Image

The first time I saw Hugo, I was in a theater in Florence, KY, and I bawled my eyes out. See, my Dad worked his way through college as a projectionist at the Chevy Chase Theater in Lexington, KY. He has told me several times that the film he has seen most in his life is 2001: A Space Odyssey because it played for so damn long at his theater. In 2010, Turner Classic Movies did their first film festival, and one of the films shown was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I covered it, recorded the Q&A with Douglas Trumbull, and then raced outside to call Dad and I’d just watched the 70mm roadshow print that he had projected so many times in his youth. In that moment, it felt like time had folded ever so slightly, allowing Dad and me to share a moment as young men humbled by the scope of genius. So yes, when Hugo sees the movie his Dad told him about, and for a moment his Dad is alive with him once again…I did not keep my composure.

I think the thing that strikes me most odd about Hugo is its place in the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s entire filmography shows a man looking forward. It is obvious that Scorsese is a film historian, evidence can be found in every film that he’s made. Yet, it was always an aspect of the film, the foundation from which art builds onward and upward. Just as Kurt Cobain used his incredible familiarity with the structure of pop music to create something loud and brash and undeniable, Scorsese used the iconography of the past to push towards some understanding and articulation of what he saw in the people around him. In Hugo, however, it seems he has made a film where looking back is the point.

Hugo Cabret is an orphan, though he wasn’t always this way. Even here, we see the film wanting to have it both ways. As a storytelling conceit, orphans are usually symbolic of someone with no past, thus nothing tying them to acting in a particular, socially-accepted manner. They are wild and free. And yet they are also alone. Even when they find a community of fellow orphans, it is almost constant that betrayal will seep into the group, and our principle orphan will be thrust once more into the concrete jungle. Perhaps this is because we associate family with love and acceptance, though I would argue that I know as many people who learned acceptance through their family as I know who learned acceptance in spite of their family. Still, in storytelling, and particularly cinematic storytelling, every word must represent three words. And so is built the contract between filmmaker and audience: Someone without a family must always search for a family. If the film is to have a happy ending, they are to find that family. If the film is more interested in punishing them, they are to find and ultimately lose that family. And so it goes.

For at least some of its running time, Hugo is about the community we find at the cinema. Granted, these are not people with whom we talk often, but that is only because we share something much deeper with them. Movies are our collective dreams. To share that with someone is intimate, magical, and far more profound than many will ever realize. Most of the best friendships I have were born out of a shared love for the movies. To some, those 100 minutes spent in a darkened room may be trivial, but they have defined me in both my sense of the world and myself.

But Hugo is also about a little boy finding a family in the non-metaphorical sense. This is a beautiful film, and Scorsese’s love for cinema past is evident in every frame. And yet, it is also missing something. It is missing that forward momentum that carries you onward and upward, into cinema future; that thing that says “Yes, the past is filled with awesome things. But you know what else is filled with awesomeness? Our future.” Hugo is a very good movie. It would be the best film in so many other filmographies. Just not in this one.

Advertisements