Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Clockwork Cabret

Speaking of Howard Shore, he has abandoned opera for scoring films again, which I suppose is a good thing; in Hugo, Martin Scorcese's preening look at early cinema via the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret the music certainly impels the viewer to follow the action up and down ladders, into various alcoves and chambers almost all of which look like OSHA nightmares, with open gears whirling, flywheels spinning, ratchets ratcheting. This makes for exciting visuals that constantly threaten; the gears don't seem to have any teeth.

It was a Chekhov maxim that if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before Act III ends. Perhaps it is a perverse streak in me that wanted to see someone's coat get caught in the works, or at least the threat of it. Why make such threatening machinery? While this is an engaging fairy-tale, the dangers in the film consistently are only implied, which made it somewhat of a cool relationship with the audience.
The quasi-villain, Gustav, is played by Sasha Baron Cohen for both laughs and terror, neither of which seems to come off well. He is initially seen chasing Hugo, which we gather is rather like chasing the white whale for him; like Javert, he is obsessed with catching the young boy who lives above the train station in the clockworks. We see that he has a knee that is assisted by a metal hinged frame, making him somewhat of a clockwork man himself. In the first chase through the train station he thrusts aside the waiting passengers and luggage-handlers, the street musicians and cafe-denizens. It's an ugly scene that isn't funny in the least, and cannot be taken seriously.

He is always accompanied by a real bete-noir, a Doberman Pinscher and is always threatening Hugo with the Orphanage. Then his leg brace is suddenly caught by a protruding step on the train and is dragged on his back, off-screen. Immediate confusion in the audience. Is this farce? Drama? A Cartoon? A Borat out-take? In all this woolly world of a 30's Paris Gare, doesn't he have anything better to do? Then -- in one later scene, we see him climbing up the wall on a very strange-looking ladder (again, an OSHA nightmare). Why? Where is he going? By this time the audience has given up trying to understand what he is doing.

Throughout the film, Gustav keeps reeling from being the villain to the comic relief, to a sorry foil, back to the villain again, which is awfully tedious. (I am not the only one who thinks so.)

  And while I love Georges Méliès, somehow I feel that the veneration the film shows him is a one-trick pony. We keep coming back to the Man in the Moon shot from his Voyage dans la Lune, which I've always found disturbing by any account; yet to see it over and over says to me that Mr. Scorcese doesn't know as much as he thinks he does about it. (Maybe he does, but thinks that the audience can't take much more than this tiny slice of Méliès's output.) I did love enormously the flashback sequence that Méliès narrates, about his career, much of which is perfectly true and was heartstoppingly wonderful to see re-enacted--and the perfectly matted-in shot of Mme. Méliès in the final shot.

But doing research at the "Film Library" in Paris ? Had M. Langlois knew of this, I am sure it would have warmed his heart. This little library looks larger than the Library of Congress. And in 1932 or so, how much film history would there have been?

Fantasies about film are among the most rarified of self-gratifying daydreams; I think Mr. Scorcese may have different ideas as to what his audience wants to see--and I am not sure they know much on the subject of early French silent films, either. 

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