The 84th Annual Academy
Awards, based as it was on Hollywood nostalgia, honored two films far above the
rest: The Artist and Hugo. While the success of The Artist surprised few, many were
taken aback by the five Oscars awarded to Hugo.
Martin Scorsese’s latest endeavor, is a 3D film about a boy in Paris (Asa
Butterfield) who is forced to live alone winding the clocks in the Montparnasse
railway station after his clockmaking father (Jude Law) is killed in a fire.
Before his death, Hugo’s father brought home a broken automaton that, when
wound, can write. Hugo continues to mend it, believing that it will deliver to
him a message from his dead father. In the process of fixing it, he steals
spare parts from a toymaker’s shop in the station. The toymaker turns out to
be George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a pioneer of early filmmaking. The rest of the
film is spent watching Hugo and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretez), the Mélièses’ adopted daughter, attempt to discover George’s secret and make him happy again.
The similarities between Hugo and The Artist are, at this point, striking. Both films chronicle a
famous, celebrated cinema artist who is forced to abandon his dreams and his
craft as the fickle tastes of the masses shift away from his style of
moviemaking. He desperately wants to continue producing celluloid dreams but is
forced to sell off all his prized possessions. Both movies depict a scene where
the 35-mm prints of the man’s films are dramatically burned, conveying
his arrival at rock bottom. Ultimately Méliès and The Artist‘s George Valentin are redeemed, saved
from their crippling depression because an outside observer recognizes and
cherishes their genius. It becomes a “clap if you believe in fairies” moment
whereby cinematic artistry finally
receives the respect it deserves. Or at least that is where the moralizing plot
of Hugo takes us. The Artist places a majority of the responsibility
for Valentin’s downfall on Valentin himself, whereas emotionally damaged World
War I veterans and women’s fashions are blamed for Méliès’ fall from favor.
I really wanted to like Hugo, if only because I like Scorsese
(crazy eyebrows and all) and he gave an adorable interview on The Daily Show about this film. While speaking
with Jon Stewart about the decision to make Hugo,
he talks about watching his twelve-year-old daughter grow to a point where she
begins to demand that he make a movie that she would be allowed to see. In a
father-daughter conversation during Hugo’s filming she told him, “You know, I think this might be really
interesting, this film. No offence about Shutter
Island, but I think this might be better.” She further instructed him to “find
out what people like, and then make a film,” to which he responded, “You know,
I never thought of that.” If the idea of the director of Goodfellas, The Departed, Raging Bull
and Taxi Driver being harangued by a
tween doesn’t just melt your heart, then you have no heart. But I digress.
The first half of Hugo was fairly delightful, getting to
know the lives of those who spend the majority of their days in the train
station and watching Hugo struggle with the broken automaton and his grief. Once Méliès’ identity is revealed, however, the movie breaks down into a
self-congratulatory, self-indulgent ode to auteur cinema. The film stops
speaking to a boy’s struggle to find his place in the world and becomes a
rehashing of hackneyed adventure plot devices intercut with stock
sentimentality, redemption and family unity. Basically, the Academy needs to
get over itself and its fear of being forgotten—a fate which will assuredly
come to pass if it continues to wallow in spectacles of its former greatness.