By Eleanor Ringel Cater
According to Jean-Luc Godard, “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second.”
According to Martin Scorsese and his wondrous new film “Hugo,” the cinema is dreams 24 frames per second.
Not, perhaps, what you’d expect from the man famous for such down-and-dirty pictures as “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas.”
But it is absolutely true of “Hugo,” Scorsese’s astonishing valentine to cinema that’s also the best Film 101 you could ever imagine (or dream of…?)
From its opening moments, in which young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) peers out from his perch in a clockwork tower overlooking a Parisian train station circa 1930, Scorsese’s picture gives us one enchantment after another. He begins with ‘30s Paris itself — the City of Lights crowned by the Eiffel Tower, with 3-D snowflakes falling, as an old steam engine rattles over a trestle.
We move inside to see what Hugo — an orphan, we learn — sees. Over here, an older gentleman (Richard Griffiths) tries to court a lady (Frances de la Tour), only to be rebuffed by her snarling long-haired dachshund.
Over there, a pretty girl (Emily Mortimer) wheels her flower cart while the station’s resident gendarme (Sacha Baron Cohen… yes, Borat himself), steals a moment from his endless vigil to sneak a heart-struck glance her way.
In a store inside the station run by Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), old books beckon, promising the adventures or Robin Hood or the sci-fi fantasies of Jules Verne. Nearby is the toy shop presided over by Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his niece, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who’s just a little bit older than Hugo and just the littlest bit taller.
Hugo lives behind the station’s giant clock, watching the people below as their stories unfold (much as Quasimodo hid among his bells in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or Jimmy Stewart behind his binoculars in “Rear Window.”)
The only thing his recently deceased father (Jude Law) left him is an automaton (slightly reminiscent of Maria in “Metropolis…ok, that’s all the movie references for now; find the rest yourself). But it doesn’t work.
Hugo is certain the robot-like figure contains his Dad’s last message. So, to fix it, he’s been pilfering little bits of stuff from Papa Georges.
Who catches him.
And who isn’t just Papa Georges.
Nor, for that matter, is the gendarme, just a gendarme, as the brace on his leg, a memento from World War I, attests.
But back to Papa Georges and Isabelle. And Hugo, who isn’t the only one with a secret.
Papa Georges is none other than Georges Melies, one of cinema’s most revered (but largely forgotten) pioneers. He ranks up there with the Lumiere brothers, though they favored realism. Their first film, a train arriving at a station, reportedly sent audiences running for their lives, and Scorsese, cunningly repeats the effect in “Hugo.”
But Melies, a former stage magician, favored the more fanciful opportunities offered by this new medium. Thus, his most famous film: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), in which a rocket from Earth hits the Man in the Moon right in the eye, like a firework hitting a meringue pie.
It’s about this point — as the two children try to solve both secrets — that “Hugo” goes through the Looking Glass, taking them (and us) on a glorious journey through cinema.
Here’s Harold Lloyd, hanging from his immense “Safety First” clock. (hmmm…). And Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Louise Brooks and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and…well, it goes on, but only through the early ‘30s. That leaves Scorsese time to pay full homage to Melies and his menagerie of mermaids, lobsters and adventurers.
I can’t imagine loving movies and not loving “Hugo” — though the title is unfortunate and the studio has had absolutely no idea how to sell the picture.
I made myself go…almost dragged myself there…and virtually danced out of the theatre.
Just as Peter Jackson took technology and used it in service of his story and characters in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so Scorsese has embraced 3-D, creating a film that is served, rather than dominated, by what has passed as a sad gimmick in too many recent movies to name.
“”It was like seeing dreams in the middle of the day,” Isabelle tells Hugo after he’s taken her to her first movie.
Or, as she also says to him, “Thank you for the movie. It was a gift.”
Thank you for the movie, Mr. Scorsese. It was a gift.