November 29, 2011
In one of those serendipitous quirks of scheduling, two homages to the silent film era are opening at the same time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3D extravaganza adapted from Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, uses the life and work of Georges Melies as the central mystery for its eponymous hero to uncover. Conceived for 3D, it uses the contemporary (and derided) version of movie magic to look backward at a magician who was famed for his own glorious special effects fakery.
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a labor of love that made to mimic a 1927 silent. It was shot without sound on Hollywood back lots, framed in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and was converted to B&W in post-production. Where Hugo posits Melies’s art as contemporary as the Hollywood blockbuster he is a character inside, The Artist embalms the object of its adoration.
Hugo elaborates the tale of a tousle-haired tot (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris train station, working in secret as a clock winder, after the soused uncle (Ray Winstone) who taught him the trade drowned in the Seine. Hugo’s only respite from drudgery is the automaton left to him by his equally dead father (Jude Law). He spends his days stealing gears from the station’s toy store, hoping to spring the rusty marvel to life. With the aid of young bookworm Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), he tries to get the automaton up and running, while investigating the mysterious owner of the toy shop, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who seems to know more than he lets on.
Scorsese embraces 3D technology with an impressive gusto, opening with a swooping CGI-aided shot through the packed halls of the station, the forward motion pushing through layers with a dizzying speed. Likely inspired by the CGI long takes by Robert Zemeckis in his motion-capture films, as well as David Fincher in Panic Room, Hugo finds Scorsese in an experimental mode, testing the boundaries of the technology. This long opening, which ends on Hugo’s eye peeping out of a clock face, helps set up the mini-neighborhood that makes up the station. Hugo is immediately established as a viewer, as he watches the daily routines of the cafe owner, the doughy merchant who loves her, and the growing romance between the flower seller (Emily Mortimer) and the seemingly villainous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).
On his first outing with Isabelle, he helps her sneak into the movies, where Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last is playing. Scorsese and his frequent DP Robert Richardson push the camera in closer to watch Isabelle and Hugo’s faces burst into grins as Lloyd works his stunts. This blooming cinephilia starts to enter Hugo’s waking life, as he later dangles from a clock hand just like Lloyd, and his nightmares, as he dreams his becomes part of the clock machinery, like Chaplin in Modern Times. Later his investigation of Georges reveals his past as a master filmmaker, and the creator of the first moving image Hugo’s father had seen, from A Trip to the Moon. Clearly a deeply personal project for Scorsese, it contains lovely tangents on the need for film preservation, which his Film Foundation supports, and a pocket history of Melies’ career, including generous clips from his films, which look glorious in hand-tinted 3D. To maul a Faulkner quote for my own ends, a great director’s past is never dead. It’s not even past.
For Michel Havanicius, however, the past is most certainly dead, and in need of a nostalgic revival. He came to prominence with the face-pulling parody of the two OSS films, broad take-offs of James Bond style spy thrillers. The Artist is a more sincere reclamation attempt, but Hazanavicius can’t tamp down his natural flair for burlesque, so the film ends up as a goofy, and slightly condescending pastiche, rather than an authentic heir to the old movie melodramas.
It’s a mash-up of a Busby Berkeley backstage musical and A Star is Born, with George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, from the OSS films) entering the downswing of his swashbuckling acting career with the arrival of sound. Before he crashes, he meets-cute with young hoofer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, also from OSS), and gets her a job at the studio, whereupon she starts her rapid ascent to box office dominance. As Valentin descends into poverty, it is up to Miller to salve his wounded male pride and get him back on-screen.
Valentin is less Valentino than Douglas Fairbanks, with his pencil moustache and persona of roguish athleticism. Miller starts as a plucky Ruby Keeler-type, plucked from nowheresville into Hollywoodland, and then transitions into Jean Arthur-style screwball. Both Dujardin and Bejo play their types with exaggerated pantomime, in epileptic fits of toothy grins and eyebrow levering. This playing-to-the-rafters style existed in the silent cinema, but did not define it — D.W. Griffith’s actors, for example, were famous for their studied underplaying. In wholeheartedly accepting this common stereotype, Hazanavicius makes his characters into quaint oddities, something for our modern tastes to laugh at with proud disdain.
The world in which he places Valentin and Miller is a clear labor of love, with brilliantine art deco sets by Laurence Bennett. The conversion of the color film to B&W, though, makes the film more shades of gray than the deep blacks available to Murnau or Lang, an example of the losses incurred by technological advancement (B&W stock is hard to come by these days). There is also the crystalline sharpness of the close-ups, the norm in our HD age, which lack the woozy mystery of the filtered and soft-focus techniques of the 20s.
It becomes clear that Hazanivicius’ real interest lies in 30s and 40s Hollywood, as his torrent of movie references attest. There is the aforementioned plot device from A Star is Born, a terrier lifted from The Thin Man, the breakfast table scene from Citizen Kane, a blonde bimbo sound test from Singin’ In the Rain, a snippet of the score from Vertigo, and a final city-scape dance number inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It is in this final duet that Hazanivicius closes his ironic distance from the material and exhibits the simple joys of two actors moving in tandem. Perhaps if he applied his chameleonic style to an RKO musical instead of a silent, he would be able to channel the unselfconscious magic of the original.