Tuesday, November 22, 2011

19th Century filmmaking meets 3D magic

Last night I attended a screening of a rare PG-rated Martin Scorsese film that did not include Leonardo DiCaprio. I love Scorsese's films, but Hugo is undeniably a kid’s movie and this is not my preferred genre. It should come as no surprise that my favorite character in the film was played by Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen.

While I do prefer a film that is geared toward adults (but to clarify, not the “adult film” genre) there are elements of Hugo that I genuinely appreciate. I love old films, and when I first saw the poster for Hugo, I recognized the resemblance to the iconic scene with Harold Lloyd from the 1923 silent film Safety Last!

What I did not realize was that this film has more than simply a subtle tip of the hat to a silent film, but it is a bit of an homage to the early filmmakers. I was delighted to see brief images of various films ranging from the late 19th century through the time that the film takes place – in 1930s Paris.

The story centers around two children who meet in a train station in Paris. Hugo, an orphan who lives life in constant fear of a relentless Station Manager, and Isabelle, who lives comfortably but her only knowledge of adventure is informed by what she reads in her library books. What follows is a fantastic adventure as the children gather clues in search of more information about Hugo’s father and Isabelle’s godparents.

Their adventure leads them to the world of movies where they learn more about the wondrous world of cinematic techniques from pre-WWI filmmaking through the contemporaries of the film's setting, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Did I mention that this entire homage to early films is done entirely and beautifully in 3D?

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hugo's brief tribute to early films through rose-colored (3D) glasses. The labor that was taken to create special effects in the 19th century and most of the 20th century created an imaginative world that is lost to today’s technology. Hugo reminds us that while the techniques may be obsolete, every generation takes their film pioneers for granted. In a time when reality TV passes for entertainment and 3D effects are now being employed by movies like Jackass to show the audience a high-tech, virtual groin-kick, it is poignant to look back at the painstaking work that filmmakers put into creating and editing their art before the computer age. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic, but I can’t help but think that every new advancement in special effects has only served to lower the overall expectations for the next generation. This movie is a perfectly good example. Visually, this film is stunning to watch. The 3D effects are used beautifully. But, while Martin Scorsese is a brilliant filmmaker and children may love Hugo's story, the film was most effective in reminding me that he is no Georges Méliès. I mean no disrespect with that statement, quite the contrary. This may well have been Mr. Scorsese's intention all along.

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