Hugo [2011)

It’s hard to imagine that perfection would be possible in 2011.

In this very uncinematic era ruined by technology.

But it takes a genius to produce art from tech.

And it takes an artist to produce art.

Martin Scorsese was well up to the challenge.

As the weirdo I am, The King of Comedy has always been my favorite of his films.

Rupert Pupkin spoke to me in a way that perhaps only the totality of Dr. Strangelove ever similarly did.

But Mr. Scorsese had the brass to undertake a project which should have been doomed if only by its trappings.

Films have tried and generally failed at relative tasks.

City of Ember, for example.

But Scorsese was not deterred.

Not least because he had the magical trump card:  Méliès.

Which is to say, he had the story to end all stories (as far as cinema is concerned).

The big daddy.  The big papa.

Papa Georges.

But first things first…

We must give credit to Asa Butterfield (who looks like a cross between Barron Trump and Win Butler in this film).

Butterfield is no Mechanical Turk.

Nay, far from it.

But automata (or at least one particular automaton) play a large role in Hugo.

And why “Hugo”?

Kid living “underground”?  Victor?  Les Misérables?

Yes, I think so.

And it’s a nice touch by the auteur (in the strictest sense) Brian Selznick.

[Yes, grandson of David O.]

We’re at the Gare Montparnasse.

Torn down in 1969.

Site of this famous 1895 derailment.

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m up to 1,261.

But we press on…

Because Méliès was about dreams.

And Hugo is about dreams.

les rêves

And Scorsese has been “tapped in” to this magic at least since he portrayed Vincent van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Kurosawa-san’s best film).

I must admit…I was a bit confused for awhile.

Something told me Scorsese had transformed himself into Méliès.

It was only later that it all made sense.

Ben Kingsley.

I mean, Scorsese is a great actor (Van Gogh, etc.), but he’s not THAT great!

But I’m jumping ahead…

Sacha Baron Cohen is very good in a somewhat-serious, villain role here.

I fully expected the immensely-talented Cohen to “ham it up” at some point, but he instead gives a very fine, restrained performance which fits like clockwork (sorry) into the viscera of this exquisite film.

But let’s revisit Sir Kingsley.

What a performance!

The loss of a career (Méliès).

The loss of a previous life.

The fragility of celluloid.

All to end up running a pathetic souvenir shop.

Toys.

Very clever, but still…

Such a fall from grace.

Into such obscurity.

I can only compare it to the trajectory of Emmett Miller (which was so artfully documented by my favorite author of all time [Nick Tosches] in my favorite BOOK of all time [Where Dead Voices Gather]).

The speed at which technology moves has the potential to reduce the most eminent personage to mere footnote at breakneck speed.

It was so even a hundred years ago.

And the process has now exponentially accelerated.

But we are coming to understand the trivialization of the recent past.

We are holding tighter to our precious films and recordings.

Because we know that some are lost forever.

Will this vigilance continue uninterrupted?

I doubt it.

But for now we know.

Some of us.

That today’s masterpieces might slip through the cracks into complete nonexistence.

Consider Kurt Schwitters.

The Merzbau.

Bombed by the Allies in 1943.

Es ist nicht mehr.

Into thin air.

But such also is the nature of magic.

Poof!

Skeletons later evoked by Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu.

Scorsese is a film historian making movies.

And it is a wonderful thing to see.

And hear.

Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre more than once.

As on a player piano.

With ghost hands.

And the gears of the automaton.

Like the mystery of Conlon Nancarrow’s impossible fugues.

I’m betting Morten Tyldum lifted more than the spirit of gears meshing in Hugo to evoke the majesty of Alan Turing’s bombe in The Imitation Game.

But every film needs a secret weapon (much like Hitchcock relied on the MacGuffin).

And Scorsese’s ace in the hole for Hugo is the Satie-rik, placid visage of Chloë Grace Moretz.

Statuesque as water.

A grin.

A dollar word.

The beret.

And the ubiquitous waltzes as seen through keyholes and the Figure 5 in Gold.

Hugo is the outsider.

Scruffy ruffian.

Meek.  Stealing only enough to survive.  And invent.

But always on the outside looking in.

Below the window (like in Cinema Paradiso).

Ms. Moretz’ world is lit with gas lamps.

And you can almost smell the warm croissants.

[Funny that a film set in Paris should require subtitles FOR PARISIANS]

Assuming you don’t speak English.

Tables are turned.

But Paris draws the cineastes like bees to a hive.

THE hive.

Historically.

And that is just what this is.

History come alive.

But another word about Ms. Moretz.

As I am so wont to say in such situations, she’s not just a pretty face.

Though they are faint glimmers, I see an acting potential (mostly realized) which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

The key is in small gestures.

But really, the key is having Scorsese behind the camera.

It’s symbiotic.

Martin needed Chloë for this picture.

And vice versa.

We get a movie within a movie.

And (believe it or not) even a dream within a dream.

Poe is ringing his bell!

Or bells.

“Lost dream” says Wikipedia.

Yes.

It is as bitter a music as ever rained into Harry Partch’s boot heels.

To have one’s life work melted down for shoes.

Rendered.

To click the stone of Gare Montparnasse.

In an ever-more-sad procession.

Méliès becomes the vieux saltimbanque of which Baudelaire wrote.

Such is life.

We never expected to end up HERE.

Astounding!

-PD

Planes, Trains and Automobiles [1987)

When I was a kid, this was a big family favorite.

It was one of those rare times when profanity got a pass.

That second time Steve Martin goes off…on Edie McClurg (the rental car lady).

But even funnier is the first time Martin pops off…in the Braidwood Motel in Wichita, Kansas…and John Candy just takes it.

Yes, there are some priceless moments in this film.

In some ways, this film defined an era.

Trading Places was an early-decade success (1983) for John Landis.

And then Walter Hill succeeded with a similar type of story, treated in his inimitable way, in 1985 (Brewster’s Millions).

But by 1987 the decade needed summation…and this particular genre which transcended classification needed a testament.

This is that film.

Funny enough, this was the same year the Coen brothers really started hitting ’em out of the park (Raising Arizona).  That film also is a veritable classic, but it is forward-looking.  It is almost like comedy in the hands of a David Lynch.

John Hughes was seemingly retrospective with Planes, Trains and Automobiles…like the J.S. Bach of the 1980s…summing up a decade of dirigist American comedy.

Hughes had a lot of career left to go in 1987, but this was a sort of highpoint…especially if considering only his directorial efforts.

Sure…Hughes was more counterculture earlier in the decade, but he wasn’t above putting his heart into a morality play like this one.

But to paint this film as a vanilla affair is not really accurate.

Consider Steve Martin’s yuppie character…a “marketing” professional on a business trip to New York from Chicago.

Martin’s character represents everything that was wrong with America in the 1980s.

Sadly, Neal Page (Martin) represents the problem which persists in America today.

Perhaps Isidore Isou’s famous class distinction fits here.

Neal Page, marketing professional, is an intern (as opposed to externe)…a cog in the wheel of production.

The Neal Pages of today would learn their marketing from an abomination such as Marian Burk Wood’s The Marketing Plan Handbook.

The Neal Pages of corporate America read a Wood phrase such as, “For the purposes of developing a marketing plan, advertising’s two basic decisions concern the message (what content will be communicated) and the media…,” without ever thinking Marshall McLuhan.

A savvy seller of used books might file The World is Flat in “Sociology” (in addition to the more strictly-applicable “Business”) in an effort to unload what must surely be one of the most overprinted books of recent memory.

But what bookseller ever thinks to place Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man (1964) in the “Business” section…or in the Marketing/Advertising “disciplines”?

Marketers, no doubt, would have a glib answer.

But marketers rarely know more than their insular, myopic areas of pseudo-specialty.

The “right” answer…the culturally literate answer…the answer Marian Burk Wood was either too dumb to include…or too convinced that her dumbed-down readers would not get…is McLuhan’s:

“…the medium is the message.”

The first sentence of the fucking book!

Chapter 1 (also, conveniently titled, The Medium Is The Message):

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

But the character Neal Page wouldn’t have known that…and that’s why he gets “schooled” in business by the portly, genuine Del Griffith (John Candy).

Of course, Candy’s character wouldn’t have known this either…but at least he wouldn’t have been a venal, meretricious, entitled prick like Neal Page.

And so Neal Page didn’t really go the extra mile in business school…  He just took all the bullshit shoveled down his throat as gospel truth.

Therefore, Page wouldn’t have known this gem either…a parallel to McCluhan from just three years later (1967).

Again, the first fucking sentence of the book:

“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

Ok, so I gave him two sentences.  Those are the words of Guy Debord from his masterpiece La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) [translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith].

Notice the similarities to McCluhan.

But, of course, Debord was referencing the big daddy of them all:

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’…”

Karl Marx.  Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1867).  Translated by Ben Fowkes.

And so today’s marketing professionals are either brain-dead (thanks to authors like Wood) or craven cynics thanks to equally worthless authors such as Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller.

These last two have contributed a tome to the pseudo-discipline of “marketing” entitled A Framework for Marketing Management.

If anything has ever called for the revocation of tenure, it is the appalling lack of intellectual curiosity these two professors (from Northwestern and Dartmouth, respectively) show over the course of their overpriced bible for aspiring C-level automata.

Consider their statement, “…make low-profit customers more profitable or terminate them.”  Now do you see why America has problems?

And again, “Spend proportionately more effort on the most valuable customers.”

Thank God for the Del Griffiths of this world.

People are not statistics to be terminated.

God bless John Candy and John Hughes for poignantly reminding us of the only true value in life.

Relationships.

Not to be “leveraged”.

Just people.

Plain and simple.

As Del Griffith says, “What you see is what you get.”

Genuine.

THAT’S the marketing of the future!

And it can’t be contrived…

 

-PD