Old magicians, new tricks

Martin Scorsese casts a spell with his first family film.

I have always been distrustful of high-heeled shoes. While adorning female feet, they’ve struck me at various points of my life as precarious, duplicitous and even deceitfully intimidating, with a rapier-sharp stiletto heel more than capable of cutting through both a wayward-waltzing big toe and a reluctant wallet. And Martin Scorsese hasn’t helped their case. In his magnificent new film Hugo, the master filmmaker shows us great cinema — cinema at its brightest, most inventive and pathbreaking — and then literally sets the reels on fire. Unlike in Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist masterpiece, flaming celluloid here does not kill dictators and win a war; no, Scorsese’s usage is significantly more inglorious, so to speak: in Hugo, strips of surrealist fancy and moments of movie whimsy are melted down to make heels for women’s shoes.

Hugo, releasing in India in March and nominated in the major categories at this weekend’s Academy Awards, is an achingly beautiful film. An adaptation of Brian Setznick’s graphic novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, it is unlike anything from Scorsese’s fabled filmography — proudly profane, preternaturally pop-soundtracked and gloriously gun-filled — and yet has his signature emblazoned across every painstakingly constructed frame. It might be his first ‘family film,’ certainly, but his films have always been about family. This one, about a wide-eyed boy gulping in the miracles of cinema, merely seems more autobiographical.

Set mostly in a French railway station (and also notably *behind* its numerous clock-faces), this is the story of 11-year-old Hugo Cabret, who, having inherited clockwork precision from his late watchmaker father, tirelessly labours at fixing the broken automaton they worked on together. This involves stealing spare parts from the station’s toystore, run by the crotchety George Méliés, a grump who happens to share his name with cinema’s first real magician. As Hugo, and Méliés’ literature-loving godchild Isabelle, embark on an adventure, Scorsese literally winds the clock back and shows us how it’s done, lovingly detailing gears and sprockets and taking us to libraries where books literally come alive — pictures of movies turning into moving pictures — in front of incredulous children, even as the director turns us all into just that.

There is much attention to detail in this story of love, love for images and even, indeed, for words — James Joyce has a walk-on cameo, and Isabelle is far more impressed by Hugo’s correct use of the word ‘panache’ than his pluck or tinkering skills — and cast-members themselves seem enchanted as they walk through Scorsese’s splendidly recreated sets, especially the movie sets of movie sets.

Hugo also marks Scorsese’s first foray into 3D, and it’s remarkably ingenious how he takes cinema’s newest storytelling device, still in its teething stage, and uses it to pen his love letter to the movies, three-dimensionally paying tribute to the giants of early cinema, most notably to the Lumiére Brothers’ iconic 1896 film, Arrival Of A Train At The Station, a film that, at the time, had horror-struck audiences screaming and struggling to get out of their seats, thinking the black and white locomotive was coming straight at them.

There is some gimmickry then, yes, but when the balance between story and spectacle is so perfectly struck, the word wizardry seems a lot more appropriate. Scorsese’s homage to Méliés introduces us all to his pioneering work, while allowing one of the finest filmmakers of our time to indulge in his own immodest prestidigitation.

And for that, for restoring our faith in the rabbits that live exclusively in cinematic top hats, we must thank him. His name is Marty, and he can make fly.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, February 22, 2012

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Old magicians, new tricks

  1. as gorgeous a read as the movie itself
    no mention on sacha :|

  2. This is a good post but it could have been better. You are known for writing quite good reviews and you did not disappoint when you began with a nice and smart reference to heeled shoes. But I was expecting you to simply go crazy and rave over and over about Marty’s filmmaking. The ace filmmaker is also my favorite and I can’t help admiring him. I am waiting to watch this film in a theater though I did watch a terrible cam rip and loved the film nevertheless. Marty is someone you cant resist. By the way, you can read my review on my blog.

  3. amitabh

    It won’t be released in India. My countrymen will miss out on a 3D delight! What have we done to deserve this :'(.

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