When I walked into the empty theater and took my seat for Hugo I saw Scorsese staring down at me.
Father Martin looked a little disappointed in me and well he should. Just look at the state of the place. Oh sure a lot of this neglect is due to Son Of Danse Macabre and I’m sure once that particular project is done I’ll have much more time for Things That Don’t Suck. But lets face facts some of it is very real burn out as well.
I used to have such a pure hunger for film. Relentlessly seeking it out. New or old, indie or mainstream, good or bad, it didn’t matter as long as I hadn’t seen them before. I wanted to watch everything.
I’m literally embarrassed by some of the stuff that I’ve missed seeing in the theater this year. Sure no one can see everything, but I’ve missed some truly basic stuff, stuff I’ve been excited about seeing for a long long time. If you don’t see Tree Of Life on the biggest screen available to you it means one thing, you don’t care enough. And if you don’t care enough well what business do you have writing a film blog?
The fact is a few moments of frisson aside; the narcotic junkie’s quest for film and its cousin narcotic bliss have been absent from my life this year, for the first time in memory. I had to make a decision yesterday regarding film that made me sick, literally sick all day. It transformed me into my most bearish and I really, truly pity anyone who had to encounter me. But the fact is, that five years ago, hell two, I would never have made the same choice. Part of that is growing up, but some of it feels like giving up.
Because the idea of making my own films or hell working on anybody’s, looks more and more unlikely with each passing day. Some of this is my fault, as time keeps on slipping I looked at my writing and my filmmaking and had to choose which to put my energy into. Paper is cheaper than pixels and I’m a more natural writer than I’m a filmmaker (no comments from the peanut gallery) and my chances of getting published are better than my chances of getting a production off the ground. But the sting of the dream abandoned, even temporarily, never goes away. If you’re not careful it’ll tarnish the very thing that made you dream in the first place.
It’ll make you bitter.
So as I sat there underneath the sounds of Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Film. Hearing lines that I once watched so many times that I knew them by heart, the feeling of disappointment became all too keen. I once understood the lines that Scorsese spoke. Could I truthfully say that I still did?
I should have known that Scorsese would have a homily ready.
Hugo is a wonderful film. I mean that in the true sense. It reminds you that wonder itself is the primary force behind film. A film made all the more warm and humane given it’s knowledge of cruelty. It is simultaneously like no film that Scorsese has ever made and entirely of a piece.
It’s not hard to read into the story of an older filmmaker whose ability to produce art is stripped from him, Scorsese making an alternate history for himself. Today, even if Scorsese can’t make anything he wants (and if he never gets his chance to bring Silence to the screen, I will consider it perhaps, the greatest of unmade films) he is certainly in a better position, both creatively and financially, than the majority of his peers. Contemporary or otherwise.
It’s easy to forget that Scorsese’s films didn’t really make money until The Aviator. It’s all too easy to imagine that if that film hadn’t been made, if Michael Mann had directed it as was originally intended, and Scorsese’s lucrative partnership with DiCaprio hadn’t cemented. Had he instead followed up Gangs Of New York with another costly underperformer, that the state of his career would have much more in common with someone like DePalma, or Scorsese’s mentor Michael Powell at the end of their tenure, or yes like George Melies. Still dreaming, still scheming, working desperately to make films that no one wanted. It’s this quality that gives the film weight a knowledge of the road not taken.
If that gives it its weight, than it’s the gratitude in the road that was taken that gives the film its delightful fleetness. There is a filmmaker’s film and one can feel Scorsese’s palatable glee as he attempts to one up the silent filmmakers he pays such righteous tribute too. Watching him restage Harold Lloyd’s Clock scene is like watching one magician, make a pocket watch disappear, than watching another bow to him and make a Grandfather Clock vanish. The highlight of the film is a blistering montage of silent cinema that probably made a bumper crop of young cinephiles in every theater in which it played. It’s followed immediately by a jaw dropping recreation of the silent era, showcasing Scorsese as one of the few filmmakers capable of simultaneously pushing cinema forward with each film he makes, and revering its past.
There is to the film just the slightest whiff of Tati, as Scorsese benevolently watches his “parts” play across the station Including the likes of Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee (in a role that made me tremendously happy) Sacha Baron Cohen (less broad than the awful trailers would have you believe) and the lovely Emily Mortimer. Whimsical is not exactly the word that one often uses when describing Scorsese and it’s not exactly overplayed here. But it fits.
But it is the central cast of Asa Butterfield, Chloe Morentz and Ben Kingsley who carry the film. Butterfield is great, tapping into some deep wells of bitterness that feel real in a way that children performances rarely do. Morentz, is an odd case, she feels mannered here, less natural than she felt in her archer roles in Kickass and Let Me In. Perhaps it’s simply the novelty of having to perform sans body count. But it’s Kingsley who truly impresses. His resemblance to Melies in the film is truly uncanny, but that’s only part of it. The performance it reminds me of the most is Martin Landau’s in Ed Wood. Both have that ineffable sense of what happens when someone who has been stuck in dreck for far too long is suddenly given something fine to work with. It’s a perfectly played part.
Of the much vaunted 3D I remain unconvinced. There is no doubt that there are some isolated moments here (such as when Scorsese overlays his great clock with the city of Paris, in a shot that would make Von Stroheim cry bitter tears of envy) where it is used to great effect and the uber depth of field he achieves is astonishing at times. But I face the same problem with it that I face with every 3D film that’s not using the Disney Digital system, there’s a lack of solidity to the image that irritates my eyes to no end (That’s Disney shot in 3D, the trailer for the post conversion job done on Beauty and The Beast horrified me, if it’s any indication of what the feature film will look like than I am much afeared).
There are some other bumps to the film; it feels like a movie with scenes cut from it. Kingsley and Butterfield don’t spend as much time together in the film as you might think and I’d be willing to bet that there are scenes missing from the first third of the film that where sacrificed for the sake of narrative momentum.
Still these are minor issues. I found in Hugo, just what I needed. A reminder of all I truly love in film, and more importantly a reminder that the things we love may go dormant inside us but never truly die. My hunger will return in full. As surely as a man’s appetite is aroused when he smells something delicious cooking on the air. It may take a few more months before TTDS is back to full speed, but it will be one day.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go watch some films.