Monday, November 21, 2011


seen @ Clearview Cinemas Ziegfeld, New York NY

The name Georges Melies may not mean much to even the casual film fan, much less the average person. I admit I myself knew only that he was an early filmmaker from the turn of the century, nothing more. His best-known film, A Trip to the Moon, is often cited as an early sci-fi classic by genre experts. His is a fascinating story for film fans of all kinds, and in the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, his life is reimagined as a means to celebrate not only the man, but the medium of film itself.

I don't wanna get too deeply into the specifics of the film itself - it deserves to be discovered on its own terms, because it starts out one way and ends up another, but you should at least be aware of Hugo as a film that is, at its heart, for film lovers, whether you watch them or make them. Scorsese's love and appreciation for film history is well documented (late last year, just to pick one example, I talked about a documentary he made about Elia Kazan), and I suspect that love was what drew him to this story, based on an award-winning children's book.

Melies' films are characterized by a great sense of whimsy and imagination. They were very often flights of fancy with elaborate costumes and sets, as well as innovative camera tricks, the result of his early career as an illusionist. Moon, for instance, imagines space travel being as simple as shooting people out of a cannon pointed at the moon, while the moon itself is a fantasy land populated by strange creatures. When you consider how much "realism" audiences demand these days in genre films, this stands out as a striking contrast. 

It's an attitude that I succumb to as well, more often than not. I mean, we're willing to accept artistic license on certain things - sound in space, superpowers that defy the laws of physics, improbable stunts that would mean certain death in real life - but we're only willing to go so far. Part of it, of course, has to do with our expanded knowledge of the way the universe operates, but if a consequence of that is an unwillingness, or at least a reluctance, to lose ourselves in pure fantasy every once in awhile - to be able to tell a story and just not give a damn whether it adheres to scientific principles or not - then that's unfortunate. A film like Moon would be considered kiddie fare if it were made today, but Melies and his audiences didn't make such distinctions.

Hugo is Scorsese's first 3D film, and while I didn't necessarily think it needed to be in 3D, he handled it well. It's immersive in the same way Avatar is; the opening scene envelops you in the snow falling all over the Paris cityscape. The sets are obviously not as spectacular, though they're impressive in their own right (Scorsese had an entire period-specific train station built for the movie). There are some show-offy moments - a dog barking angrily in your face, the neck of a guitar poking through the screen, but Scorsese never lays it on thick. 

As more star directors continue to experiment in 3D - Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Baz Luhrman, Wim Wenders - the more we may start to see 3D films that don't necessarily rely on fantasy or sci-fi elements. Hugo seems like a fantasy movie because of its elaborate sets and sense of bigness, but it's not. Even its Macguffin, the humanoid automaton discovered by Hugo's father, has real-life precedents, such as the infamous chess-playing "Turk." I don't know if the world is ready for romantic comedies or courtroom dramas in 3D, but that does seem to be a direction we're slowly moving towards.

Hugo played at the Ziegfeld as a special SAG screening which I went to with Reid, he being a SAG member. After the show, there was a special Q-and-A with cast members Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley, along with screenwriter John Logan, hosted by film critic Glenn Kenny. They each talked about their experiences on set, working with Scorsese, that sort of thing. One observation I remember Kingsley saying was about how working in 3D means the camera captures everything the actors do more readily. He said something about being able to see Butterfield's emotions even before they surfaced, which I thought was interesting.

A word or two about the Ziegfeld: it's actually the namesake of the original Ziegfeld, located in the heart of midtown Manhattan. Named for Broadway mogul Florenz Ziegfeld, it has been a venue for theater, film and television over the years. It was torn down in 1966 to make way for a skyscraper, but the second one opened three years later, for movies only. Throughout the lobby there are sculptures, photos and other memorabilia celebrating the history of the original Ziegfeld, surrounded by lush red carpeting and ornate chandeliers. The last time I was there was, I think, for one of the Lord of the Rings films (probably Return of the King), and before that, for Attack of the Clones. Every time I've gone to the Ziegfeld, there has always been lines wrapped twice around the block. It's a single screen theater that seats a large amount of people, so perhaps that's not too surprising.

Look for photos of the Ziegfeld and of the Hugo Q-and-A on the WSW Facebook page.

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