Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hugo and the ghost of Michael Powell

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Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opens with an image that has long been central to this director’s work: a boy looking through a window at the world outside. As most fans know, this image is autobiographical—Scorsese’s asthma kept him indoors for much of his childhood, forcing him to view the world from afar—and although this isn’t the young Henry Hill, staring longingly at the gangsters across the street, but Hugo Cabret and a CGI wonderland of Paris in the 1930s, it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this is Scorsese’s most personal film since Goodfellas. It’s a curious movie: far from his best work, yet ultimately entrancing, for reasons that have less to do with its considerable technical merits than with its romantic notion of what the arts, especially cinema, can mean to one person over the course of his or her life. In particular, it’s about what movies mean to Scorsese, and to convey this, he employs no fewer than three fictional surrogates, often where you least expect them.

At first glance, of course, it’s the technological aspects that command our attention. Scorsese is clearly tickled to be working with a large budget and in three dimensions, and Hugo is one of the best arguments I’ve yet seen for 3D as something more than just a fad. Unlike Avatar, which largely unfolds in an airless, if gorgeous, universe of special effects, Hugo takes particular pleasure in small touches of reality: steam, ash, the particles of dust on a real set. Its 3D is less a gimmick than a way of immersing us in a new world, aided immeasurably by Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, and the result is captivating from the very first frame. And while the same isn’t quite true of the plot—Scorsese seems rather indifferent to some of the beats of the children’s book he’s adapting, and the first half hour is especially lumpy—the story eventually becomes absorbing as well, thanks largely to the invisible figure at its heart: the English filmmaker Michael Powell.

The action of Hugo, and this is a minor spoiler, revolves in great part around the director Georges Méliès, whom Hugo discovers, now neglected and depressed, operating a toy shop at Montparnasse Station. Later, Hugo introduces him to a film scholar, an enthusiastic student of Méliès’s work, who goes on to unearth and restore many of his lost films. And while the plot closely parallels that of Brian Selznick’s original novel, it isn’t hard to see what drew Scorsese to the story: it’s basically a fabulous recasting of his own relationship with Michael Powell, whose films he loved as a child, and whose life he finally entered after establishing himself as a director and student of film in his own right. Like Méliès, Powell, once hugely popular, was overlooked for decades, during what should have been the most productive years of his career—in Powell’s case, after the disastrous release of the controversial Peeping Tom. And Scorsese played a major role in his rediscovery, leading the way in recent years in the restoration of his major works, beginning with The Red Shoes. (It’s even possible to see a hint of Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s wife, in Méliès’s wife Jeanne d’Alcy, played here by Helen McCrory.)

As a result, Powell’s ghost hovers like a protective spirit above much of Hugo. (Among the many small references to the work of the Archers: in the film’s closing scene, Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, wears the same white tie and tails as Lermontov at the end of The Red Shoes.) And Scorsese himself appears in three guises: as the young Hugo; as the movie scholar and Méliès fan René Tabard (nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most interestingly, as Méliès himself. Scorsese is obviously far more interested in Méliès than in much of the surrounding story, and it’s hard not to read the final scene, as Méliès receives the Legion of Honor, in light of Scorsese’s string of late career awards. And while Scorsese has been far from neglected, he knows how it feels: he once feared that Raging Bull would be his last movie, and spent much of the 1980s in a relative wilderness. Like all artists, Scorsese has had moments, at one point or another, when he feared that his work had been in vain. If a film like Hugo is any indication, his legacy is secure.

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