I finally got to see Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, his delightful romantic comedy about the end of the transition between the silent and sound era, and it is every bit as good as its reputation. The film’s conceit is that it is shot as a silent film in black-and-white; this sort of thing could easily have become gimmicky, but far from it. Hazanavicius, who previously did several parodies of spy films, which like The Artist starred Jean Dujardin, shows a pitch perfect understanding of the style of late 20s and early 30s Hollywood filmmaking. For example, take the image below of Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin reflected in the mirror, which would easily evoke a feeling of déjà vu to any number of people familiar with the silent era—and it does so without affectation. The same goes for the sound stage sets and costumes, though one policeman’s hat seemed a bit off.
The story revolves around silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who is somewhat modeled after Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (there is a scene where he watches one of his old films, which is Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro ), though we initially see him at the premiere of a film that harks back to Louis Feuillade’s French serial, Fantômas (1913). He has a brief encounter with Peppy Miller (Bejo), an aspiring actress, who goes on to be a major star in talkies, while he’s too much of an artist to make the transition to sound, which sets up a sort of A Star is Born plot, but again not quite. In any case, it’s a remarkable film and is very easy to recommend.
This has been a remarkable year for what used to be called FOOFs (Friends of Old Films), what with the 150th birthday of Georges Méliès being celebrated with the restoration of the color version of his Trip to the Moon and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and The Artist. With the Best Picture Oscar race open to 10 nominees, it is easy to believe that both Hugo and The Artist will be nominated in that category, if only for sentimental value. The more interesting race to watch will be whether or not Jean Dujardin will be considered seriously for a Best Actor nod, as after all he did win in that category at Cannes.
Right off the bat, let me say that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a wonderful film which I cannot recommend too highly. In a sense, it’s one of those generic, loving homages to the movies that come along every so often; though Hugo is in a class all by itself. While a “family film” like this may seem off the beaten track for the director of Taxi Driver and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, it also appears to fit in with much of what he’s been dong throughout his career; in fact, I would venture to say this sort of sums up what he, as an artist, is all about.
Hugo is about a young boy who encounters the elderly and forgotten film pioneer, Georges Méliès, who has been reduced to running a toy stall in the Montparnasse train station in Paris and helps spur his rediscovery. (In fact, his rediscovery was prompted by an article published by filmmaker René Clair and Paul Gilson in the October 15, 1929 issue of La Revue du cinéma; the two are represented in Hugo by the character of René Tabard.) In the process, Scorsese gets to show us Méliès at work in his Montreuil studio; along the way, we also get to see clips from the recent restoration of the hand-colored version of Méliès‘ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902).
In a number of his films, Scorsese has been concerned with various, often unsavory aspects of his and America’s history/identity, such as Gangs of New York and Mean Streets, while several of his documentaries, especially A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy — have concerned themselves with film history itself. Thus, it seems only natural and fitting that he should make Hugo, a film which seems to sum up how Scorsese sees himself as an artist.
In terms of production, I was initially a bit put off by the film’s use of 3D stereo, which seemed a bit off-putting with its sometimes obvious multiplane effects; but I soon realized Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti were trying for a style evocative of illustrations for a children’s book; though it does have some resemblance to Brian Selznick’s illustrations for his The Invention of Hugo Cabret, from which the movie was made from, it also had more than a passing resemblance to the look of Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express, which works better than you might think. Anyway, go see it.
P.S.:December 2nd—The always useful fxguidewebsite has a nice piece on Hugo’s visual effects here (which is actually the first of two parts), which also lists a number of filmic references made in the movie beyond Safety Last. Incidentally, one of the tasks the effects team had to do was to convert some Méliès footage to 3D, which brought to mind something that Serge Bromberg (whose Lobster Films was responsible for the restoration of the color version of Méliès‘ Le voyage dans la lune noted above) did something quite similar and more interesting. As Kristin Thompson reported last year:
Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. After the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!
Two 1903 titles–I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi–triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.
Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew breaks the news that two DVD sets devoted to UPA’s theatrical cartoons are coming out soon: UPA Jolly Frolicsdue out on March 5th from Turner Classic Movies and The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection 1949-1959which s due out June 19th from Shout! Factory (both are available for preorder). Until now, the best DVD source for them was the Special Edition set of Guillermo Del Toro’s HellBoy. which includes three Gerald McBoing shorts plus The Tell-Tale Heart as extras. (Del Toro is a long-time animation fan and has been working lately with DreamWorks Animation, where he’s slated to direct a forthcoming movie.)
These films have been shown intermittently on American cable channels, but such major titles as John Hubley’s Ragtime Bear (which introduced Mr. Magoo) and Rooty Toot Toot will now be available in restored versions (they were previously available on out-of-print VHS versions). Because of their lack of availability, the importance of UPA to post-World War II American and international animation has largely been overlooked.