The Artist and Hugo are truly miraculous bookends that should be studied in introductory film courses: Michel Hanazavicius pays tribute to Hollywood silents and the classical golden age in a very old school approach, and Martin Scorsese delves into the magical world of Georges Méliès while soaking up the experimental French sound films of the same period, only pushing 3-D to new depths of dynamic immersion with the latest digital tools.
But it’s not about technology or technique: it’s about the primacy and poetry of visual storytelling — pure and simple. Both directors and their crews return to square one to rediscover the past and reclaim the present. Their films are about loneliness and the search for identity, artistic expression, and the longing to lose oneself in the cinematic dream world of the movies to escape the harsh realities of life. They are also about the importance of dealing with change, which is timeless and timely, given the precariousness of our global situation. The Artist and Hugo are not unique but they are sustaining.
This is important not only for jaded cinephiles but also for filmmakers struggling to find their way in the new digital paradigm and a new generation of filmgoers that has no use for the past. Earlier this year, I met an amiable waiter who admitted that he has no interest in movies made before he was born. I found his lack of curiosity shocking. Surely, he read books written before his time. Yes, he admitted, only when it came to movies they seemed foreign and dated. Well, perhaps he’s not alone and perhaps The Artist and Hugo will make the cinematic past come alive and help connect the dots to the present.
In speaking with Hanazavicius and three of his crew, they were certainly liberated by their back to basics journey: learning for the first time how to construct a monochromatic world in keeping with the rise and fall of screen star George Valentin (the marvelous Jean Dujardin, who’s like a cross between Doug Fairbanks and Gene Kelly), and emphasizing a more abstract form of expression without the use of dialogue. Hanazavicius said simplicity was the most difficult challenge.
The same goes for Scorsese and his team on Hugo, a film about forgotten dreams, memory, and time. That sweeping opening that takes us through the Paris train station and into the eye of a hidden child is a marvel of CG and practical effects, something that Méliès would’ve applauded. And the stereoscopic brilliance is part of the narrative, pushing the depth beyond any previous 3-D movie, including Avatar. It’s fulfilling the promise of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, thanks to more advanced technology. But the technology is merely serving the needs of the storytelling. We are there with Hugo and experience the storybook world right along with him. When the drawings fly around the room and animate like flip books, it’s magical. When Ben Kingsley as Méliès addresses the audience at the premiere, he extends into our space to address us intimately. Scorsese and his colleagues conceived and executed the movie entirely in 3-D. 2-D was an afterthought. No wonder James Cameron told Scorsese that it’s the best photographed 3-D movie he’s ever seen.