On Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”

Hugo? Children? Allow me to digress with this reminiscence, concerning the other Hugo, the Man of a Thousand Faces:

Okay, now that’s out of the way.

After weeks of eager anticipation I finally got to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with my kids yesterday. Frequently such waiting periods are killers, creating expectations that can’t be met when confronted with the actual work. Further, there’s that omnipresent Scorsese-worry, e.g. the concern that he can only make masterpieces when the subject matter is thuggery. Though he’s proven otherwise with such brilliant films as The Aviator and his Bob Dylan documentary, the statistical evidence, the sheer weight of his expertly-realized goombah pictures vs. flawed experiments like The Age of Innocence gives one pause. What would he do with, or should I say to a children’s book?

The answer turns out to be “interpret it perfectly”. One hoped, if not suspected, that that would be the case given the subject matter, but ya never know. Based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story concerns an orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who spends his days maintaining the clocks in Paris’s busy train station. His companion in the station’s attic is an automaton he had been fixing with his father before the latter died in a fire. Hugo’s quest to fix the automaton and learn where it came from leads him to its creator, the actual Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) now a humble toy merchant utterly abandoned by the public that once adored him. The story is a paean to the powers of fantasy, and one wonders at first how that could be right for Scorsese, whose metier is normally brutal reality. It’s the gritty realism of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull that everyone raves about. And think of what happens when he tries other genres.  His attempt at a Hollywood musical  New York, New York is downright hilarious, essentially having at its center a foul-mouthed psychotic wife beater (Robert DeNiro) and his battered abused wife (Liza Minnelli). Hugo is the sort of movie we usually get from Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam (although I must say “not lately” in either case).

Yet, knowing Scorsese’s well-publicized backstory (not to say myth) there is much here for him to latch onto, and that’s just what he does. Scorsese was a sickly child, and a loner. A severe asthmatic, he spent all of his time looking out the window and going to the movies. He relates to Hugo big time. You see it in the first shot of the boy, peeking out from behind a clock in the station. Peeking, peeking, always peeking. The connection between the voyeur and the future film-maker. It’s part of Hitchcock’s myth and Scorsese’s as well. And the fantasy part? Well, the movies are fantasy, aren’t they? And (especially when we’re talking about Hollywood) even the most “realistic” of them are fantasies. They aren’t, after all, our own lives. We watch them to get away from the meanness of our own streets. This movie is a love poem, not to only to the magical artistry of Méliès, but to the movies in general.

I might add that this film does have its documentary aspects.  Scorsese uses this opportunity to teach us about a great film-maker, just as he had previously taught us about George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan and the great blues musicians. One of my happiest take-aways from this film is that children will walk out of it knowing about the birth of movies.

Further, technically, he knocks it out of the park, and it shouldn’t be surprising. While he’s famous for his realism, he’s not a “straight-ahead” film maker. His effects are frequently, one might say usually hallucinatory. Think of those fight scenes in Raging Bull or Henry Hill’s cocaine meltdown in Goodfellas. My experience was MUCH enhanced by the fact that the movie was preceded by several previews for films that represent 3-D at its LAMEST — several re-releases of previously non-3-D films with 3-D effects now slapped on top.  Right from the first frame, Scorsese uses the three dimensions at his disposal, taking us up and down corridors, staircases, walls, moving past crowds of people, over them, under them. Snowflakes fall. He thought the entire movie through in three dimensions before he created it; then he shot it that way. 95% of the time, it is organic and it works, though there are moments when it is a hair too gratuitous, not only in that old-fashioned “Comin’ At Ya!” 3-D way, but also in Scorsese’s OWN way (I’m thinking of shots like Griffin Dunn’s thrown keys in After Hours). But the VIGOR it took to make this film, both physical and intellectual, is impressive in the extreme.

The danger of the old Scorsese rearing his head appears only once, and where that danger emerges is predictable. As the villainous station master, he cast Sacha Baron Cohen. It is a risky, inspired choice.  Cohen is an improvisational actor par excellence and Scorsese is Hollywood’s premiere director of improvisational actors. I think he had the idea of getting some silent comedy type slapstick antics into the film, in honor of the subject (we also get clips and references to Harold Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton, Max Linder, and Jacques Tati). But Cohen and Scorsese have dark sensibilities. It’s a bit like getting a couple of alcoholics in a room together, and they come a couple of times a hair’s breadth from crossing the line. (Perhaps they do cross it, but I’m pretty dark myself). The leg brace Cohen wears as the character has divergent functions. It gives us more sympathy for him. And it creates opportunity for slapstick. Unfortunately, the slapstick doesn’t work…because we have sympathy for him (sympathy we wouldn’t have had if not for the leg brace, because the character is a nasty piece of work.) Thus a scene where the station inspector is being dragged by a train down a platform because it is hooked to his leg brace is not just not funny, it’s, well, objectionable. Cohen ad libs many funny lines in the film, but again, many of them I feel are inappropriate for young people.

But the edifying effect Hugo will have on young people far outweighs those fleeting moments. In the end, all the characters in the film (including the station inspector, a big change from the book) are a big, happy family. That may be a fantasy of course, but that’s just sort of fantasy I go to the movies to see.


  1. I did not think the station inspector was a big change from the book,
    while he is in it more in the movie he is still in the book, made quite clear that Hugo has trouble with him.

    Good review though! Hugo is actually my favorite film of the year.


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