Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Boy And His Dreams of the Cinema: Scorsese, Hugo and Me

When watching Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo, it’s as if my love for Scorsese has come full circle. I first fell in love with him – in obsession with him, really – when I was eleven years old, when I watched VHS copies of Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and Taxi Driver (1976) almost back-to-back. On a visceral and emotional level, I had never seen anything like these pictures. These first encounters with Scorsese occurred only a few months after the death of my father, and in a way, the events are forever linked in my mind. My eyes were opened to a different kind of world – a place where pain, obsession and guilt were always present, and the only way to express this pain was through cinema.

And it is in this way that I looked to Scorsese, really, as a sort of father figure – as a filmmaker who spoke to the fears and obsessions I harbored at a very young age, but also as a filmmaker who understood the excitement and thrilling rush of living. His films are experiential in a way that other movies are not, and I think I recognized early on that no other filmmaker was capable of communicating “an intensity onscreen that matches what [one] perceives/suffers in real life,” as eloquently stated by Chris Hodenfield in his article “You’ve Got to Love Something Enough to Kill It: The Art of Noncompromise.”

On December 20th, 2002, I was a twelve year-old boy sitting bright-eyed, entranced, exhilarated and moved by Gangs of New York on its opening day at the AMC Barton Creek Cinema in Austin, Texas – my first Scorsese film in theaters and a life-changing – yes, an absolutely life-changing – experience. And so with Hugo has Scorsese finally made a film about a twelve year-old boy enveloped by the cinema. And not just a twelve year-old boy, mind you, but a boy with a recently deceased father who seeks emotional satisfaction through the imagination and power of cinema. If there was ever a Scorsese film made just for me, surely this is the one.

My anticipation for a new Scorsese picture is unmatched; I await a new Scorsese movie the same way some anticipate a sort of religious experience. I don’t know if it's truly possible to count the ways Scorsese has influenced every single part of my everyday life, down to the music I listen to daily (The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison) to my beliefs about people, down to the way I experience things, every blink, cut and interpretation of events – not to mention my choice to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Scorsese’s alma mater. His work is such a fundamentally important part of my life that there are times when I don’t know how much I originally found similarities between my personal demons and Scorsese’s work, and how much Scorsese’s work ultimately influenced my behavior.

“Movies are the memories of our lifetime. We need to keep them alive.” - Martin Scorsese

Although every one of Scorsese’s pictures is extremely personal – after all, that’s what’s so effective about his films – Hugo may be Scorsese’s most personal film of all. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy living in the walls of a Parisian train station in the 1930s, discovers that an automaton left for him by his recently deceased father (Jude Law) may unlock the mystery behind George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an unhappy elderly man who owns a toy shop in the train station. What Hugo and his newfound friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Méliès’ goddaughter, gradually discover is that Méliès is one of the original pioneers of cinema, the director of over five hundred pictures and a revolutionary filmmaker. However, most of his films are believed to have been destroyed and melted at the rise of World War I, and Méliès, a broken machine without a purpose, resigns from life and fades into obscurity – until Hugo, who understands the pain of having one’s hopes and dreams disintegrate into flames – sets out to restore Méliès’ work.

Ah, film preservation – Scorsese’s most passionate cause, and the real subject of Hugo. The film is all about time, cruel time that batters away at celluloid. As the clocks tick-tock away in Hugo, the memories of our lives are slowly dying, the celluloid burning into ash and the preservation of our past decaying. But how can we let time destroy the magic and power of the cinema, of our memories?

The film gets you caught up in the magic of moviemaking, to the point where the audience gasps in astonishment at the beautiful remaining print of Méliès’ film A Trip to the Moon (1902), screened by film scholar Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who worships Méliès, but, like many, believes him to be dead – until Hugo and Isabelle prove otherwise. Watching Hugo with an audience, there were further gasps of awe when Méliès – in one of the most visually arresting and beautiful flashback sequences I have ever seen – splices together a cut in one of his early films. It had never occurred to me that so many people would not have known the process behind film editing, but there you go.

To say that Hugo is the finest use of 3D technology that I’ve ever seen doesn’t do justice to what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson achieve with this picture. I don’t particularly like 3D, and yet the visual bravura of Hugo has convinced me that, when utilized by a master filmmaker and treated as an artistic device, it is a major cinematic innovation, on par with the innovations of Méliès and the Lumière Brothers.

This movie is so rich – not just visually, but emotionally – that even after two viewings I am still overwhelmed by it. The performances, from the brilliant and hilarious physical comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector, to Kingsley’s nuanced, powerful portrayal of Méliès, are superb. The editing, by the wonderful and loyal Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, is as crisp and exciting as ever.

But in the end, if Scorsese is Hugo, the film preservationist – the boy who restores the magic in a broken machine – then Méliès can be seen as a stand-in for any one of Scorsese’s filmmaking influences whose work he has restored through his Film Foundation, including Michael Powell, Elia Kazan, Luchino Visconti and, of course, Méliès himself. But surely Scorsese knows that, by the end of Hugo, when Méliès takes the stage and tearfully acknowledges Hugo before a screening of his restored work, that it’s impossible for someone like me to look at Méliès, the great innovator of cinema, without thinking of Scorsese, the wise master of filmmaking who influenced me.

This is the work of a master at the height of his cinematic powers. People who truly love film have, picture after picture, said this exact same thing about Scorsese many times. We said it when The Aviator (2004) soared as the most ambitious, energetic and entertaining Hollywood biopic in years. We said it when The Departed (2006) was no less than the great American tragedy of the 2000s, a masterful return to the gangster picture that held us captivated in our seats. And we’re saying it again for Hugo, a movie that has been surrounded by so much negativity from the first announcement that Scorsese would direct a 3D picture – as if the world’s finest filmmaker, who has never made anything short of a great film, wouldn’t find a way to discover the art in 3D technology and take it to an entirely new level – and not only that, but do it with his most passionate cause as his subject material.

My loyalty to Scorsese is boundless, and I’ve suffered through the lows – throwing things at the television when he unfairly lost Best Director Academy Awards for Gangs of New York and The Aviator to inferior films, listening to pseudo-intellectual hipsters knock on the brilliance of Shutter Island (2010) – and I’ve been with him through the highs. And let me tell you, there is nothing that feels as wonderful as watching the artist you love and defend your entire life receive the praise and admiration he so richly deserves, squashing the cynicism of those who feel his time has past. This is his time. George Méliès, step aside for another master of cinema. Martin Scorsese, take a bow.


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  2. Jack: I too am a passionate Scorcese disciple, so much so that some of my work (a one-act called "The Candlestick Maker," in particular) is downright derivative of Marty's.

    Anyway, this is just a quick note to say (a) I get it and am right there with you, (b) this is some really lovely writing, and (c) Happy Holidays, Mr. Kyser! I look forward to seeing "The Wheels" when you finish it.



  3. Mr. Fuchs,

    Thank you so much for your comment - I am glad to hear you are also a Scorsese disciple! I hope you had a happy holiday season (I suppose school is already back in session for you) - and I will absolutely send you a link to "The Wheels" once it is finished (likely sometime in late January). Thank you so much for expressing interest in the film! Happy new year to you!