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

Il Deserto rosso [1964)

My hair hurts.

She says.

Yes.

This is one of the miracles of cinema.

Every frame a painting with a camérastylo.

One critic will boil it down to “mental illness”.

And Monica Vitti does that very well.

Red hair.  Red desert.

But we should know Antonioni by now.

This is that existential nausea you used to hear of at coffee shops.

Except the coffee shops no longer exist.

And Manhattan is a ghost ship with no one on board.  Saying nothing.

No doubt Kubrick visited this for 2001.  And George Lucas for THX 1138.

But we are more interested in Godard.

Il Deserto rosso is a film for filmmakers.

Mulholland Dr. stands no chance.

But why?

Because, yes, we all feel like this.

Lost.

The floating world in Japanese mythology.

No doubt Kurosawa pinched the end bit for Dreams.

It’s ok.

That’s what makes Il Deserto rosso a watershed film.

In the shed.  Surrounded by water.

A proto-orgy.

Roman atavism at the group level.

No, no…

I’m not getting anywhere.

The critics will cry “overwrought”.

What we have here is really a sick sadness.

Feel too much.

Bowie’s Low title is above the artist in profile.

Low profile.

And that color.

Her hair.

What acting!

Is it?

Bow down to the master Michelangelo.

One of the true auteurs.

For the uninitiated it will seem unbearably pretentious.

Or just confusing.

It will seem that there is no plot.

And, indeed, in space there is no “up” or “down”.

There are simply bodies with sufficient mass to exert gravity.

Is that the way to say it?

Is that how it works?

Because we are all floating, right?

32 feet per second per second.

[sic]

Acceleration of falling bodies.

God bless her…

Always a sinking feeling.

Because her husband is a vapid jerk.

And the most sensitive guy can’t get close enough…cause she’s nuts.

Makes perfect sense.

Our own worst fears played out by the players on the screen.

Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore.

Precisely.

Pirandello.

Logic bombs and bombs of illogic.

The latter in Dadaism.

Hackers who terrorize simply to make their point.

To outsmart.

Legacy networks and newer nets introduced in phases…

Allowing for GDP, profit margin, and public sector infrastructure.

Which is to say, DARPA.

And where does the film critic fit in?

Merely as a voice…reminding…don’t forget your Sun Tzu.

Everything else will be diverted to slag heaps and holding tanks.

Opaque tanks…glowing green like antifreeze.

Does this sound like a fun adventure?

Then Il Deserto rosso is for you.

And for me.

Because I identify with Monica Vitti’s character so much.

Afraid of everything.

My hair hurts.

 

-PD

里見八犬伝 [1983)

[LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1983)]

Woof.  I really got my years mixed up.  Not by much, but a few years in technological terms is quite meaningful nowadays.  And it started really exploding in the 80s.

In some respects we have Japan to thank.  And while we might think strictly of Atari when remembering the techno 80s there were other advances outside of home entertainment.

But yes.  I thought I was watching a movie from 1979.  I misread the box.

I missed the fine print (Made on Mars).

We have previously seen Sonny Chiba as an ass-kicking karate expert, but here the name of the game is swordplay.

Yet that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Really, this film makes my recent proclamation of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as being a weird film almost completely meaningless.

THIS is a weird film!

It is weird even when it’s not weird, and when it’s actually weird?  This is some far-out David Icke kind of stuff.

But first a word about the atrocious title.

For all I know there may actually be a story of seven samurai in Japanese history, but the reference (and plot) to eight samurai is to Kurosawa what 14 Minute Abs would be to 15 Minute Abs.  Put differently, “If you liked The Seven Samurai, then you’ll LOVE The Eight Samurai.”  Or, “Purchase admission to Seven Samurai and receive an additional samurai at no extra cost.”

But wait…there’s more!

Director Kenji Fukasaku really had a dodgy band of art directors/set designers to work with.  It’s not that they don’t have the chops…it’s their taste which we question.  And the music supervisor should absolutely be made to sit in the corner and listen to John O’Banion for all eternity.

Plain and simple:  this film is as cheesy as a Velveeta milkshake.  Indeed.  Bottoms up.

And yet, for all of that maudlin naivete it still passes muster as not only a watchable film but (dare I say?) a good film.  Not great, good…

Why?  Mostly the acting.  Yes, amidst this candy store of sugary-sweet special effects and fantasy costumes there are moments of real, inspired acting with actual technical proficiency.

Hiroko Yakushimaru is really pretty good as the princess (always has to be a princess in these kinds of stories).

Hiroyuki Sanada plays what for perceptive Western audiences would be the Han Solo character (though Solo’s precedent is almost certainly in the older, classic samurai films).

Sadly, Sonny Chiba doesn’t really get a chance to shine here.  There are all sorts of ridiculous hand-weapon battles, but not much in the way of empty-fist war ballet.

As with the ubiquitous princess, we also have lots of crystals…glowing crystals.

If it seems I’m making fun of this film, that’s because I am.  But the truth is that I really liked it.

Would I watch it again?  Sober?  Probably not.

But am I disappointed to have sat through it?  Absolutely not.  It was entertaining and, in its own way, touchingly artful.

One last note.  Mari Natsuki is one bad bitch.  Ever wanted to see a smoking-hot undead person (reptilian?) bathe in a pool of blood before lasciviously kissing her grown son?  Me neither.  But I saw it.  And in some strange way my life is richer for having had that experience.  Happy viewing!

-PD