“Hugo”: Scorsese makes an impression

For a filmmaker whose name immediately conjures up images of Joe Pesci stabbing someone in the boot of a car, Scorsese has had a rather eclectic career: producing and directing slapstick comedies, romance, concerts, and even a Dalai Lama biopic. Family entertainment, however, has so far eluded him until now. That’s what makes his latest feature ‘Hugo’ such a unique commodity.

It’s an unholy act of futile resistance trying to ignore his visually opulent execution, even as I watched it in 2D. No doubt Scorsese is helped here by the fact that his preferred camera stylings have always been characteristically animated, perfect for the attention of kids with his sweeping shots that are truly arresting to the eye. Marty doesn’t need to fake the broad and fantastical tone — a fate that made Ron Howard’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ utterly unwatchable – and Brian Selznick’s book (‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’) provides a solid wealth of layered themes from which the screenwriter John Logan continues to build upon.

As it opens with CG-assisted dissolve, the hustle of Paris’s busy streets become synonymous – or, at least, visually equated – with the inner-workings of a clock. This fitting motif provides the emotional theme for the rest of the film: function, and the notion that true happiness comes only from fulfilling one’s function. (If you listen carefully enough, you can just about hear Max Weber rejoicing in his grave. Indeed, ‘Hugo’ feels somewhat Calvinistic in message, with the whole idea of answering your own “calling” et al.) This, being for both kids and adults alike, is hit home both subtextually and overtly. Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) notes that the automaton which Hugo (Asa Butterfield) owns looks “rather sad,” to which he replies that it is simply waiting, waiting to perform its function — which, we can perfectly extrapolate, is on the same plane as sadness. Hugo goes on to discuss his admiration of machines, of how they come with an exact number of parts, “no more, no less” than what is needed to work (clearly IKEA didn’t exist during the 1920s). Just like the automaton, Hugo and Georges Méliès (and the ensemble of kooky love-lorn characters populating the train station) are all machines missing that crucial piece that will make them whole (at one stage, I expected Richard Griffiths to propose a shared visit to the Wizard of Oz). Jokes aside, this does make for an unusually strong emotional backbone for what is essentially a family film.

That the movie pioneer Méliès (Ben Kingsley) could so quickly and unexpectedly lose everything serves to emphasise the fragility of cinema’s dream world, a child in need of protection, and ‘Hugo’ is a referential pat-on-the-back for Scorsese’s craft of film preservation. It’s almost as if he takes the position of the parent reading to a young child, turning the page and pointing out amusing details: his technical expertise forever guiding our eyes.

When all of the characters, both major and minor, are brought together for the finale, rather fittingly at a film screening, we see in this fleeting moment one of Scorsese’s fondest realisations about his own community, in that it’s an outlet for everybody’s collective ambitions (Méliès is asking them all to “Come and dream with me!”). Wrapping these themes around the narrative of an orphan trying to find his place in the world is a gesture at once autobiographical and giving, a living testament to the importance of art in an era that so often dismisses it.

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