HUGO, written by John Logan, directed by Martin Scorsese

A very mixed bag. We took Hiro P to see it (the rule in our household is that you must read the novel first and then you may see the movie — respect for the written word, please! Compare and contrast the adaptation with the source). The film is of course based on the children’s dark graphic novel _The Invention of Hugo Cabret_, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick.

HUGO is a loving rescue of the life and work of Georges Melies, a founding father of filmmaking. The film ought to be great, but feels constrained by its marketing imperatives. Scorsese’s HUGO works against itself in so many ways — the fetishistic lighting of the viewpoint character/male child actor’s expressive bright blue eyes to balance the strength and vitality of the supporting role of the female child actor; the beautiful, gallopingly fluid “silent” mini-film that comprises the first twenty minutes of HUGO before the main title appears that cannot lift up the sagging second half of the second act and slow talky start to the third; Scorsese’s fatherly wish to create something beautiful for his real-life daughter (and all children, so they can appreciate the antique art of celluloid moving pictures) clearly overshadowed by his own filial piety as an artistic “son” worshipping at “father” Melies’ feet; the eye-popping, colorful world of 1930s Paris in contrast to the more sombre-hued novel and feel of the era between the wars; the need to reassure with caricature (a buffoon-ish “toy soldier” with a bad leg as the villain) and the impulse to pull punches in the name of protecting child viewers of the film, versus depicting children in poverty and the adults who relegate them there through neglect. What should be fantastical is instead action-adventure-y. It’s too sunny in all the wrong places. It’s Chris Columbus where it should be Guillermo del Toro.

The archival clips of Melies’ long-lost work are a treasure to behold, and I’m grateful that Francophile Johnny Depp’s production company spared no expense and Scorsese himself probably spent immense personal capital retrieving and refurbishing Melies’ films for inclusion in HUGO. That is itself heroic, generous, scholarly work, but it is perhaps a separate documentary. And here is where the parts of the film don’t cohere: the Melies biopic parts of the story and the inclusion of the rescued clips themselves demand a kind of documentary fealty to reality, but that part is embedded in a child’s fanciful story of longing and belonging, where true to the fable the Tin Man finally gains a heart.

I’m fascinated by books with children as main characters that live in a sort of “tweener genre.” Not meant for 11 year-olds exactly, but certainly with enough complexity to engage adults even as a story’s told through a young person’s eyes. The later Harry Potter novels are like this as the stakes grow for Harry to defeat Voldemort, for example. Selznick’s graphic novel Hugo Cabret is another example.

I was curious about this film adaptation for precisely this reason: would it have the courage of its convictions and be PAN’S LABYRINTH, an exceedingly dark (Catholic-gothic) film about a child which is devastating because the child is in true jeopardy, and no aspect of the imaginative world she invents can protect her? A film that has as its viewpoint character a startlingly old-soul heroine with more moral courage than the adults around her — but in the end, emphatically *not* a movie for children? Or would the film be the place where you take your kids when everyone’s done with the turkey and watching football just doesn’t appeal?

I was also curious about Scorsese as the director for this film. Without giving away too much about the ending, I will say it’s unusual in most Scorsese films for all characters to find redemption. As @Harry Lin said to me afterwards when we were talking about HUGO, “It’s as if Clint Eastwood were to make a joyful romantic comedy. Not gonna happen.”

The film isn’t without strong points — thank god someone still loves to make lavish costume period pieces. Mama Jeanne isn’t onscreen for very long but the actress does lovely things with her character. The sets are stunning. There’s sort of an interesting visual experiment to the problem of showing a trampling in a PG-rated way. The music is fabulous and Django Reinhardt is always a joy. There’s a retro-nostalgic love for filmmaking as a clanking, flickering mechanical act — frames propelled by sprockets –  expressed in every steampunk artifact (the entire set). And yet.

Maybe an American director making an American film simply *can’t* deliver anything but a bankable Thanksgiving movie. Even one as eminent as Scorsese. Or perhaps because of who he is. There’s simply too much money at stake. Maybe the “tweener genre” phenomenom I’m talking about is more successfully ambiguous on the page, a lower-stakes marketplace and oddly a less constraining act of imaginative projection, than on the screen. As we see in the opening images of HUGO, his scopophilia’s predicated on the negative space left by numbers.

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