My favorite moment in Hugo didn’t even come from the film itself, but a different film altogether. As Harold Lloyd dangled high above Los Angeles from the hand of a clock in the 1923 film Safety First, the children in the theater I was in became dead silent, gasping along with Lloyd’s comedic feat. Silent cinema of yesteryear is, in fact, timeless. There is a magic that can happen when the lights go down. If nothing else, director Martin Scorsese wants to share this one lesson with a new generation in his 3-D fantasia. Boy, does he ever deliver.
Hugo is about a boy, Hugo Cabret, left to fend for himself running the clocks in a Parisian train station. It is also about a machine, a small mechanical boy, that he is trying to repair. But really, it is about the power and wonder of the movies. This isn’t too surprising coming from Scorsese, who has spent the years after his initial rise to prominence trying to understand and chronicle his chosen medium. From his epic “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” to his more recent “A Letter to Elia,” to his appearance in seemingly every moviemaking documentary of the last decade, always in his signature plush screening room chair, he has made it his life’s work to pay homage to those who came before him. This latest film shows not only an impressive honing of the director’s own technical acumen, but also an expansion of his educational efforts. As it turns out, this love letter to early silent film is a kids movie, intended for today’s youth who have sensory stimulation coming out their ears. That’s why I was blown away when my audience, who might be as comfortable watching Transformers or Real Steel, perked up while watching an 88 year-old Harold Lloyd clip.
The film itself isn’t perfect. It suffers from being a bit too precious, with a plot that sometimes lumbers along too slowly, puzzle pieces fitting into one another too perfectly. Overall though, this story of a boy and an aging, forgotten filmmaker provides sturdy scaffolding on which Scorsese is able to play with light. The 3-D is astounding, very different from the one-note eye- pokery that has served as the technology’s making and undoing. Bobbing and weaving through the train station feels natural, enhanced by the addition of 3-D instead of bogged down by it.
If I had to pick a shot to point to that proves the legitimacy of 3-D (besides those in Noel Paul’s excellent 2010 short Annie Goes Boating) it would be the moment we enter the library of film studies. The geometry of the establishing shot, which is fleeting, is impeccable even for 2-D work. We view the room from above, soaking in an enormous amount of depth even as the floor is soaked in fresh sunlight. Screen right, the expanse’s perfection is broken by a wooden banister that shoots off along the z-axis into oblivion. This upper level banister is the 3-D element that makes the scene something more than can be accomplished with traditional filmmaking processes. It is Hitchcock’s lamps in Dial M for Murder; it is Grace Kelly’s outstretched arm. This and so many other flourishes in Hugo justify the format. I only hope it stays around long enough for more artists to come along and take advantage of it.
Scorsese has made so many films in so many styles, it is hard to say where this one falls in his canon. Is it a masterpiece? Probably not. But is it a 3-D masterpiece? Yes. In fifty years when repertory theaters (may they still exist) do 3-D retrospectives, Hugo will be on the program. Maybe even some teenage movie buffs will say, “Whoa, Martin Scorsese, who, like, was famous because he made The Departed, made a 3-D movie?” It’s a film that moves us forward. Better yet, it gets young audiences today a reason to revisit the great early filmmakers of the silent era. That is a feat only a master could pull off.