Hugo

While acknowledging that it’s impossible to argue someone into loving something they hate, and vice versa, it’s still often enjoyable to attempt the argument. When we talk to people whose opinions directly contradict ours, we’re forced to defend our tastes, define our opinions, and analyze why we react the way we do. Which is why we have Why Don’t You Like This?, in which two of our staffers will attempt to discover whether people with opposing opinions can get beyond “No, you’re wrong!” and have a civil, constructive, and possibly even convincing discussion about their points of contention. Because no matter what talk radio says, there’s still a middle ground between “We agree utterly” and “I’m right, and you’re stupid and evil.”

Scott: Since discussing my Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World apostasy, we’ve been looking for a case where I can call you out for not liking something wonderful, and we didn’t have to look for long. We were sitting right next to each other during Martin Scorsese’s Hugo—me, utterly enchanted by its fantastical tribute to the wonders of early silent cinema, and you, apparently resisting it at every turn. Critical consensus has been on my side: It hit the No. 9 spot on our collective Top 15 (though you listed it as your Overrated choice), has won (or placed) in various film-critic awards, and currently enjoys an 83 score on Metacritic. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, of course, but the onus is on you to explain why Hugo was, in your words, “hollow and artificial,” where many of us saw it as a lovely evocation of Scorsese’s childhood and the medium when it was still in its infancy. And please be gentle as you rip this butterfly apart by the wings. 

Tasha: I can’t be gentle, Scott. Sometimes it hurts less if you rip the Band-Aid off all at once. (And even if it doesn’t, who wants to walk around wearing a half-ripped-off Band-Aid? Gross.) The fact is, I found Hugo to be a wearyingly manipulative exercise in fakery, starting from its opening glide through a Paris train station, which reminded me more than anything of Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express. Unlike Mike D’Angelo, I’m a fan of long, unbroken takes as a way of establishing a space and encouraging viewers to unconsciously hold their breaths as a camera explores an area; but when the space being explored is a slick, shiny CGI creation, and the camera floats weightlessly through it with no physical sense that either the camera or the surroundings are really there, that exploration starts to feel like watching someone else play a videogame. And the rest of the film felt similarly poreless and unreal to me, both in terms of its setting and in terms of its highly contrived, maudlin story.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with manufactured, stylized environments in film. I loved Baz Luhrmann’s equally sprawling, utterly artificial take on Paris in Moulin Rouge, for instance, but that film has a sense of its own ridiculousness, a sense of humor about how deliberately over-the-top it is. Ditto the stylization of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, particularly in Amélie. (Both Jeunet and Luhrmann felt like strong visual influences here.) I got the sense, however, that Martin Scorsese wanted me to take Hugo entirely seriously. Even though it’s yet another achingly sentimental story about a plucky orphan bringing color back into the life of a grumpy old curmudgeon. And I just couldn’t.

There is nothing I enjoy more in film than being surprised. And there’s nothing I resent and resist more than being overtly manipulated, being loudly told what to feel and when to feel it. A good film does this kind of thing subtly; a bad one uses crashing music cues and sweet strings—and in this case, a grubby, huge-eyed, disheveled orphan staring woefully at the camera—to demand pathos, and to tell viewers they’re horrible people if they don’t serve it up on demand. That said, I can deal with sad kids and grumpy adults making life better for each other—I really dug this year’s Le Havre, which was essentially the same plot without all the cutesiness—but I find the artificial environments reflect badly on the artificial emotions, and each makes the other seem more fake by turns. 

Let’s start with that. In our overlooked films video, you and Noel both took Keith to task for championing Tyrannosaur, because you felt it wasn’t realistic enough—too contrived, too miserablist, too much, too far. How is it possible that you can’t buy a stymied old crank who breaks things when he’s angry, but you can buy an orphan living inside a giant train-station clock and embarking upon a whimsical journey to repair a mysterious automaton that he believes might bear secrets from his dead father, but which instead leads him on a quirky voyage of self-discovery, into the magical land of cinema? Did you never find Hugo’s gaudy rococo design, aggressive heartstring-plucking, or wheelbarrow-loads of quirk even a little excessive or hard to swallow?

Scott: Jeunet and Luhrmann as influences on Scorsese?! Forget being indelicate, now you’re deliberately poking me with a sharp stick. If you’re looking for inspirations for Hugo—indeed, if you’re looking for the emotional core of Hugo—you have to go back to Scorsese’s childhood on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, where an asthmatic little boy, unable to play outside with the other kids, retreated to Alexander Korda fantasies like The Thief Of Bagdad. Or, more simply, just go straight to the source himself: George Méliès, whose A Trip To The Moon remains the Big Bang of all cinematic fantasies, that moment when the camera was not used to document the world as it is, but whatever whimsical, magical, transporting place a filmmaker wants to invent for it. And that tradition has been developed and expanded upon for decades before the likes of Jeunet and Luhrmann got their grubby little paws on it.  

And speaking of Jeunet, nice attempt to take away my rhetorical weapon, but I’ll say it anyway: How can you love Amélie, yet find Hugo synthetic and “excessive” and “wearyingly manipulative”? You say that Amélie and Moulin Rouge have redeeming “sense of [their] own ridiculousness” where Scorsese means us to take Hugo seriously, and I don’t think that’s the case, at least on the latter point. That Scorsese feels evident passion about the movies is, I suppose, why you’d interpret Hugo as self-serious. But to me, it’s those feelings that give the film an emotional ballast that the Luhrmann and Jeunet films don’t have. All three films make aggressive use of the marvels of CGI—and Scorsese adds 3D to the mix, to wonderful effect—but where you and I differ is on the issue of weightlessness. I agree that CGI has a distancing effect; worlds composed entirely of digital plasticine are flexible to the point where they sometimes have no presence. You referred to Hugo in your “Overrated” entry for our Best Of Film piece as “a CGI gimcrack”—a perfect dis… for another movie. 

It’s fair to say that Scorsese has built Hugo around a standard-issue, “heartstring-plucking” children’s book/movie plot: Orphan misses his daddy, creates his own little fantasy world, gloms onto a new friend, convinces a crusty old fuddy-duddy to soften up and maybe adopt him. But that’s just the narrative skeleton, and Scorsese provides plenty of flesh and blood. For one, you can’t watch Hugo, the lonely boy, peering out from clock towers to the hustle-and-bustle of a Paris train station without thinking of Scorsese, another lonely boy, staring out of his bedroom window on Elizabeth Street. And even if you’re not a big enough film nerd to make that connection, I really feel like Hugo’s journey is not in finding a new father figure, but in persisting with the mechanical magic that stands as his own father’s legacy. That’s what film is: The persistence of vision that allows us to accept an illusory version of the world at 24 frames per second is science and magic at once. Hugo’s relationship with Méliès isn’t about him cozying up to a new daddy, but sharing a common enthusiasm the old man has submerged in bitterness. To me, that’s a far more unique angle on a potentially shopworn premise. 

Did you really find none of Hugo enchanting? Even the film’s few detractors seem willing to admit that the sequences evoking cinema history and Méliès’ studio—with Michael Stuhlbarg as the heroic film scholar!—were terrific. It felt, in the best possible way, like a heady compression of my History Of Film 101 class in college, condensing a semester’s worth of clips and context into something between a montage and an animated pop-up book. And it speaks to the ingenious design of the film, which layers fact and fantasy so beautifully that it’s at once a history of Méliès and the birth of cinema, and just the sort of simple, sumptuously produced cinematic wonder that Scorsese himself would have loved as a child. Thank goodness Hugo doesn’t follow the Jeunet/Luhrmann model and have “a sense of its own ridiculousness.” As a fantasy connoisseur yourself, wouldn’t you say there’s value in playing it straight and earnest and unabashed rather than winking at the audience? You may find Hugo sickly sweet, but I don’t think the authenticity of its sentiment is to be denied. 

Tasha: Yes, I did in fact find parts of Hugo enchanting. (Notice how I’m answering your question up front, whereas you were too busy frothing with apoplexy to address mine, though I assume that’s an answer in its own right. Okay, “influence” may be overstating the case—I just meant the visual style looked very familiar. Though as Keith pointed out when you brought this up in person, Scorsese is neither opposed to drawing inspiration from other people’s visuals, nor immune to it.) Primarily, I was enchanted by the parts dealing with Georges Méliès’ backstory, with his love of cinema, with the work he put into his art and the joy he got out of it. There’s an awful lot of beauty and fun in the staging of the underwater-court scene from Méliès’ “Fairyland,” and in the sequence at the end, focusing on Méliès footage. I’ll grant you that Hugo’s connection with Méliès over a shared love of film is a nice touch. And I do enjoy a good film about filmmaking. 

But Hugo isn’t primarily about film, in spite of the Méliès tie-ins. In addition to the themes you cite, it’s also about finding your purpose, as the characters expressly, laboriously explain to each other and to us. And it’s about spectacle, and big action setpieces, and chases, and happily-ever-after endings where even the angry bully and the shy older couple and fergawdsakes even the cranky dachshund all get paired off with charming love interests by the end. It’s about the super-precocious Hermione Granger-type being bossy and perky and clever and praising the magical worlds encased in books. And all of this business is mighty familiar, and mighty artificial.

Yes, Scorsese is playing with archetypes. Problem is, I never felt he imbued them with anything new, fresh, or believable, in spite of his own backstory. I would have much preferred a story about a young Scorsese growing up with asthma—something small-scale and real, without vast rooms full of CGI clockwork and golden glowing dust-motes and prophetic dreams and a raging adult tyrant-guard with a heart of gold—all of that outsized, over-the-top nonsense. You keep citing Scorsese’s personal background and love of film as evidence that he’s really feeling what he’s putting on the screen, but I don’t feel his personal touch in any of this, except the moments that are expressly about film. The core emotions may be real, but that doesn’t make the execution less false.

You say the authenticity of the emotion isn’t to be denied. I don’t question whether Scorsese personally felt lonely and isolated as a child, but I don’t feel loneliness and isolation on the screen—I see a bunch of exaggerated signifiers (Hugo is filthy and his clothes are worn and all the adults yell at him and he regularly gets chased by a scary dog!) and big beats, with shouting and weeping and Spielbergian wonder-emoting. For me, sincerity is more convincing and more personal when it’s quiet and direct; when someone’s shouting his opinions at me, I assume he’s either really angry, or just trying to overwhelm my senses to keep me from expressing my own opinion. Hugo was one long shout, as far as I was concerned.

Why didn’t I get that sense of fakery from Amélie, you ask? Actually, I did. I’ll completely acknowledge that Amélie and Moulin Rouge are both big, manipulative, artificial constructions in the exact same vein, demanding specific emotions at specific intervals, and trying to sell those emotions with heavy emoting and aggressive soundtrack prodding. Neither of them really sold me on their emotions as authentic human feeling. What I enjoyed in those two films was the construction—particularly Amélie’s heady, laughable lists of random characterizing features and experiences for its cast, and Moulin Rouge’s musical-magpie mashups and recontextualizations. I’m often sold on stories that do creative or ambitious things with structure, and both of those movies qualify, where Hugo is a much more linear, standard kid-quest.

But in the end, for me, it really does come down to a feeling that those movies are goofs, whereas Hugo is meant to be taken seriously at every treacly moment. You don’t think that’s true—but you’re simultaneously defending its integrity in terms of its absolutely authentic, rooted-in-Scorsese’s-history emotion, and telling me I’m wrong, and he doesn’t mean it to be taken seriously. How do you reconcile those two statements? What about the film suggests to you that it isn’t meant to be taken at face value? And is it possible this is just another Curious Case Of Benjamin Button-like situation where I find the use of kids in big-budget films to be largely sappy and melodramatic, whereas you as a dad find it bypasses your cynicism and goes straight to your family-feeling?

Scott: Not sure I meant that Scorsese doesn’t mean to be taken seriously; it’s just that he’s chosen a whimsical vehicle through which to express a serious love of the movies. When you say, “But Hugo isn’t primarily about film, in spite of the Méliès tie-ins,” I’m mystified. I grant that you find many elements of Hugo overly familiar and laborious and full of Spielbergian wonder-emoting—there’s nothing I can do to argue around that perception, which other Hugo doubters share. Sometimes a film means to charm and enchant, and it doesn’t for some; you’ve got Hugo and I’ve got Amélie, though I think the latter, deliberately artificial as it is, means for us to find it romantic. (Rather than, say, some horrible mechanical contraption fit for a Saw sequel.)

But to say Hugo isn’t primarily about film? If it’s not about film, then it’s the most pointlessly discursive story about [whatever you think it’s about] I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Hugo and Méliès is the heart of the movie, and at the heart of that is not just some stock connection between Plucky Orphan and Crusty Old Guy With A Heart Of Gold, but a shared affinity for engineered magic—specifically the magic of the movies. I think Scorsese and his collaborators have found a way to express their enthusiasm over the early days of cinema through a fantasy that’s accessible to all ages. The archetype-filled children’s tale is the merely the crust here; cinema is the pie. (Mmmm… pie.) 

As for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, I don’t see much of a connection, other than trying to expose me as a Benjamin Button defender as a way of damaging my credibility. (Incidentally, how are the extras on that G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra Blu-ray?) I’ve said to you that the sleep-deprived new dad in me was perhaps vulnerable to Benjamin Button, but I can’t imagine a time when the premise of aging in reverse wouldn’t move me. (Cradling the love of your life in your arms as an infant? How can you not be affected by that?) And besides, I don’t see how Benjamin Button relates much to Hugo as a film concerning kids, since that’s just a small segment of a story that spans a much larger trajectory. 

So have I convinced you? Likely not. But I’m happy to learn that Hugo wasn’t entirely devoid of enchantments for you. The sequences on Méliès the filmmaker are what put Hugo over for me—and in that, at least, we can share some movie love. 

Tasha: Nope, I can’t say you’ve convinced me, any more than I’ve convinced you. It’s impossible to argue anyone into a visceral love of anything, and it really should be equally impossible to talk someone down from visceral love. Mostly, you’ve let me see Hugo in Scott-O-Vision, which is an interesting experience; at least now I’m mildly convinced that we didn’t somehow manage to see entirely different films which both somehow had the same name and director.

We certainly had different experiences, though, and to my mind, focused on different aspects of the production: I still don’t see the “film is marvelous” theme as the movie’s single strand, so much as one among too many. “Pointlessly discursive” almost covers it, though I’d throw in “often needlessly cutesy and precious” on top of that. While you’re focused on the film’s tasty pie filling, I feel like that pie was covered with a pound of crystallized sugar, and I think that does make a difference, regardless of the film’s core message or handful of terrific scenes. See also Benjamin Button, which I did not bring up just to chafe you—I really do think you have more of a sentimental streak than I do regarding children in cinema, especially when they’re used more as symbols of vulnerability and innocence than as human characters. Hey, you know what film totally does not have cute wide-eyed moppets bringing hope to a cynical world? G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. Maybe I will go watch those Blu-ray extras. I could use some explosion-insulin to compensate for Hugo’s sweetness.

Filed Under: Film

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