago by magician-turned-auteur Méliès. So, to finally answer your question, the analog is now more readily conjured digitally through sound and image manipulation than through actual analog craftsmanship. What struck me, more than the digital-analog theme, was the film’s hybrid humanoids. Henry, what did you make of the ways in which Hugo projected its double-edged fear and fetishism of technology onto the human body?

Ben, I have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. But getting back to your discussion of Englishness, I think that’s easy—Americans have always cast Britons to play any European, even Russians. I also think you’re ignoring some of the more subtly embedded French signifiers—what about Howard Shore’s Bizet-inflected score? Or the way Hugo lives in the walls of Gare du Nord and scurries through its passageways to get a great view of the Eiffel Tower? Didn’t that make you think of Ratatouille? Hugo shares Pixar’s film’s adoration of the simple signifiers of France, like, accordions and hot jazz, or croissants, chichi canines, and a love of American movies. I guess there’s an Italian subtext, too, with that automaton who’s like a robot Pinocchio (aka A.I.). Is that what you were getting at, Ben? Do you want to talk about the ways in which Hugo projected its double-edged fear and fetishism of technology onto the human body?

Well shucks, Henry, I thought you’d never ask! All I meant was (takes deep breath) that there’s a great deal of technological anxiety playing out in John Logan’s adaptation of Brian Selzer’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) related to modern technology’s double-edged possibilities: it can conjure waking dreams like Méliès’ films and complex wonders like the automaton or the bustling train station that Hugo inhabits; but it can also be put to deadly use, evoked by the oft-mentioned trauma of the Great War. It’s all very Benjamin-ian (Walter, not Sutton). And these competing optimistic and pessimistic responses to modern technology play out most obviously in the characters of Méliès—able to create artificial life, but forced to abandon his profession as a master of artifice in the face of a staggering loss of life—and the station inspector. The latter is like a steampunk cyborg, a proto-Deckard with his mechanical leg and computer-like emotional simulations; ordered to smile he responds: “Which one, I have three.” He embodies both the devastating effects of modern warfare and the terrific possibilities of modern medicine. Given Hugo‘s cautious technophilia, what are we supposed to make of Hugo Sr.’s totally vague death in a museum fire? Is reverence for the past literally a death trap? But wait, I thought this was a film about film preservation. It’s a movie obsessed with time—before any images appear onscreen we hear the whirring cogs and gears of a mechanical clock—that evinces deep reverence for the past while fetishizing futurism. What do you make of this mixed-up treatment of time, Henry?

Well, Ben, I think time, like technology, is both friend and foe in Hugo. The movie realizes that time is essentially cinema’s subject, and that clocks have been a prominent motif throughout its history: Safety Last (a clip of which appears in the movie), Orson Welles’ The Stranger, and Back to the Future, just to name a few. (I mean, just think of how much material Christian Marclay had to work with!) But Scorsese recognizes that as much as time has been cinema’s friend, it’s also its archnemesis, right Ben? Time destroys film, either through gradually disintegration or as a result of historical progress and changing tastes, which is what leads Melies to sell his movies for scrap; they’re melted down into ladies’ heels! (As such, Scorsese smoothly advocates for his pet cause—film preservation.) But it’s also interesting, Ben, that time is not just the enemy of the art but also of the artist. Isn’t Hugo‘s emotional core the sadness befalling great artists and pioneers who fade into obscurity? It’s awfully moving when Melies finally gets his due near the end (like that time Doctor Who took van Gogh to see a present-day exhibition of his work at the Musée d’Orsay). Anyway, we’ve been talking a lot about boys; any thoughts about the film’s women?

They’re pretty marginal, Henry, basically supportive sidekicks for Hugo and Méliès. And, in subplots, objects of desire for the station agent and Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths). Hugo‘s women are aligned with an array of the most conventionally feminine spaces and activities imaginable: Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a bookish spinster-in-the-making; Lisette (Emily Mortimer) runs a flower stand; Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory), a former actress and magician’s assistant, is now a homemaker; and Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) sells coffees and croissants to throngs of featureless commuters. Even Hugo is partly feminized, making sure everything runs smoothly and on schedule at the station while remaining unseen, watching the action of modern (masculine) life as it scurries past. Hugo, in many ways, tracks its title character’s coming of age, his introduction into a starkly gendered world after growing up literally in-between—in the walls. Happily, Scorsese introduces a wrinkle to these conventional gender dynamics in the form of the automaton, whose features are clearly masculine—it is, after all, a stand-in for Hugo Sr.—but whose operating mechanism thoroughly feminizes it. In order to function, the steampunk humanoid requires a heart-shaped key (girliest MacGuffin ever?) for the corresponding keyhole in its back (recalling the more overtly sexualized plugs in eXistenZ). And who should provide said cardiac key (a necessarily phallic object), but Isabelle, who got it from Jeanne. See, it’s not all “Men tinker and women cook” in Hugo, which might be a problem since that seems to be what the Academy likes best.

2 Comment

  • re the music: Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” during Melies’ flashback sequence was prob. my favorite part of the movie. Is this music too played out? I still like it a lot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Xm7s9eGxU

    also I’d add – the 3D technology destroyed this movie. Marty, what were you thinking! just my personal opinion, don’t sue me…

  • We forgot to mention the funniest moment of the “Hugo” screening we attended when, after the nightmarish aftermath of a frightening dream sequence turned out to be another dream sequence, the preteen boy sitting behind us whispered to his friends: “Inception!”