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

Elèna et les hommes [1956)

Sometimes we are emptied of our emotions from exhaustion.

We can’t fail at love any more than we have.

Valentine’s Day is but a mockery.

And so why does Miss Lonelyhearts push on?

And Sgt. Pepper?

Some of us have immense reservoirs of confidence.

Some of us have a penchant for risk.

But not I.

If we treat love as an investment (bear with me),

then every risk has its flipside:  the potential for reward.

In love, we weigh the possibilities.

What will she say?  How will he respond?

But our world has degenerated into a soulless masquerade.

Do anything…but never show your true feelings.

If we are circumspect in our psychology, we realize that many times we don’t know our own minds.

I am not a meditating ninja.  I do not balance, poised to act with clarity.

No, I am clumsy.

In love, I am particularly clumsy.

To speak of such things in America…it just isn’t done.

Love is more taboo than sex.

Sex is ubiquitous, but love is vulnerability.

An American can never show vulnerability.

This is the great archetypal travesty of the film Patton.

And perhaps no greater dichotomy could exist than from that film to our film Elèna et les hommes.

It is Jean Renoir again.  It is Ingrid Bergman.  It is Jean Marais.

And to a very surprising extent, it is Juliette Gréco.

It must have been this film to which Godard fell in love.

More interested in Gréco than El Greco at this time.  More interested in Juliette than his schoolwork.

Those dreams which would be realized in Anna Karina.

But things fall apart.

How hard to know the soul of a man or woman.

Ingrid plays the role of a Polish princess.

On Bastille Day with Mel Ferrer there is a Rabelaisian warmth to the festivities.

From one Renoir to another, there are the pinks in the cheeks.  Red wine.  A weak drink.  Compared to Polish vodka.

And then there are the daisies.  A marguerite here and there.  Gounod’s Faust would have such as the leading soprano.

A grand opera in five acts is about what Elèna et les hommes feels like.  There are similarities in tone and mise-en-scène to Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, but the best comparison is to Renoir’s own The Golden Coach.

What may not be evident (due to the visual disparity between the vibrant, saturated colors of Elèna et les hommes and the black and white of Renoir’s early films) is that our film is very similar to the Renoir classic La Règle du jeu.  Both share traits with the elusive Hollywood genre known as “screwball comedy”.  There is a general ruckus of celebration…a confusion of who loves whom…indeed, about who should love whom…mixed emotions…missed connections…conflicted hearts.

There are the base buffoons who live out our easiest desires.  They just chase.  So what if they lose?  Well, it makes a big difference…from the bathos of Schumacher to the stoogery of Eugène.

But these references aside, it is the others who make us believe.  The hesitating class of Ingrid Bergman and Nora Gregor…these parallel characters.  And the luckless chaps who may or may not prevail in the end…Mel Ferrer and, indeed, Jean Renoir himself as Octave in La Règle du jeu. 

It must have been a revelation for Godard to see this film.  It was the French film industry asserting itself.  And yet, it was the spectacle against which Debord would rail a mere 11 years later.

Even so, Elèna et les hommes is (at the very least) a beautiful echo of the French film tradition which preceded it.  In a sense, it was Jean Renoir retelling that old story of La Règle du jeu one more time.

Life is a strange party in which Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre is liable to be conjured from the ghostly ivories of a player piano at any moment.

 

-PD