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

The King of Comedy [1983)

Rupert Pupkin.  The name seems funny.  It’s worth a chuckle.  And yet, this is a sad, sad story.

This is the best film Martin Scorsese has made.  It is one of the best films ever made.

Truly, it is a work of art.

The hubris…the guts it took to make this film…tremendous.

No one could have played Pupkin but De Niro.

Taxi Driver got close…real close!  But Rupert Pupkin is a more powerful character than even Travis Bickle.

Without giving too much away, lets just say that Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis) gets himself into a real pickle here.

De Niro and Lewis are both top-notch.  What takes it over the top?  Sandra Bernhard.  (Yes, that Sandra Bernhard.)

I would venture to guess that many film critics continue to fawn over Robert De Niro (as well they should), but Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard are often discussed (respectively) in a different light.

Take Nick Tosches’ excellent book on Dean Martin (Dino:  Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams).  Though it’s been awhile since I read it, one certainly senses that the Lewis half of Martin and Lewis was not particularly enjoyable for the author to cover.

Dino was cool.  Lewis was the stooge.  Makes me think of Iggy Pop.  Anything for a laugh.  And Antonin Artaud.  Anything to connect with the audience.  And Brecht.  Ad nauseam.

And so, since so much has been written about De Niro, let’s take a moment to appreciate Jerry Lewis.  What is important is isolating this film from the rest of his oeuvre.  Jerry Lewis–in this film–is magnificent!

It is often joked that the French see something in Jerry Lewis which Americans do not.  Such a cultural survey runs the gamut from the influence of Lewis on Godard (see the set design in Tout va bien) to the commentary of “Weird Al” Yankovic (witness the song “Genius in France”).

I have nothing to add to the Lewis debate other than SEE THIS MOVIE!

And Sandra Bernhard…poor Sandra Bernhard.  When I was growing up she was also a sort of stooge.  Her act, so over the top…  And yet, in this film she not only displays the subtlety of acting genius but she’s also strangely attractive.

At this juncture it must be pointed out that Bernhard and De Niro are a team in this film (eventually).  They are like that great New York City punk duo Suicide.  Keep your dreams.  Dream baby dream.  It was Alan Vega and Martin Rev who were the true punks of the CBGB’s/Max’s Kansas City scene.

But back to De Niro and Bernhard…their “plan” in this movie is not unlike the art terrorism of Suicide.  Yes, the plot they concoct to fulfill their respective dreams often teeters like the famed Mercer Arts Center (which precipitously collapsed one day in SoHo).

This film is all about dreams.  It’s about those fantasies we have.  It’s the famous Marlon Brando quote come to life (“I coulda been somebody”).

Rupert Pupkin is 34.  He doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of time.  And Masha (Bernhard)…she is in love from afar with a man (Lewis) at least twice her age.

The world is not kind to Pupkins.  And Mashas…  Jerry Langford (Lewis) brushes them both off.  And so begins an unholy alliance.

From the opening credits this is pure art.  Scorsese hits emotional chords previously unknown in the history of film.  Even Robbie Robertson gets it right with the Ray Charles song right off the bat.

It is Bernhard’s hands…pressed to the limousine window…in the flash of fame…frozen for a moment.  The roles have been reversed.

And what makes it all work?  Jerry Lewis plays it straight…scared shitless.  What a masterpiece.

To take an Alan Vega lyric for a détournement, “We’re all Pupkins.”

Thank you Marty.

-PD