Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #93: Hugo (2011)

Looking at the screen
Is this really Scorsese?

There aren't too many movies that actually feel like movies, and I think that's in part because movies try very hard to get you to forget that you're watching a movie. Many movies try to be disposable, forgettable, non-commital. They do very well at it.

For cinema to feel like cinema, for a film to give you some sense of movie-ness, some flavour you only taste when you participate in cinema, I'd say it has to do at least these two things:

It has to remind you you're watching a movie, either by being meta enough to be about movie-making, or to be so steeped in movie tradition, like with a genre film, say, that you can't help but think about all the films that have lead up to this one.

It has to use film language. It's not just talking heads delivering dialogue for the camera to catch. It uses visuals, it uses technique - a certain camera movement, a certain edit – to express something in a uniquely filmy way.

Hugo does all of those things, and there's nothing I love more than cinema that feels like cinema. The movie does a lot with its visuals, and when a time comes where more can be said with silence than talk, it does it with silence. That, my fine filmy friends, is a rare restraint. When the relationships between people in a busy train station are described perfectly and expressively to you by your eyes alone, you're reading with film language, and it's much more intimate than hearing someone say, if not in so many words, "Gee willickers, I'm awful lonely and I really like you but we just can't seem to get together!"

Now, I didn't see the film in ye olde 3D, which is all the rage with the kiddies nowadays (if marketing can be believed, and of course the last thing you can trust is what you see on tv and read in magazines), but from what I've heard from respectable mouths, the 3D usage in Hugo is tasteful and does more to lend magic and depth to the film than pop out shocks and cheesy spectacles would.
Would kids like this movie? I'm not so sure. They could dig it, but it moves slowly and with a building force that might not provide a young kid with the kind of payoff they might hope for. Some of the kids innocent and wistful dialogue struck me as a little out of a place at times, since the sheer gravitas Hugo generates makes you take things almost too seriously until the more magical side of the movie starts to assert itself.

If I hadn't known going into the film that the exalted Martin Scorsese had directed Hugo, I don't think I would have realised it in the watching. Well, assuming I'd have dropped my popcorn and drink all over myself or my significant other or insignificant other sitting close to me and missed the opening credits. It really doesn't feel like a Scorsese movie in any way that I could register. But it's clearly made, once some plot reveals hit you, by a director that knows and cares about cinema.

In Hugo Scorcese has made a kids film for adults, and, much to my delight, a little history lesson for anyone that might never have been exposed to early film history; a history that touches huge swathes of the cultural environment that they live their lives in. A movie, Hugo points out, is a waking dream. Our dreams projected before us. Our own brains thrown onto a screen for us to watch. It's a special and unique kind of magic central to how we receive our culture, and, more interestingly, ourselves. I salute any movie that tries and succeeds to remind us of that.

So: If you like your movies tasting like movies, have a cup.


  1. It was only a passing interest up to this point, and I'll now add it to my list

    [When you said "meta enough to be about movie-making", I couldn't help think about the man with a camera]

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