Film: Martin Scorsese: Hugo (2011)

It pains me to say it, but I’m settling into the idea that Martin Scorsese has lost his gift for real filmmaking.  Perhaps it’s the sudden popular attention he’s getting after thirty years spent hovering at the margins of mainstream American cinema, making films of tremulous psychological energy and percussive visceral force.  Perhaps he is himself settling, into happy old age and a passive enjoyment of soft entertainment, after three decades commanding work from an audience.  Whatever the reasons, Scorsese hasn’t challenged us in over a decade.  His budgets have gotten bigger, and his use of special effects has taken over heavily from in-camera image-making, but from Gangs of New York through The Aviator, Shutter Island, and now Hugo, his movies have become user-friendly in a way that asks nothing of us anymore but concession to melodramatic spectacle. The Departed, Shine a Light, and No Direction Home have come close to reminding us how good he has been, but their achievements are slight and sporadic next to the wave of pap he’s put out since Bringing Out the Dead, his 13-year-old masterwork and the last full expression of his thunderous gifts.  At least there are others.  Paul Thomas Anderson continues to work five years between releases, and has never made a bad film; James Gray makes even fewer films and with far less fanfare, but his output is persuasive and original.  But it may be time to concede that Scorsese’s done, and sadly watch him drift deeper into burdensome, featherweight stories devoid of the sharp pulse he once seemed unable to avoid.

There is so little to distinguish Hugo from any number of big-budget fairy tales Hollywood seems committed to producing, as from a soda fountain, on a mechanical basis.  A few quick beats early on, and one freeze-frame of an eye in the latter half, remind us of the jittery style he once swung with vertiginous force; the rest by far is saccharine to an extent films like Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull (let alone Goodfellas and Casino) reject out of hand.  Scorsese used to exhibit a simultaneous love for cinema and deep mistrust of its connivances that lent his work such live-wire naturalism; his movies were bigger than life while embracing life’s harshest contradictions.  They were bold, unreal narratives, shivering with violence as an animal response to insecurity and incomprehension.  He wasn’t opposed to human attempts to connect; his characters just didn’t know how.  Lately Scorsese seems to have gotten self-conscious about this aspect of his work.  Casting Leonardo DiCaprio is the least of his concessions to wheezy audience-pleasing (the actor will eternally look 15, and probably always project a brand of actorly commitment that smacks more of earnestness than skill); as a storyteller, he simply doesn’t seem interested in conflict anymore.  He’s shifted to pure image-creation of the shallowest emotional depth, cut off from resonance that can’t, as Spielberg once declared, be held in the palm of your hand.

At least he’s always up for a good gimmick – Hugo is a film about the effects of watching films, and with clever 3D and allusions to the machinations of filmmaking itself, he ekes a small running joke out of the rudimentariness of the hand-cranked film camera.  He does nothing new with 3D – I don’t yet believe the technology has any intrinsic value in cinema; unlike color or sound, it exists almost exclusively in our visual perception of imagery, not storytelling – but he has fun with it.  Sacha Baron Cohen leans so far toward the paired lenses at one point that he seems not only to lean over our heads, but nearly to lean beyond the capacity of 3D to keep working, and our eyes strain to maintain the illusion.  And Scorsese isn’t as attuned as James Cameron to the framing limitations imposed by 3D; the effect breaks apart on the edges of too many shots of objects framed just at the cusp.  Nevermind the weight of the 3D glasses perched on your nose (in my case, also in front of my own glasses), and the unfortunate side effect that the glasses drain the screen of a good half of its brightness; after a while your brain adjusts to 3D and wearies a little of its demands on the optic nerve.  How much does it really add?  In Hugo, Scorsese’s equated it with the effect of George Méliès’ film Arrivee d’un train gare de Vincennes, which at the time of its release in 1896 terrified audience members into believing they were about to be smacked by the oncoming locomotive, but we’re a bit more sophisticated than that now; the joke is a once-off Scorsese cashes in repeatedly.  I kept waiting for him to find a new dimension in the gimmick, but I’m not sure there’s another one to be found.

Worse, Scorsese is clearly buying wholesale into machinations of Hollywood melodrama.  As a human story, Hugo is as steel-framed and shopworn as the (unpaid-off) automaton at its center, a preprogrammed imitator of stock emotions.  He’s almost as callous with his wide-eyed child cast as Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire, photographing them for maximum adorability in pursuit of childlike discovery.  There’s something chilly and detached about denying child performances their due awkwardness; the act of discovery for children doesn’t resonate for them the way it does in our adult recollection.  In the moment, it’s plain and matter-of-fact.  Thirty-seven years ago Scorsese gave the adult Travis Bickle greater unself-consciousness than either of these kids, and it lent Taxi Driver a childlike anxiety – one fraught with violence he might have replaced with wonder in Hugo.  All the elements are in place: the adult station inspector whose broken body and nearly-ripe spirit makes him shy with the ladies (a fun Sacha Baron Cohen and a totally wasted Emily Mortimer); an aging Méliès forced to confront the awkward reality that innovation garners attention long after its prime (the spitting image in Ben Kingsley, who can do better than required here); a pair of parentless children shuffling chest-high in a mechanical, repressed adult world (Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine, upstanding Hollywood child actors).  But he plays them all for quick laughs and laborious drama.  In his old age, Scorsese shows as much patience for propulsive emotion as fresh commercial directors on their first action feature.

A good friend remarked the other day, wistfully, that Scorsese’s becoming more and more popular the longer he makes films this shallow.  I feel a cynical shell forming around me as I accept, with deep regret, that we’ve probably lost a great film artist to the clutches of the marketplace.  But I’m unsure whether Scorsese has drifted into or sought out this place of pop worship.  It can’t be easy to know you’re making the best films of your generation but constantly lose out in the box office and awards circuit to fluffier work by sillier contemporaries.  Has Scorsese known all along that he could be making popular films, and until recently capitulated to the compulsion to wrestle harder?  Or is this what happens when you smoke out your demons and drain your soul of introspection?  That finally, all of a sudden, dues paid in your distant past, you find yourself respected for your willingness to please?  That by itself would be at least understandable if, in the process, challenges gone, his movies weren’t becoming so damned boring to those of us who still want to think.

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