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

Way of the Dragon [1972)

1770.  Beethoven.  Dragon.  If my math is correct.  I was born in the year of the dragon.  Hour of the dog.  For dragon, I will own eccentric.  For dog, sense of justice and lazy.  Bruce Lee was born in the year and hour of the dragon.

Strong.  Intestinal fortitude is usually used figuratively.  Early in this film we might be disoriented by the clumsy, blurred  mise-en-scène.  Indeed, this was Lee’s first and last completed directorial effort.  The beginning doesn’t bode well.  Just like his character, who accidentally orders five bowls of soup, Lee seems in over his head as an auteur.  As his character Tang Lung deals with a seeming case of the shits, the film moves (on the contrary) very slowly.  Not only do we wonder about the technical proficiency of the cinematographer, we experience a claustrophobic hyper-sensitivity to the passing of time.  Mercifully, this is offset by a cinematic tone which echoes Tati’s Playtime.

But the strength builds up.  The film, literally, comes into focus (albeit slowly).  Lee once again plays a similar character to those he delineated in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury.

You must put your hip into it, he says.  Yes.  This is the secret to power.  Leverage.  Chinese boxing.

We are made aware of Lee’s strength on several occasions when he flexes his taut physique.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing slight about the diminutive Lee.  One senses that every square inch of this man is power.  Strength.

Proud.  Nothing is like back home.  Hong Kong.  Rome doesn’t impress Lee.  On one occasion he seems to see things through the eyes of Respighi for a moment, but then makes a flippant comment about a grand fountain.  Tang Lung (Lee) would build over it.  Make money.

But this façade is at odds with the loyalty he shows to his newfound friends in Rome (themselves likewise expats from Hong Kong).

Direct.  Lee begins to direct.  There is a panache in all of his movements…like a lethal Chaplin.

Eccentric.  Can I buy a gun around here?  Yes?  Good.  I’ll whittle some bamboo darts instead.

He moves in squawking orbits.  Distractions.  Diversions.  Like Muhammad Ali with Tourette’s.

Show off.  More like a selective extrovert.  Beware of the quiet ones.  The humble ones.  When they reach their breaking points, God forbid they be the most genius asskickers on the planet.

Lee refrains until his adversaries ask for it.  Backed into a corner, he turns the tables…every time.

Arrogant.  Sometimes…  It takes a Chuck Norris to remind us that there are other masters in the world.  And if we beat them, we salute them.  But he who seeks not money shall have a superior core to the mercenary.  To protect is more powerful than to attack.

Violent.  Damn right!  You want violence?  You’re about to be dealt the quickest administrations of pain you’ve ever seen.  Calling Dr. Lee.  This is where shock and awe comes from.  And machinery/technology will never ascend to the glorious depths of human creativity.  Endurance is in the mind.

Brash.  Occasionally.  The big boss needs to learn.  The big boss hires his murders–his terrorism–his intimidation.  The big boss runs and hides when the fast bullets fly.  But once in awhile the masters of war find themselves in very uncomfortable circumstances.  The teacher does not love war.  The teacher masters war.  The teacher masters the passions of revenge.  Bruce Lee never distributes a disproportionate riposte.

Controlling.  Control.  First, control yourself.  Seek to master yourself.  Listen to your body.  Control what you can control…knowing that the world is chaos…an indeterminate harmony.  Then you will be ready to think on your feet.  You will be ready to invent and improvise like Thelonious Monk.

This is the way of the dragon.

-PD