“People say movies should be more like life; I think life should be more like the movies” – Myrna Loy
In what is most certainly nothing but a happy and delightful coincidence, 2011 saw the release of two films that took a nostalgia-filled look at the early days of cinema: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a rose-tinted valentine to the art of moviemaking.
Let me say this right off the bat, so as to leave ambiguity wanting: if you were not utterly charmed by Hugo, you are devoid of a sense of and love for nostalgia, history and cinema itself, for movies like this are the reason movies were invented in the first place! For phase one of their history, films were not about telling gritty stories ruminating upon the inherent tragedy of the human condition, but about capturing moments of everyday life at their simplest, magnified manifold on to a screen, which, even when played in silence, magically transformed into fantastical, larger-than-life images. These images were almost unfathomable to enraptured audiences, who, when presented with the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Arrival of a Train’, in 1895, shrank back in disbelief as the titular contraption chugged towards the camera, seemingly ready to leap off the screen into their midst. This particular moment is paid homage to in Hugo, a film that is as much an ode to cinema as it is a fond remembrance of that child’s sense of wonder and amazement at the world around us, that seems to gradually abandon each of us as we enter the world of adulthood – a world which practically requires us to be jaded and cynical, leaving childish things behind. If it weren’t, we would perhaps stop and notice the minute miracles that we are surrounded by everyday – from our ipads and ipods to the colour spectrum captured in the puddle of oil leaking from our car engines.
Scorsese is by no means the only or even the first one to turn his camera onto the world of filmmaking itself; he is, however, one of the few whose perspective is unabashedly affectionate. More often then not, when filmmakers have reflected on themselves, the resulting portrait has been less than flattering. Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and James L. Brooks’ I’ll Do Anything (1994), all depicted a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog business where friendships are routinely sacrificed at the altar of the bottom-line. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 8 ½ (1963) saw its auteur-protagonist retreat into a world of memories and fantasies, driven to near-madness by the demands of the business and the obstacles posed by his own artistic vision. In our part of the world, Guru Dutt’s lyrical Kaaghaz Ke Phool (1959) also presented an indictment of the vagaries of the film world which creates stars but destroys people. All in all, cinema may occasionally romance itself, but it’s hardly a healthy relationship, if the makers are to be believed.
So it’s certainly fitting that Scorsese is the one bringing the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the screen. For a director who has been known primarily for his gritty dramas about men of violence, this gentle fable-esque story might at first seem like an odd choice, but for anyone familiar with Scorsese’s all-consuming love affair with cinema, it is in fact a no-brainer; you only wonder what took him so long to express his love so explicitly. In Hugo, he not only shows off his own mastery over the cinematic medium, but also simultaneously shares with the audience his passion for the art form as well as the tremendous affinity he has for one of its greatest heroes – movie pioneer Georges Méliès.
Until now practically unknown to modern film audiences, Méliès has been called, variously, the father of special effects, the first
wizard of the cinema, and the first master of the technique of mise-en-scene. What he was, was a magician, first of the card-tricks variety, but later of the screen. Méliès wanted to communicate and transfer to the audiences the sense of joyous wonder he himself had felt at the Lumiere screenings, when he knew he was witnessing nothing less than a modern miracle. Of course he couldn’t have known at the time that he would go much further than even the two Frenchmen could’ve imagined. Accidentally discovering the endless possibilities of the technique of montage due to a faulty camera, Méliès realized that film could be used for much more than just showing workers leaving a factory (another Lumiere blockbuster): it could be used to weave tales of both enchantment and macabre mystery, to imagine and depict whole new worlds and sights unseen. When he made A Trip To The Moon in 1902, it was the first real fantasy and science fiction film rolled into one, with the iconic image of a rocket hitting the man in the moon in the eye being just one of many examples of creative use of camera and painted backdrops to force perspective, unprecedented on film before Méliès explored the idea. He would go on to make 500 more films – one more mind-boggling than the other – before mounting expenses and then the First World War put him out of business. His years spent in obscurity selling toys out of Montparnasse Station in Paris are shown in Hugo, but also lovingly depicted is his heyday, his finest cinematic moments painstakingly recreated, which, astonishingly enough, are still rather awe-inspiring to behold.
Over the years there have been a plethora of nasty movies on movies, warts-and-all exposés and the like; what film fans want – nay, need – more of are the Hugo-esque paeans, which can help bring into the limelight once again the medium’s unsung and forgotten heroes. There are plenty more where Méliès came from.