Monday, February 6, 2012

The Death of Cinema Redux: Martin Scorsese's Hugo



‘Fix it,’ says the shop owner to Hugo, handing him a small mechanical wind-up mouse covered with felt. The boy pulls out the coil, reaches for a small screwdriver and quickly restores the small toy to its original working condition. Then he and the man watch it as it pirouettes on the desktop, occasionally standing on its hind legs as if to sniff the air.

You can buy a replica of this toy for $29.50, but that’s not the perverse part. The perverse part is that the dance of the mechanical mouse was stop-frame animated by hand, using a technique roughly contemporary to the setting of the film. As Pixomondo’s visual effects supervisor Ben Grossman has explained to fxguide,
It was hand animated for hours and hours, so we could have done a totally CG mouse which would have been a piece of cake, which is what everyone would have expected, but instead we decided to make it an homage to classic technique.

Of course another option would have been to design, build and operate an actual mechanical mouse, but that wouldn’t have been inventive enough, nor a ‘homage’. So the filmmakers opted to create all this work for themselves. A labour of love, but labour nonetheless. Is cinema the only industry in which taking longer than necessary to do something is viewed as a virtue? And I don’t mean in the way that taking a long time to do something can lead to making a better product. Say: a good cheese, or one of those plasticine animations that Aardman no longer bothers to make. No: the labour here has a purely fetishistic function, it is the end in itself. A CG mouse would not only have been a piece of cake, it would have also most likely looked better on the screen, while the hand animation was jarring and odd, its imperfections not matching the analogue movements of a mechanical toy, which digital animators are by now notoriously adept at reproducing.


I would have much less of a problem with this if the film in question, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, had in fact been shot using early twentieth-century techniques throughout, making the bold aesthetic choice to reclaim the craft of innovative artisans such as Georges Méliès, the film's co-protagonist, or of clock-makers like the young lead of the title. (After all mechanical timekeeping is itself a quite obsolete technology.) But this is emphatically not the case. If you’re fond of staring at green screens, you can sit through this nearly ten-minute long clip on the extensive use of digital technology to craft almost all of the film’s major sequences, and you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m not suggesting that there is no artistry in that, nor that the use of computers devalues production design compared to the pioneering times of Georges Méliès. But neither do I think we can claim – as Hugo does; it’s in fact its overt thesis – that today’s cinema is the modern equivalent of the old one, just with updated technology. Méliès’ cinema was nothing like ours. It didn’t command big budgets, nor rely on a worldwide network of distribution, garner advance publicity or attract critical attention from the press. It was at once a new art form and a novelty, a thing to be experimented with, to be awed by and to scoff at. Reception is key to this difference: the famous (although possibly legendary) episode of the audience jumping out of their seats during the first screening of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is shown not once but twice in Hugo, begging the obvious retort that today’s 3D technology makes nobody jump out of theirs. We are now wise to the trickery, and even if we weren’t, the launch of every major film is preceded by videos on YouTube and news websites, or ‘making of’ featurettes on television, illustrating how the most spectacular sequences were shot and then transformed in post-production, often down to promoting the brand of software used. This would have been anathema to Georges Méliès, who had plied his trade as an illusionist. But it also exposes the peculiar obsession of contemporary cinema with demystifying itself at the same time as it seeks to persuade its audiences that they are going to witness a magic spectacle every bit as awe-inspiring and literally moving as those early films that made their naïve spectators run for their lives.

Of course there is no rewinding the mechanical clock to those pioneering years, if only because we cannot make audiences unlearn the art of watching films, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s history. However the relationship with that history, and with the passage of time more generally, is precisely the issue with Hugo.


The myth of origin created by Scorsese is blatantly dishonest: what drove Méliès out of business wasn’t the fact that WWI spoiled the taste of the public for his flights of fancy; it was the workings of the burgeoning film industry, and in particular the monopolistic practice of the rental system, to whose demands Méliès was never quite willing or able to adapt. More generally (and, one might argue, inevitably): what killed early experimental films and drove its makers out of business was the film industry that now produces the films of Martin Scorsese.

That the manipulation of the father-figure of Méliès and of the record is achieved through massive industry financing and the deployment of the latest computer technologies, with the odd piece of old-fashioned bricolage thrown in to appeal to the obsessively nostalgic, is neither surprising nor new, and speaks directly to Paolo Cherchi-Usai’s indictment of digital ideology in the cinema in a book whose preface, ironically enough, was written by none other than Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese the passionate campaigner for film preservation doesn’t see the contradiction in making a movie in which the films of Georges Méliès are digitised, transformed to include the character played in Hugo by Helen McCrory and made tri-dimensional – as if they needed to be updated in order to be shown at all – at the same time as they are held as the thing that is authentic, the objective Real that modern cinema is founded upon and should seek to return to.

Subsuming and processing the past like that, be it historical or artistic/literary, is what contemporary cinema does best through the digital (how to forget or indeed forgive that Hugo’s co-producer Johnny Depp was involved in what is without a doubt the wrongest of these films?) But I don’t mean to suggest that Hugo’s flaws are confined to a meta-level accessible only to the humourless critic, for one would be remiss not to note its thematic incoherence and dramatic weakness, leading to constant interruptions as the director phones to tell you what the film is about.

(‘Fix it’, says Méliès to Hugo. Fix my toy. Make this machine that no longer delights work again. And Hugo obliges. The broken toy is cinema, and what fixes it are child-like wonder and a pure heart. Etcetera.)


The problem in fact is that the meta-level is what Hugo is about, which is to say that its intent is to function as propaganda. As James Cameron – who must have some sort of global contract clause requiring that he be thrust in front of a camera with the director of every new film shot in 3D – has said to Scorsese: ‘Your film is about the magic of cinema, and the movie is magical to watch’. It is important that we believe this, and that’s what those ‘making of’ shorts and shot-by-shot analyses are designed to achieve. It doesn’t matter that they give away the trick, because a filmmaker’s job no longer resembles that of the illusionist. In front of an illusionist, the audience is meant to wonder: How did they do this? In the cinema, we know how they did it: nine times out of ten, they used computers, which is very much like saying that a wizard did it. If anything, knowing the trick, understanding how a piece of illusion was crafted, might make a sequence seem more real.

But that the film is magical to watch is the whole point. You must enjoy yourself. As I’ve had occasion to argue, this is close to a universal moral imperative these days, as well as being regarded as a form of labour. Yet shifting the emphasis suggests another way of reading the phrase: You must enjoy yourself. You are the ghost in the machine, and the machine is cinema. John Logan’s screenplay puts it in the mouth of Méliès himself:
If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, this is where they are made.
This is nonsense of the highest order, and could only come from a culture intoxicated by entertainment: we don’t dream in movies. But perhaps we do need to be convinced that this cinema that treats the past like a wind-up toy, that is never about social classes, never about a history other than its own, this cinema obsessed with infantilising itself and its audiences is still relevant and interesting, somehow.





For a review that focuses on the thematic/narrative aspects of the film, as well as the association between spectacle and authority, see Aaron Bady's remarkable Martin Scorsese Started the Fire: Hugo and The Bad Thing. Plus with any luck if you hated this post you might hate his as well and I might take less heat.

Edit: If you want somebody else to hate, see also Lili Loofbourow's taglines for Hugo. My favourite: Victor, H.G. and Jules agree: “all of the steampunk, none of the calories!”



23 comments:

merc said...

This cinema must at all costs be liked.

Dan Slevin said...

Actually, Aardman are still hand-making plasticine features and shorts. Pirates! Band of Misfits is out here on 5 April and they just made a superhero short to promote Cartoon network: http://spinoff.comicbookresources.com/2012/01/24/aardman-takes-on-superheroes-and-joker-in-dc-nation-short/

PeaceLove said...

Same planet different consciousness, I guess. I thought Hugo was an astonishing masterwork by a mature artist at the height of his powers. Hugo is about LOVE in all its forms: love of cinema, love of family, the first stirrings of romantic love and the possibility of love regained. Scorsese's visual and thematic control is unmatched; few living filmmakers could have pulled off that virtuoso piece.

I was once in the thrall of academic film criticism, much like you and @zungazunga. I hope one day you both recover so you can distinguish Art from whatever it is you think Hugo is. :)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Actually, Aardman are still hand-making plasticine features and shorts.

I stand happily corrected. Not that I minded their digital films, but the plasticine work was something else.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@zungazunga

It's @zunguzungu. I feel a strong need to correct that.

Ben Wilson said...

But that the film is magical to watch is the whole point. You must enjoy yourself. As I’ve had occasion to argue, this is close to a universal moral imperative these days, as well as being regarded as a form of labour.

It sure can feel like labour in some films. But then the question gets asked "why did you bother if you didn't like it", to which I have no reply. "To see just how shit they can really make it?" doesn't feel right.

I've had to force myself through any "children's" film with Johnny Depp in it, recently. Pirates aren't meant to be effeminate, Willy Wonka was not meant to be disturbingly creepy, and the characters in Alice weren't meant to be cheezed up, they were just puzzles to be quickly moved on from.

To even choose a guy whose main point was that he was a pretty boy in the 1980s shows who his presence in modern children's productions is aimed at. His hammy acting can be explained as appealing to children, like a clown (which most kids I know don't really like much).

To then add a ton of effects to overcompensate for poor casting and awful scripting doesn't really work on kids - they don't even see the significance of the CG, it's normal to them, not even noticed.

I did enjoy Avatar when it came out, the 3D was very well done, and somewhat novel. But it's been hard to rewatch. The story isn't good, and the dialog is a real weakness. I'm starting to see 3D for what it is - practically the only reason to go to a cinema now. The only thing about the modern cinema experience that makes it better than staying at home and watching the same kind of movies for a 1/50th of the cost.

I have 2 Gold Class tickets given to me for my birthday. That was 3 months ago, but I still haven't found any inclination to use the tickets, since it will be a one-time thing - I can't imagine ever buying such a thing for myself. Only Tintin came close to getting me in, but I fear it will actually outrage me and make the experience unpleasant. Perhaps I'll save them for The Hobbit, which isn't a story I have any personal attachment to (unlike LOTR), kidding myself that some of the ticket value will stay in the country.

This is nonsense of the highest order, and could only come from a culture intoxicated by entertainment: we don’t dream in movies.

Speak for yourself. I've been dreaming in most of the movies I've seen recently :-) It's quite scary that I actually fall asleep unwillingly watching anything from Hollywood. But also handy, considering how my brain goes into the opposite state when dealing with practically everything I engage with on the internet. If I use the internet at night, I can't sleep, and Hollywood has helped with that.

But yes, my dreams are much more interesting (to me) than most movies.

James Butler said...

I liked the film very little, as previously discussed - I thought it was Oscar bait at its most blatant, a film about the wonder of films, for people who like films. I very rarely like films, which leads to the thing that galls me the most - that I squandered a gifted film voucher on going to see it, based on glowing reports from various respected reviewers (again, people who like films).

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm starting to see 3D for what it is - practically the only reason to go to a cinema now.

I had mostly found the 3D annoying until now but I must say that in Hugo it's truly excellent, and you forget it's there - in a good way. (Apart from when they show the Méliès films to the 1930s audience in 3D. Grrr.)

As for it being the reason to go to the cinema, though, I don't know. I saw Tinker Tailor last month, with its grainy stock and in 2D, and I can't imagine that it would have had the same effect on me on television. And I still am quite attached to some aspects of the experience - the dark room, the fact that you can't stop or start the picture, the booming sound. To me that's cinema, and cinema on television is not qutie the same thing.

(Speaking of: they tell me that the Auckland film society is showing The Consequences of love in 35mm. You lucky bastards.)

But yes, my dreams are much more interesting (to me) than most movies.

One thing about the dream-factory rhetoric that Hollywood mythologisers might not have sufficiently thought through is that most dream are forgotten as soon as you wake up.

merc said...

Unless you live them (dreams).

Oferk, actually not what you'd think.

Ben Wilson said...

As for it being the reason to go to the cinema, though, I don't know.

I don't either, really. As a child, I remember that the Civic theater in Auckland was an experience all on its own. Sitting in small darkened rectangular room, with the screen as the only thing to look at, as nearly all cinemas are now, doesn't give me the vibe.

I should probably go to indie cinema more. That might rekindle something. But curiously, the people at them are what puts me off - to me cinema was not an elitist thing. That feels as much like a force mediating my experience as anything else, a weirdly self-conscious feeling of lack of solidarity with the people around me. I presume they feel the same way in mainstream cinema.

Ben Wilson said...

One thing about the dream-factory rhetoric that Hollywood mythologisers might not have sufficiently thought through is that most dream are forgotten as soon as you wake up.

Not sure. The opiate quality of their entertainment might be quite conscious. If memory of something is sufficiently disrupted, it could mean more repeat uses, rather than less, because you also can't remember the lengthy part of the movie that you hated.

Rather like gambling, in that respect - the infrequent parts that are actually good mean you forget (or at least your behaviour is not altered, which is more important) that most of the experience is a real drudge.

Or like WoW, most of the activity in it is so repetitive and boring, but every time you level up you get a hit of "ah, the last 7 hours of doing the same things over and over were worth it". Players even call it "grinding", to actually play the game.

Giovanni Tiso said...

James

based on glowing reports from various respected reviewers (again, people who like films).

One of my pet peeves is that technology columns are almost always given to technology enthusiasts, leading to the vortex of hype around electronic gadgetry that afflicts us. But sometimes I wonder if it might be a good idea to hire the odd sceptic in other areas as well. A book reviewer who hates literature or a film reviewer who hates cinema might have the occasional interesting or illuminating thing to say.

James Butler said...

a film reviewer who hates cinema might have the occasional interesting or illuminating thing to say

Just saying: my rates are very reasonable.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It should be painfully clear by now that I'm not the person who hands out publishing jobs in this country.

Ben Wilson said...

I can see the flaw in the business model. Haterz do it for free anyway, and no-one making the stuff is going to pay for hate. Maybe they might pay to hate on other works.

But it's the freely given hate I trust more. Professional haters are so insincere.

Stephen Parkes said...

(Speaking of: they tell me that the Auckland film society is showing The Consequences of love in 35mm. You lucky bastards.)

It's screening in Wellington, too, 30 April.

http://www.filmsociety.wellington.net.nz/screenings.htm

David W. Kasper said...

Great post. Scorsese's career has taken a curious turn in the past two decades. He really has become overwhelmed by 'dream factory' hogwash. His obvious yearning for Oscars with every film (its in the casting, the Hollywood-approved 'universal' themes) has made them strangely flat and forgettable. I detect a strange class insecurity in all this, as though universal acclaim from a young age wasn't enough - he wanted to be 'in' something too, a need to be as welcomed into the Hollywood establishment as Spielberg. His Howard Hughes film had the curious distinction of making a truly bizarre, sinister plutocrat into a bland 'dreamer' (leaving out what was most interesting about him - see the Tommy Lee Jones version for a better handle on Hughes). Gangs of New York took incredible source material, and veered way too close to 'Titanic' territory.

It might be a cliche to point out where he was most at 'home' (mostly post-WW2 New York), but the nagging question from his recent films is: Why is he trying so hard to run away from it now? And more to the point, where does he want to end up?

Richard said...

I've had to force myself through any "children's" film with Johnny Depp in it, recently. Pirates aren't meant to be effeminate, Willy Wonka was not meant to be disturbingly creepy, and the characters in Alice weren't meant to be cheezed up, they were just puzzles to be quickly moved on from.

To even choose a guy whose main point was that he was a pretty boy in the 1980s shows who his presence in modern children's productions is aimed at. His hammy acting can be explained as appealing to children, like a clown (which most kids I know don't really like much).

To then add a ton of effects to overcompensate for poor casting and awful scripting doesn't really work on kids - they don't even see the significance of the CG, it's normal to them, not even noticed.


What makes you think children are the intended audience for any of these movies?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't mean to answer for Ben, but based on the observation that the only people whose intelligence doesn't get insulted by Hollywood these days are children, I'd say that Alice isn't a children's movie.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It's screening in Wellington, too, 30 April.

I'll be in Italy. Oh, the irony!

Giovanni Tiso said...

I detect a strange class insecurity in all this, as though universal acclaim from a young age wasn't enough

The late films of Fellini, another child prodigy, also read as elegies to himself via the device of being elegies for cinema, especially La voce della luna.

Ben Wilson said...

What makes you think children are the intended audience for any of these movies?

I'd say children are intended to be at the movies, to legitimize the parent wanting to see them. That way they sell a family ticket, collecting double the box office.

Ben Wilson said...

Actually, probably more than doubling it, because the kids will insist on food. They may also demand to play video games beforehand. Which is probably the most actual fun they will have.

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