I saw two films over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend that resonated with me as a filmmaker and cinephile so I’ve chosen to write about them together. Both films pay tribute to the early days of film with a contemporary twist.
The first, Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, tells the story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) an orphan living in a Parisian train station in the 1930’s. He lives clandestinely in the station’s clock tower, keeping the authorities none the wiser by regularly winding the clocks in the absence of his guardian uncle who has gone M.I.A. He is also devoted to restoring an automaton he was working on with his late father (Jude Law) before he died. So, in addition to filching croissants and milk from the station shops, he has also been swiping gears and other parts from the station’s toy shop run by a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley). After confiscating Hugo’s notebook full of sketches and forcing him to demonstrate his mechanical skills, the old man negotiates a deal to have him work in the shop to get the notebook back. Once Hugo joins forces with the shop owner’s goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), a voracious reader and budding adventurist, they discover that the automaton holds a hidden secret and that’s when the real story is revealed.
I was initially intrigued about this film because of what I knew about the source material (the children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and the fact that Scorsese, known for creating vivid portraits of gangsters, outcasts and sociopaths was behind a 3-D kid’s flick. I have too much respect for Marty to ever think that he had sold out just to get a big check, but I was curious to see what he would do in this uncharted territory. (Seriously, the closest he’d ever come to a children’s movie was Kundun.) However, once I was drawn in to Hugo I realized why his involvement, and even the 3-D, made sense. The plot twist in the third act reveals a real treat for cineastes especially. It’s clear from the care with which Scorcese treats his subject that he relished the chance to tell this story. He understands the importance of introducing it to a new generation of filmmakers and dream creators, and the use of 3-D is an appropriate way to pay homage to the spirit of the film.
It also makes the film more watchable for kids, for whom I think the pacing might be a bit slow, especially if they’re under the age of ten and they haven’t read the books, but for kids at heart (like moi) it was a fantastic treat. I didn’t see the 3-D version because I usually don’t enjoy the format to say the least, but in this instance it would actually enhance the story and I’m looking forward to seeing it again with the rented glasses. Even without it though, the magical atmosphere Scorsese creates with the train station and the snowy Parisian landscapes is a wonder to behold. The colorful supporting characters, including Sacha Baron Cohen as the villainous station security guard, only add to the whimsy and charm of this sumptuous visual treat.
The Artist, by the French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius, is a similar wonder. First of all, any film graced with leads as charming and gorgeous as Jean DuJardin (my new crush) and Berenice Bejo would have to be pretty awful to not at least be worth watching. The story starts in 1927
, where George Valentin (DuJardin) is one of the biggest silent film stars in the world when an unknown actress and fan inadvertently makes headlines with him by innocently interrupting a paparazzi frenzy at his premiere. There is immediate chemistry between the two, but he is unhappily married and she is whisked away to do “talkies” once her name is on everyone’s lips. Soon Peppy Miller (Bejo) is a star in her own right thanks to the popularity of her work in sound. At the same time Valentin’s popularity is waning as silents are going out of fashion. Hollywood
The film itself is silent (with a few cleverly placed sound sequences) and in black & white lovingly paying homage to the beloved but antiquated art form while at the same time documenting its inevitable demise. The story, however, speaks to the resilience of film itself and its ability to evolve with the times, a process that we are experiencing in present day. The film is uplifting, not only because it’s an inspiring tale of learning to swallow your pride and having the courage to change, but because it gives us hope that movies will once again survive the obstacles of newer, more convenient, alternatives and continue to take us to new and exciting places.