By Christopher Campbell | Spout November 25, 2011 at 9:10AM
Let me start off by saying that I love Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." It's the perfect blend of "Amelie" and "The Sandlot" and "Cinema Paradiso" and the spirits of Charles Dickens and Jules Verne and of course the works of George Méliès and the rest of film's origins. But there is one little problem I have with the movie, and it's hard to make a fuss about it but when a movie is this wonderful the seemingly minor negative elements taunt you until you get them out in the open. So this discussion is a real necessity for me as a fan of this film and cinema in general. I'm not trying to be a complaining jerk about it. I swear.
To set up the issue I must first admit that I'm not 100% on the facts about the making of "Hugo." Yet as far as I gather at this moment, most if not all of the classic Méliès films seen on screen are recreations rather than restorations of the originals. Scorsese remade much of these old movies using the same technology and materials the magician-turned-filmmaker had available at the turn of the 20th century. However, I understand that they were also shot with stereoscopic cameras to be presented in 3D. I don't quite understand the logic of this, if so.
Not that I disapprove of Scorsese remaking films like "La Melmane" and "A Trip to the Moon," even in 3D. The added-upon spectacle is fantastic and serves a point. And overall I appreciate the filmmaker's apparent retrofitting of 3D, too, which gives new life and depth to ancient documentary footage of World War I. At least I think all this stuff was now in 3D. I'm pretty certain I witnessed intense spatiality in these bits, though I'm also sure 3D enhancement was avoided with the film history lesson illustrated via clips of films like "Dickson Experimental Sound Film," "The Great Train Robbery" and "The General." I believe Scorsese is leaving the 3D-retrofitting of Charlie Chaplin to Uwe Boll.
But why the distinction? Actually, never mind. I'm primarily concerned with the certain films redone in 3D and presented as such both to the film's audience and to the audience in the film's finale, those watching the works of Méliès (Ben Kingsley) during the Cinema Society's honor of the re-regarded filmmaker. Should these films be in 3D? I'm not asking an ethical question. I mean, does it make sense within the context of the movie for these films to look three-dimensional? To the people in the film, that is? I think not. The onscreen audience would be watching them in 2D, flat on the silver screen, and so we should see them the same way.
I've been thinking about the idea of a 2D film screening inside of a 3D movie lately thanks to Wim Wenders' "Pina," the brilliant new 3D dance documentary which features archival footage and presents this material in flat, 2D form, framed by 3D curtains or similar device. I'm pretty sure this logic is adhered to in a scene in "Hugo" in which the kids (Asa Butterfield; Chloë Grace Moretz) watch Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" in a cinema. This makes it even stranger that the Cinema Society screening would ignore the obvious physics of the moment.
If there is an easy explanation or if I saw/experienced something that's just not there, I apologize dearly. At the very least, I've written this post to hopefully debunk my problem with "Hugo" so that I can continue loving it completely. At the most, maybe this is a discussion worth having. You tell me, please.
If it's not discussion fodder, perhaps Ann Lewison's criticism at The Boston Phoenix is:
Scorsese draws a bludgeoning parallel between 3D and the Lumière Brothers' audience ducking an oncoming train and then has Hugo recreate Harold Lloyd's clock stunt, but 3D's theatrical dimension defeats any sense of jeopardy we might experience in this CGI era. [...] A plea for film preservation made in the medium that's killing it, Hugo unwittingly proves that old movies really were better.
"Hugo" is now playing everywhere. See it.
Recommended If You Like: the films of George Melies; "Amelie"; "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler"