Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Birthday Take: Martin Scorsese in "Hugo" (2011)

Scene from Hugo
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Martin Scorsese
Born: November 17, 1942 (73 years old) 
Nomination: Best Picture (nominated) for Hugo

The Take

There's no refuting the legacy that director Martin Scorsese has at this point. It's beyond staggering how many great films he has made over the course of 40 years. He is in many ways lucky to still be as viable, considering that most of his 70's peers are not as well known to contemporary audiences. However, there's always trust in him making something that prods the audience and makes them feel the power of cinema. In some cases, this is through the gangster movies, notably with Robert De Niro in films like GoodFellas and Casino. However, he has known to attack other subjects in visceral fashion, leaving his imprint in powerful ways. Then, there is his 2011 film Hugo, which was rated PG and geared directly at family audiences.

It isn't shocking that a filmmaker would want to make films that appeal to wide degrees of audiences. I think what's more confusing is how Hugo fits into the narrative of Scorsese himself. Beyond it being an almost 180 degree turn from his general tone, it is a film that almost feels too geared towards teaching kids about Georges Melies. Say what you will about his other films, but they often provide something beyond educational value. They tell stories that immerse you in the worlds. I don't even know what the next step for a young fan whose entryway to Scorsese was through Hugo. There's no logical step that doesn't involve violence and profanity. To make matters more confusing, his next film - The Wolf of Wall Street - was his most vulgar film in over 20 years. It even got him some flack for glorifying a degenerate like Jordan Belfort.

This is tough baggage to ignore if you're going into Hugo as an established Scorsese fan. However, there's nothing exactly wrong with the film or its motivations. It tells an engaging story for the most part and Scorsese even has a knack for making family films. My general issue, and why I have trouble wanting to revisit it, is that the final film leaves the impression that this was an excuse to introduce younger audiences to old cinema. This isn't bad, but I remember being more smitten by the concept of Hugo afterwards than any specific scenes. For everything that the film did right, it didn't have that immediacy that even second-tier Scorsese (Shutter Island) has. Maybe it's just that time isolated only certain memories for me, but I worry that revisiting Hugo means that I will see its propaganda-like structure and not love it as much. After all, Scorsese is a renowned film historian, so it makes sense for him to make it. But is he too diligent with the subject at hand?

It's a lot of things that I personally process whenever I think about Hugo, which is frankly not as much as a dozen of his other films. It could just be that I like the striking, edgy Scorsese better. However, I'm not entirely sure why I come away from Hugo with such apprehension. It's definitely a beautiful film and one that has a lot of the required energy and whimsy to tell the story. It's just that beyond its compelling characters and solid production, all I can remember is that Scorsese made a movie that was about "Hugo," but transitioned into a story that was more about Melies. As much as this isn't a bad thing, it does ring sort of deceitful in my memory. There had to be a more truthful way to get modern audiences to care about Melies than hijacking some kid's story.

For what it's worth, Scorsese's career has persevered beyond this film. In fact, it is likely that he will never lose his acclaim at this point, even if he releases a decade's worth of mediocre titles. Again, given his work over the past 40 years, that seems unlikely. However, Hugo gives me hope that even if he decides to give up on the violent films, that there's room for him in the family genre to tell stories that are whimsical and very well constructed. Even the renowned 3D of Hugo is worth talking about, as Scorsese provides something far more impressive to it. I am not entirely what he has planned next, but whatever it is, it's likely to be the next big thing. The only question is if he'll ever make a film quite like Hugo again. If not, that's going to be one interesting note in a lengthy career.

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