Silents Please: Hugo and The Artist

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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYRemE9Oeso&w=420&h=315]

The wonderful 5-disc DVD set of Georges Melies films from Flicker Alley just went out of print due to interest generated by the movie. Once they get it back in stock, it’s well worth the investment.

***

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.

36 Responses Silents Please: Hugo and The Artist
Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 12:02 pm

I think A Trip to the Moon was the first movie Hugo’s father had ever seen- Hugo knew it only secondhand.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that movie, as I’m not normally big on big Hollywood kid films- and for all Scorsese’s invention, there are some aspects of it that still feel very much like a Hollywood kid film (a lot of the musical cues and Kingley’s speech at the end, in particular.) Nonetheless, it’s obviously a work Scorsese found his way into in any number of places- himself as a child, watching but not participating, himself as an old man, looking back on a life defined by the movies, himself as the movie scholar, in a relationship that perhaps mirrors the one he had with Michael Powell in some ways, and so on and on. I particularly enjoyed the way Scorsese took the opportunity to put in plugs for all his favorite stuff that would have been around in 1927 (ish? it seems still to be the silent era, at least)- there’s a Charley Chase and a Judex poster, clips from The Whirlpool of Fate and the General, and obviously Safety Last! in addition to all that wonderful Melies stuff.

I guess Flicker Alley’s Melies set has seen a huge increase in orders since Hugo came out- so mission accomplished, really.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 12:02 pm

I think A Trip to the Moon was the first movie Hugo’s father had ever seen- Hugo knew it only secondhand.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that movie, as I’m not normally big on big Hollywood kid films- and for all Scorsese’s invention, there are some aspects of it that still feel very much like a Hollywood kid film (a lot of the musical cues and Kingley’s speech at the end, in particular.) Nonetheless, it’s obviously a work Scorsese found his way into in any number of places- himself as a child, watching but not participating, himself as an old man, looking back on a life defined by the movies, himself as the movie scholar, in a relationship that perhaps mirrors the one he had with Michael Powell in some ways, and so on and on. I particularly enjoyed the way Scorsese took the opportunity to put in plugs for all his favorite stuff that would have been around in 1927 (ish? it seems still to be the silent era, at least)- there’s a Charley Chase and a Judex poster, clips from The Whirlpool of Fate and the General, and obviously Safety Last! in addition to all that wonderful Melies stuff.

I guess Flicker Alley’s Melies set has seen a huge increase in orders since Hugo came out- so mission accomplished, really.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 29, 2011 12:37 pm

You are right, Tom. Thanks for catching that mistake. I’ve fixed it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 29, 2011 12:37 pm

You are right, Tom. Thanks for catching that mistake. I’ve fixed it.

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 12:59 pm

I am so looking forward to both of these films-being a silent film fanatic for 40 years, the idea of both a loving valentine to that era and a pastiche coming out simultaneously just blows my mind. Since the Melies set is out of stock, I’d be curious to know how other silents are doing saleswise. It would be such a kick to see if Fox’s Murnau/Borzage set, the Harold Lloyd box set and titles from Kino and Flicker Alley have increased in sales over the past week…

As far as disdain is concerned, I will reserve my judgment until I see THE ARTIST, but this is the first I have heard of anyone noticing this so I get the feeling it is up to the individual whether this film is done with reverence to the era or in jest. And not all silent films were shot with filters and soft focus-many of the great films of that era were shot with a crispness and clarity that when viewed either in an original nitrate 35mm print or a well preserved restoration is almost mind blowing. The Kino Blu-Ray of THE GENERAL has shots that are so sharp you can actually see the texture of wood or fabrics-they are just short of 3D in my opinion. Soft focus and diffusion was usually reserved for close-ups or that rare extreme long shot that used that diffusion to help cover some physical effects in crowd scenes.

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 12:59 pm

I am so looking forward to both of these films-being a silent film fanatic for 40 years, the idea of both a loving valentine to that era and a pastiche coming out simultaneously just blows my mind. Since the Melies set is out of stock, I’d be curious to know how other silents are doing saleswise. It would be such a kick to see if Fox’s Murnau/Borzage set, the Harold Lloyd box set and titles from Kino and Flicker Alley have increased in sales over the past week…

As far as disdain is concerned, I will reserve my judgment until I see THE ARTIST, but this is the first I have heard of anyone noticing this so I get the feeling it is up to the individual whether this film is done with reverence to the era or in jest. And not all silent films were shot with filters and soft focus-many of the great films of that era were shot with a crispness and clarity that when viewed either in an original nitrate 35mm print or a well preserved restoration is almost mind blowing. The Kino Blu-Ray of THE GENERAL has shots that are so sharp you can actually see the texture of wood or fabrics-they are just short of 3D in my opinion. Soft focus and diffusion was usually reserved for close-ups or that rare extreme long shot that used that diffusion to help cover some physical effects in crowd scenes.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 1:10 pm

Flicker Alley totally sold out of their Melies set, they’re going to have to reissue it: http://www.flickeralley.com/fat_melies_01.html

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 1:10 pm

Flicker Alley totally sold out of their Melies set, they’re going to have to reissue it: http://www.flickeralley.com/fat_melies_01.html

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 29, 2011 1:43 pm

Jeff, it’s safe to say mine is a minority opinion. In fact Hazanavicius just won Best Director from the New York Film Critics Society.

I think I mention the soft-focus only in relation to close-ups, and it is only to point out the way current technology limits how closely THE ARTIST could ape the esthetic of silent films.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : November 29, 2011 1:43 pm

Jeff, it’s safe to say mine is a minority opinion. In fact Hazanavicius just won Best Director from the New York Film Critics Society.

I think I mention the soft-focus only in relation to close-ups, and it is only to point out the way current technology limits how closely THE ARTIST could ape the esthetic of silent films.

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 2:24 pm

I love that-”current technology limits how closely THE ARTIST could ape the esthetic of silent films.” Current technology with all its digital bells and whistles is limited in comparison to how silent films looked. Just shows you that no matter how far we come technically, we really haven’t very much since 1928.

Love it.

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 2:24 pm

I love that-”current technology limits how closely THE ARTIST could ape the esthetic of silent films.” Current technology with all its digital bells and whistles is limited in comparison to how silent films looked. Just shows you that no matter how far we come technically, we really haven’t very much since 1928.

Love it.

Posted By swac : November 29, 2011 3:42 pm

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen copies of the Harold Lloyd box set in bargain bins for around $30. Well worth it for the wealth of material it contains (but a sad comment on how it sold).

Posted By swac : November 29, 2011 3:42 pm

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen copies of the Harold Lloyd box set in bargain bins for around $30. Well worth it for the wealth of material it contains (but a sad comment on how it sold).

Posted By suzidoll : November 29, 2011 3:42 pm

I can’t wait to see these films. As a film instructor, this is a dream come true as it will spark interest in silents for a new generation. I am already planning next semester’s silent section around it.

Posted By suzidoll : November 29, 2011 3:42 pm

I can’t wait to see these films. As a film instructor, this is a dream come true as it will spark interest in silents for a new generation. I am already planning next semester’s silent section around it.

Posted By Commander Adams : November 29, 2011 4:17 pm

I adored HUGO, which may very well be Scorsese’s best film since GOODFELLAS, and it’s certainly his most personal since that once (possibly even since MEAN STREETS). It should probably be viewed in context of many of his documentary works, which deal with the same themes of preservation of cultural memory as well as honoring the artists who inspired us, and I was actually reminded very much of ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE in the way he depicts the relationship between the young leads.

Posted By Commander Adams : November 29, 2011 4:17 pm

I adored HUGO, which may very well be Scorsese’s best film since GOODFELLAS, and it’s certainly his most personal since that once (possibly even since MEAN STREETS). It should probably be viewed in context of many of his documentary works, which deal with the same themes of preservation of cultural memory as well as honoring the artists who inspired us, and I was actually reminded very much of ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE in the way he depicts the relationship between the young leads.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 5:47 pm

Swac- that’s sad to hear, but I hope you snapped those up! The Lloyd box costs double that or more online, and Amazon is running low on copies. It certainly is an excellent collection, and I wish some of the more minor silent comedians were as well documented (though Movie Morlocks’ own David Kalat put out some great box sets for Charley Chase and Harry Langdon.)

Commander Adams- I always think ‘most personal’ is a difficult measure, though I would imagine it would be difficult to beat italianamerican for most personal amongst all Scorsese’s works. Hugo certainly seems to have a plethora of connection points to Scorsese’s life, work, and passions, though. And yeah, I was very impressed by his depiction of the relationship between Hugo and Chloe Moretz’s character, which never turns into a junior meet-cute romantic comedy- it’s not realistic, per se, but it has a sort of impressionistic realism about how easy it is to make incredibly close friends at that age. I particularly liked their trip to the bookstore together- it means their relationship is not totally dominated by Hugo’s interests and goals.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 5:47 pm

Swac- that’s sad to hear, but I hope you snapped those up! The Lloyd box costs double that or more online, and Amazon is running low on copies. It certainly is an excellent collection, and I wish some of the more minor silent comedians were as well documented (though Movie Morlocks’ own David Kalat put out some great box sets for Charley Chase and Harry Langdon.)

Commander Adams- I always think ‘most personal’ is a difficult measure, though I would imagine it would be difficult to beat italianamerican for most personal amongst all Scorsese’s works. Hugo certainly seems to have a plethora of connection points to Scorsese’s life, work, and passions, though. And yeah, I was very impressed by his depiction of the relationship between Hugo and Chloe Moretz’s character, which never turns into a junior meet-cute romantic comedy- it’s not realistic, per se, but it has a sort of impressionistic realism about how easy it is to make incredibly close friends at that age. I particularly liked their trip to the bookstore together- it means their relationship is not totally dominated by Hugo’s interests and goals.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 5:48 pm

(Oops, submitted too soon) Also, it’s very sweet in its own right, and sets up one of my favorite incidental scenes (when Christopher Lee’s character gives Hugo the book.)

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 5:48 pm

(Oops, submitted too soon) Also, it’s very sweet in its own right, and sets up one of my favorite incidental scenes (when Christopher Lee’s character gives Hugo the book.)

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 11:16 pm

I remember when Costco-of all people-carried the Lloyd set when it came out, and they even had the Blu-Ray of the “complete” METROPOLIS when Kino brought it out last year. They also had the FORD AT FOX box but never had the MURNAU/BORZAGE/FOX one, and considering that everytime I go into Costco now, they seem to be pulling a “Milton” from OFFICE SPACE with CDs and DVDs-the space gets smaller and smaller-I wonder if when this film comes out on home video if they will even carry discs at that time.

By the way, the Kino disc of Langdon’s three great features is well worth getting, too.

Posted By JeffH : November 29, 2011 11:16 pm

I remember when Costco-of all people-carried the Lloyd set when it came out, and they even had the Blu-Ray of the “complete” METROPOLIS when Kino brought it out last year. They also had the FORD AT FOX box but never had the MURNAU/BORZAGE/FOX one, and considering that everytime I go into Costco now, they seem to be pulling a “Milton” from OFFICE SPACE with CDs and DVDs-the space gets smaller and smaller-I wonder if when this film comes out on home video if they will even carry discs at that time.

By the way, the Kino disc of Langdon’s three great features is well worth getting, too.

Posted By StuDetroit : November 29, 2011 11:48 pm

One of my favorite touches by Scorcese in Hugo: We twice see an early movie audience reflexively leap from their seats at their first view of a locomotive rushing into the camera — its a scene featured in two different recollections — and of course we think “how quaint”. Then, later in the real time narrative, a character is trapped by an oncoming train, and Scorcese rushes the locomotive into the camera — IN 3D — and we get to feel the same urge to leap away that the first moviegoers felt.

Posted By StuDetroit : November 29, 2011 11:48 pm

One of my favorite touches by Scorcese in Hugo: We twice see an early movie audience reflexively leap from their seats at their first view of a locomotive rushing into the camera — its a scene featured in two different recollections — and of course we think “how quaint”. Then, later in the real time narrative, a character is trapped by an oncoming train, and Scorcese rushes the locomotive into the camera — IN 3D — and we get to feel the same urge to leap away that the first moviegoers felt.

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 11:53 pm

He also shows you that scene once with a seemingly generic audience, and then once again with Melies and his wife there- and somehow, having the characters we know there makes the action seem much less unsophisticated.

It’s funny, in it’s own way I think Hugo is Scorsese’s entry in the Tarantino/Edgar Wright school of ultra-intertextualism, his Kill Bill or Scott Pilgrim. I think Scorsese may be one of the few members of the film brat generation who could make something dense and referential enough to work that way (I’d say him and maybe De Palma.)

Posted By Tom S : November 29, 2011 11:53 pm

He also shows you that scene once with a seemingly generic audience, and then once again with Melies and his wife there- and somehow, having the characters we know there makes the action seem much less unsophisticated.

It’s funny, in it’s own way I think Hugo is Scorsese’s entry in the Tarantino/Edgar Wright school of ultra-intertextualism, his Kill Bill or Scott Pilgrim. I think Scorsese may be one of the few members of the film brat generation who could make something dense and referential enough to work that way (I’d say him and maybe De Palma.)

Posted By dukeroberts : November 30, 2011 1:49 am

I can’t wait to see Hugo this weekend. And there is no movie that I have looked forward to more this year than The Artist. Well, maybe Captain America, but that came out so long ago. The Artist cannot go wide soon enough for me.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 30, 2011 1:49 am

I can’t wait to see Hugo this weekend. And there is no movie that I have looked forward to more this year than The Artist. Well, maybe Captain America, but that came out so long ago. The Artist cannot go wide soon enough for me.

Posted By Film Friday | Weekly Roundup « Pretty Clever Films : December 2, 2011 12:39 pm

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks jumps into the neo-silent film craze with “Silents Please.” [...]

Posted By Film Friday | Weekly Roundup « Pretty Clever Films : December 2, 2011 12:39 pm

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks jumps into the neo-silent film craze with “Silents Please.” [...]

Posted By Mary : April 15, 2012 1:53 am

It’s too much to unpack, but I’ll just mention Uggie may be a concept lifted from Asta of Thin Man, but quickly developed into a full-fleshed character of his own. He is a mirror, a conscience, a compassionate heart, a punchline, an optimism contrasting with George’s proud pessimism etc. On the surface it’s easy to dismiss Artist due to the familiarity, but one can just as well wonder if Scorsese’s vaunted industry status, makes us overlook the Cinema Paradiso, the magic of Melies without 3D marketing and all of the world’s eyes on a creative context that knows what audience it’s specifically speaking to (which Melies did not.) Also, the face-pulling indicated are mostly from barely the first quarter of the film, that gradually gave way to 30s style of dramatic realism when the transition was made. The “pulling” may also be crudely understood, since the 2 leads are clearly expressing delights of attraction informed by a background in “modern” comedy of the Hazanavicius-Bejo-Dujardin trio (and even further back, think exaggerated pratfalls Buster or Fatty experienced on seeing comely young lasses.)

Posted By Mary : April 15, 2012 1:53 am

It’s too much to unpack, but I’ll just mention Uggie may be a concept lifted from Asta of Thin Man, but quickly developed into a full-fleshed character of his own. He is a mirror, a conscience, a compassionate heart, a punchline, an optimism contrasting with George’s proud pessimism etc. On the surface it’s easy to dismiss Artist due to the familiarity, but one can just as well wonder if Scorsese’s vaunted industry status, makes us overlook the Cinema Paradiso, the magic of Melies without 3D marketing and all of the world’s eyes on a creative context that knows what audience it’s specifically speaking to (which Melies did not.) Also, the face-pulling indicated are mostly from barely the first quarter of the film, that gradually gave way to 30s style of dramatic realism when the transition was made. The “pulling” may also be crudely understood, since the 2 leads are clearly expressing delights of attraction informed by a background in “modern” comedy of the Hazanavicius-Bejo-Dujardin trio (and even further back, think exaggerated pratfalls Buster or Fatty experienced on seeing comely young lasses.)

Posted By Film Friday | Weekly Roundup | Pretty Clever FilmsPretty Clever Films : December 18, 2012 3:00 pm

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks jumps into the neo-silent film craze with “Silents Please.” [...]

Posted By Film Friday | Weekly Roundup | Pretty Clever FilmsPretty Clever Films : December 18, 2012 3:00 pm

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks jumps into the neo-silent film craze with “Silents Please.” [...]

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