Monday, February 6, 2012

The Death of Cinema Redux: Martin Scorsese's Hugo

‘Fix it,’ says the shop owner to Hugo, handing him a small mechanical wind-up mouse covered with felt. The boy pulls out the coil, reaches for a small screwdriver and quickly restores the small toy to its original working condition. Then he and the man watch it as it pirouettes on the desktop, occasionally standing on its hind legs as if to sniff the air.

You can buy a replica of this toy for $29.50, but that’s not the perverse part. The perverse part is that the dance of the mechanical mouse was stop-frame animated by hand, using a technique roughly contemporary to the setting of the film. As Pixomondo’s visual effects supervisor Ben Grossman has explained to fxguide,
It was hand animated for hours and hours, so we could have done a totally CG mouse which would have been a piece of cake, which is what everyone would have expected, but instead we decided to make it an homage to classic technique.

Of course another option would have been to design, build and operate an actual mechanical mouse, but that wouldn’t have been inventive enough, nor a ‘homage’. So the filmmakers opted to create all this work for themselves. A labour of love, but labour nonetheless. Is cinema the only industry in which taking longer than necessary to do something is viewed as a virtue? And I don’t mean in the way that taking a long time to do something can lead to making a better product. Say: a good cheese, or one of those plasticine animations that Aardman no longer bothers to make. No: the labour here has a purely fetishistic function, it is the end in itself. A CG mouse would not only have been a piece of cake, it would have also most likely looked better on the screen, while the hand animation was jarring and odd, its imperfections not matching the analogue movements of a mechanical toy, which digital animators are by now notoriously adept at reproducing.

I would have much less of a problem with this if the film in question, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, had in fact been shot using early twentieth-century techniques throughout, making the bold aesthetic choice to reclaim the craft of innovative artisans such as Georges Méliès, the film's co-protagonist, or of clock-makers like the young lead of the title. (After all mechanical timekeeping is itself a quite obsolete technology.) But this is emphatically not the case. If you’re fond of staring at green screens, you can sit through this nearly ten-minute long clip on the extensive use of digital technology to craft almost all of the film’s major sequences, and you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m not suggesting that there is no artistry in that, nor that the use of computers devalues production design compared to the pioneering times of Georges Méliès. But neither do I think we can claim – as Hugo does; it’s in fact its overt thesis – that today’s cinema is the modern equivalent of the old one, just with updated technology. Méliès’ cinema was nothing like ours. It didn’t command big budgets, nor rely on a worldwide network of distribution, garner advance publicity or attract critical attention from the press. It was at once a new art form and a novelty, a thing to be experimented with, to be awed by and to scoff at. Reception is key to this difference: the famous (although possibly legendary) episode of the audience jumping out of their seats during the first screening of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is shown not once but twice in Hugo, begging the obvious retort that today’s 3D technology makes nobody jump out of theirs. We are now wise to the trickery, and even if we weren’t, the launch of every major film is preceded by videos on YouTube and news websites, or ‘making of’ featurettes on television, illustrating how the most spectacular sequences were shot and then transformed in post-production, often down to promoting the brand of software used. This would have been anathema to Georges Méliès, who had plied his trade as an illusionist. But it also exposes the peculiar obsession of contemporary cinema with demystifying itself at the same time as it seeks to persuade its audiences that they are going to witness a magic spectacle every bit as awe-inspiring and literally moving as those early films that made their naïve spectators run for their lives.

Of course there is no rewinding the mechanical clock to those pioneering years, if only because we cannot make audiences unlearn the art of watching films, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s history. However the relationship with that history, and with the passage of time more generally, is precisely the issue with Hugo.

The myth of origin created by Scorsese is blatantly dishonest: what drove Méliès out of business wasn’t the fact that WWI spoiled the taste of the public for his flights of fancy; it was the workings of the burgeoning film industry, and in particular the monopolistic practice of the rental system, to whose demands Méliès was never quite willing or able to adapt. More generally (and, one might argue, inevitably): what killed early experimental films and drove its makers out of business was the film industry that now produces the films of Martin Scorsese.

That the manipulation of the father-figure of Méliès and of the record is achieved through massive industry financing and the deployment of the latest computer technologies, with the odd piece of old-fashioned bricolage thrown in to appeal to the obsessively nostalgic, is neither surprising nor new, and speaks directly to Paolo Cherchi-Usai’s indictment of digital ideology in the cinema in a book whose preface, ironically enough, was written by none other than Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese the passionate campaigner for film preservation doesn’t see the contradiction in making a movie in which the films of Georges Méliès are digitised, transformed to include the character played in Hugo by Helen McCrory and made tri-dimensional – as if they needed to be updated in order to be shown at all – at the same time as they are held as the thing that is authentic, the objective Real that modern cinema is founded upon and should seek to return to.

Subsuming and processing the past like that, be it historical or artistic/literary, is what contemporary cinema does best through the digital (how to forget or indeed forgive that Hugo’s co-producer Johnny Depp was involved in what is without a doubt the wrongest of these films?) But I don’t mean to suggest that Hugo’s flaws are confined to a meta-level accessible only to the humourless critic, for one would be remiss not to note its thematic incoherence and dramatic weakness, leading to constant interruptions as the director phones to tell you what the film is about.

(‘Fix it’, says Méliès to Hugo. Fix my toy. Make this machine that no longer delights work again. And Hugo obliges. The broken toy is cinema, and what fixes it are child-like wonder and a pure heart. Etcetera.)

The problem in fact is that the meta-level is what Hugo is about, which is to say that its intent is to function as propaganda. As James Cameron – who must have some sort of global contract clause requiring that he be thrust in front of a camera with the director of every new film shot in 3D – has said to Scorsese: ‘Your film is about the magic of cinema, and the movie is magical to watch’. It is important that we believe this, and that’s what those ‘making of’ shorts and shot-by-shot analyses are designed to achieve. It doesn’t matter that they give away the trick, because a filmmaker’s job no longer resembles that of the illusionist. In front of an illusionist, the audience is meant to wonder: How did they do this? In the cinema, we know how they did it: nine times out of ten, they used computers, which is very much like saying that a wizard did it. If anything, knowing the trick, understanding how a piece of illusion was crafted, might make a sequence seem more real.

But that the film is magical to watch is the whole point. You must enjoy yourself. As I’ve had occasion to argue, this is close to a universal moral imperative these days, as well as being regarded as a form of labour. Yet shifting the emphasis suggests another way of reading the phrase: You must enjoy yourself. You are the ghost in the machine, and the machine is cinema. John Logan’s screenplay puts it in the mouth of Méliès himself:
If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, this is where they are made.
This is nonsense of the highest order, and could only come from a culture intoxicated by entertainment: we don’t dream in movies. But perhaps we do need to be convinced that this cinema that treats the past like a wind-up toy, that is never about social classes, never about a history other than its own, this cinema obsessed with infantilising itself and its audiences is still relevant and interesting, somehow.

For a review that focuses on the thematic/narrative aspects of the film, as well as the association between spectacle and authority, see Aaron Bady's remarkable Martin Scorsese Started the Fire: Hugo and The Bad Thing. Plus with any luck if you hated this post you might hate his as well and I might take less heat.

Edit: If you want somebody else to hate, see also Lili Loofbourow's taglines for Hugo. My favourite: Victor, H.G. and Jules agree: “all of the steampunk, none of the calories!”