The most surprising thing about Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo (out Wednesday) is how much more there is to it than has been indicated in the ad campaign, which presents the picture — probably wisely, from a mass-market standpoint — as a standard children’s adventure with a dose of magic and a dash of slapstick, all in 3D (of course). To be clear: it is all of that, though done with a skill and intelligence that puts most “family movies” to shame.
But Scorsese also uses the film as something of an Introduction to Cinema course for its young audiences — and, frankly, for older moviegoers who may not be as well-versed in the form as the encyclopedic director. There’s nothing dry or educational about it, but within the confines of the big-budget studio 3D holiday movie, he is also presenting the story of film’s earliest days — specifically of Georges Méliès, the artist behind hundreds of early silent fantasies, including the immortal 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.
The process of telling the story meant, for Scorsese’s cast, taking in hours of material from the period, carefully curated by their director/instructor. “Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch,” Sir Ben Kingsley told me at a recent press event for the film. “He always does that with his casts, when the film is set in a specific period. I had a whole box set of Méliès’s films to watch, hours of it, really, which was hugely useful for me — not only to understand his language of cinema, but also how he multi-tasked to an extraordinary degree.”
Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen’s station inspector has several knockabout chase scenes, most of them dialogue-free, so it comes as little surprise that Scoresese steered him to the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin. Emily Mortimer, who plays the flower girl that Cohen romances (shades of City Lights) was assigned to watch René Clair’s 1930 film Under the Roofs of Paris, a film contemporaneous to Hugo‘s early-’30s French setting. “That’s how he tends to direct,” she told me. “He doesn’t tell you what to do and guide you through every step of the performance, he just shows you other people’s movies. He did that on Shutter Island as well. So it’s more like he can help you to understand the world of the film by showing you the films which are his inspiration.”
Intriguingly, author Brian Selznick (a distant relative of Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick) also used Under the Roofs as an inspiration for the book that Hugo is based on. “When I got the call that Marty wanted to make this movie,” he said, “after the initial shock passed — which actually hasn’t still entirely passed — knowing that he of course would have gotten all of the references that I made in the book to these movies, and then be able to use these references in the film itself, was amazing.”
Now, there is also an argument to be made (and one that we can safely bet was thrown around in Paramount’s board rooms) that material about a forgotten French silent filmmaker and subtle references to a Clair film might not be the safest way to spend the reported $170 million budget. As much as your author loved Hugo (and I did), and as rhapsodic as most of its other reviews have been, it must be remembered that we are an audience of film lovers (well, most of us) and are thus the perfect crowd for this kind of thing. But how much will Hugo speak to its ostensible target audience? Will it engage children? Or will all this old movie stuff alienate kids?
I think the question — which I’ve heard a lot of over the past couple of weeks in film circles — actually gives kids less credit that they deserve. I’ve been to screenings of silent comedies (Keaton and Chaplin, especially) where film lovers brought their children, and you know what? Those kids loved that stuff. They howled with laughter. If you catch them young enough, they don’t know (or care about) the age of these movies — the difference between sound and silent is as of little consequence as the difference between live action and cartoon, or stop motion and Pixar, or whatever. Funny is funny, and movies are movies.
Ultimately, to the cast, those are not important concerns. To the question of audience, Cohen is blunt: “Marty makes films for himself. He is an artist, a true artist, and he makes the movie that he wants to see… He’s one of the last remaining artists out there, and I think we should respect that. The movie is not focus-grouped, and it’s not tailored for seven-year-olds in Iowa or Berlin or anywhere to appreciate. Marty’s made a work of art in the same way that Méliès did. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s an incredible achievement for a filmmaker to still be able to do that.”