In the past few decades, the premier American New Wave survivor Martin Scorsese has made a career of nostalgia. Not that his films are nostalgic, mind you; if anything, his deeply ragged works of human frailty tear and fray nostalgia with rusty teeth. They do not play, within themselves, with nostalgia, but they exist, as objects, as nostalgia. Specifically, they exist as nostalgia for Scorsese’s other, earlier films, playing on his anti-nostalgic style for increasingly middlebrow audiences with the heyday of “back when they made real films”.
This nostalgia existed for audiences who saw Goodfellas when it was first released in 1990, when they saw Casino when it was first released in 1995, and, most definitely, when they saw the somewhat gluttonous The Departed when it was released in 2006. None are bad films (Goodfellas is a masterpiece), but they exist in partial reference to Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and all those other little damaged films from the 1970s that everyone and their parents loves so. He has a habit of giving in to nostalgia for his old films by making films that remind people of his old films. A nostalgia that, frankly, makes some of his later films feel somewhat musty and even dishonest, courting damage and brutality without ever descending to the fiery grime of Scorsese’s more insurrectionist early works. They feel somewhat like Scorsese doing a “Scorsese film” because he is expected to, and because he knows this is what audiences want.
Not so with Hugo, a cinematically literate, brash, bald-faced exercise in playing to the rafters of cinematic history and falling in love with moviemaking all over again. Scorsese’s story of Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and cinematic dreamer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley, astoundingly not slumming for once) is a cipher for his own love of cinema, a love he has exuded in the best of his films, but never a love he has diegetically treated before.
Specifically, Hugo lives in the French train station of Gare Montparnasse, hiding in the secret compartments of the station and mending to the clocks there, using them as an avenue to steal small parts for a writing automaton his father (Jude Law) had made, and which serves as his last memory of papa. Across from Hugo‘s overlook hangout lies a small shop tended to by the elderly Georges and his godchild Isabelle, and thanks to mouselike skills in thievery and curiosity, Hugo discovers that Georges is in fact Melies, the man who many call the godfather of the cinema and as important a figure for early 1900s cinema as any.
Melies, in his heyday of short-tempered toybox zeal and fitful flights of fancy, was an early adopter of the playful side of cinema as fantastique, emerging as an excavator and conqueror of the cinematic regions of the mind where reality held no laws. For him, film was an exercise in craftwork melded to art, his avenue for rejecting narrative and playing around with the affect of the moment, the feeling, be it wonder or horror or awe or bubbly speculative glee and perversion of a world that was no longer limited by the laws of nature and only had to answer to the laws of the mind. He was invested first and foremost in pushing the limits of cinema toward the future.
The theatrical version of Hugo maintained some of this futurist spirit in its textured, often startling exploration of the third dimension as an avenue for mood and physical space, but, by and large, the film is invested in the glory of the past, rather than the future, as a place of imagination. In its unabashed and luminous treatment of excessive style and gloriously heightened gestures of hyper-stylization and non-realism, Hugo adopts a portion of the Melies mood (about as much of that mood as success-conscious producers might be willing to accept on a 150 million dollar budget). Obviously, it is a narrative film, so Melies isn’t in full effect, but Scorsese also harkens back to the film’s own time period of the 1920s and 1930s (well after Melies) and the silent and early sound masters Lubitsch and Clair who still saw in cinema a gentle world of wonders and excitement that has been lost over time.
On the gentle side, it is no mistake and no apology that Hugo is rampant family film, entirely committed to its disquietingly innocent vision of a world where children can make adventure with the toys of the mind, and where cinema can help literalize their imagination for them. The effect is frequently sublime, most notably in the Dadaist chaos of the train station as a masquerade of people coming and going and running in circles. An effect matched in the jungle gym of geometry that is the clockwork gears and machinations and the myriad of girders, pistons, and wheels keeping the train station running during the day. These are the lightly diluted locations of silent cinema, all mystique and suggestion and interlocking Rude Goldberg mechanisms that flaunt their non-realism and play around in the locations of a child’s mind.
In this case, thankfully, that child is Martin Scorsese, and as musty and rusty as his film is (and even a little too expositiony), the sincerity and intimacy with which it exposes that musty time-tested attitude toward cinema becomes a refreshing pleasure rather than a detriment. It isn’t as startling as it could be, largely because of its insistence on narrative at the expense of full-fledged experimentation (the best moments are one-off recreations of Melies films done-up with all the stagecraft, innocence, and youthful vigor of Melies himself). But generally, Scorsese’s unfettered love pays off in spades. In paying tribute to cinema’s past, it feels like a mind throwing away decades worth of cinematic necessity, and in doing so, discovering that beguiling beast called cinema anew.