Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Martin Scorsese in Hugo
Martin Scorcese makes a cameo appearance in Hugo.

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.

Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield in Hugo
Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès and Asa Butterfield as Hugo.

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).

Helen McCrory in Hugo
Helen McCrory as Mama Jeanne (Jehanne d’Alcy), Méliès’ second wife, acting in A Trip to the Moon.

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.

Hugo sort of replaying a scene from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, which figures in the film’s story.

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 fxguide website 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.

Sam Kula

Sam KulaSam Kula, the Director  of  the National Archives of Canada’s Audiovisual Archives from 1973-1989, who died of cancer on  September 8th, is someone I’m proud to have known and worked with. I first met Sam when we were both graduate students at the University of Southern California’s Division of Cinema back in the 1960s, when we were both pursuing PhDs.  He was several years my senior and had come to USC after a stint at the British Film Institute.

We both dropped out to take jobs at the American Film Institute, in Washington, D.C., during its early years where he headed its Archive program and became my boss; initially I was Associate Editor of the AFI Catalog before Sam sent me to New York City as Manager of their short-lived Film Information System. The latter position called for a librarian, but Sam wanted one with my particular knowledge; so even though I lacked a library degree at the time, I got the job.  Also working under Sam at the time was David Shepard (he was Film Preservation Officer) whose Film Preservation Associates currently produces some of the most significant historical DVDs around.

I left the AFI when the Institute closed down its New York office and I gradually lost touch with Sam. Some years later, I eventually returned to USC to finish my PhD and learned that he too had tried to do the same, but for reasons I’m not clear about decided not to. (I do recall some disparaging remarks by a faculty member putting Sam down for being a mere archivist and not being active enough as a film scholar!)

After I started occasionally attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival , I learned that Sam would sometimes show up, but regretfully I never made the extra effort to see him, which is my loss.

His most noted accomplishment at the National Archives, aside from setting up its Film, Sound and Television section was, as Luke McKernan pointed out on his Bioscope blog, was the major role he played

in the discovery, care and historiography of the extraordinary discovery of over 500 reels of silent film that were found in 1978 underneath a boarded-up swimming pool in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, where the films had been buried in the permafrost (ideal archival conditions) for forty-nine years. The story of the find … is the film archivist’s romantic tale par excellence, and alone serves as memorial to one of world audiovisual archiving’s most dedicated servants.

For more on this, check out Sam’s article about it in Archivaria, the journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, which was adapted from an article in American Film.

Photo by Lois Siegel.

Last update: January 29, 2017.

Film Histories, Part 1

Tol'able David

This is the first in a series of posts in which I will evaluate some of the one-volume histories of film in English. Nominally, it will be from my perspective of their suitability of their use in the classroom, particularly those I teach on the undergraduate and graduate level at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Initially, I thought of focusing on the way they deal with (or ignore) animation and television. (I should note that SCAD’s TV production majors are required to take History of Cinema and a number of animation majors take the class as an elective.)

On one level, when I first examine a book on film history, I look to see if they include films I want to screen, especially those that I feel have sort of fallen from grace, e.g., Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) and Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953); Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin’s A Short History of the Movies does put the King film in context, showing how it influenced Pudovkin (seen rather clearly in Mother), while Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film History: an Introduction does briefly mention Engel’s film and its role in the American independent film movement and the way it anticipated Direct Cinema documentaries (but not how it influenced Truffaut’s The 400 Blows).

Little Fugitive

There are other, more important factors I take into account, including but not limited to the book’s accuracy, scope, narrative sense, illustrations, price and how it fits in with the way I teach. For instance, when I first started at SCAD, I used The Oxford History of World Cinema, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, which has a lot going for it, featuring as it does in-depth articles and informative sidebars by a host of specialists (the pieces on animation by William Moritz and Donald Crafton blow away the competition, as do its sidebars on Max Linder, Karl Freund and Alexandre Trauner). With a list price of $34.95, it’s also a real bargain. Yet, I dropped it because its lack of overall narrative didn’t fit in with the way I taught. (The fact it hasn’t been revised since its 1996 publication doesn’t bother me, but might concern others.)

I then switched to David Parkinson’s The History of Film, one of Thames & Hudson’s inexpensive but well written World of Art paperbacks; at the time, I compared it to an edition of Jack C. Ellis and Virginia Wright Wexman’s pricier A History of Film (Wexman has since taken over authorship) and found it much its equal. Though I would have had to drop it when it went out of print, I ceased using it because my students (who were then largely film majors) found that it lacked enough detail; as I now teach History of Cinema mostly as an elective, I would certainly think about using it again, especially as a new edition is apparently in the works. Since then, I have mostly used Thompson and Bordwell, with a brief experiment with Mast and Kawin; this fall I am finally trying Wexman. (Needless to say, I find it hard to make up my mind; m y wife has suggested I consider not using a textbook at all, but I’m not ready to go that route.)

In addition to those mentioned above, I will consider several other books, including David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn  Audrey Foster’s A Short History of Film, Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman’s Flashback: A Brief History of Film and Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film. (The Cousins book has just gone out of print, but is worth looking at.) In addition, I will briefly look at books on animation history, as well as look at some of the reasons why animation and television are dealt with they way they are.