Upon his return to filmmaking almost five years ago, Francis Ford Coppola offered his take on the difference between a young artist looking for success and an aging artist attempting to regain prominence: “I’ve been thinking about what seems to be a repeating pattern, artists who distinguish themselves when they are young, and then never can quite reach those levels again. There are many examples, especially in literature, the theater, and of course in film … But there have been exceptions, of course — few but great. Think of Shakespeare, who continually seemed to be able to reinvent himself; and Akira Kurosawa, who made magnificent films throughout his long life despite great periods of depression.”
Now, with the release of “Hugo,” an aging Martin Scorsese has illustrated why he too belongs to that pantheon of artists who defy all expectations and previously established patterns. Like Shakespeare or Kurosawa, Scorsese reinvents himself, earning the title of virtuoso filmmaker, while somehow utilizing the genre of family adventure films as the means to show off his distinctive vision of elaborate movements and high-energy pacing.
Based on Brian Selznick’s elaborate children’s story “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” Scorsese’s “Hugo” centers on the young title character’s (Asa Butterfield) difficulty of surviving as an orphan in a Paris train station of 1931. All the while, Hugo attempts to repair an intricate automaton in the hopes of unlocking a secret message from his deceased father, only to find himself at the doorstep of the father of cinematic special effects, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley).
The appeal of Selznick’s story for Scorsese is obvious. More so a film about preserving the masterpieces of the past and honoring the forgotten masters behind them than a straightforward adventure movie, “Hugo” builds on the basic plot of the book in a manner that can only be done through film. In a meticulously staged sequence leading up to the opening titles, every major character receives a concise introduction, while the grand setting of the train station and Paris city backdrop get the complete 3D treatment. All this occurs in an uncharacteristic manner for Scorsese, as rapid-fire dialogue and narration are exchanged for Howard Shore’s score accompanied by the highly saturated images courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson (“The Aviator,” “Shutter Island”). From the opening shot, Scorsese transports his audience to a world both fantastic yet subtle.
The real shock of “Hugo” comes in the form of the more traditional elements of Scorsese’s directing style along with his ability to adapt an older method of filmmaking to the demands of modern technology. Of course, there’s the love of cinema that he includes in any project with his name attached. But the montage-style editing and quick pans and cuts throughout the second half of the film recall the director’s most moving works, including some surprising similarities to the fight scenes in his seminal film “Raging Bull.”
The inclusion of an assortment of silent film clips ranging from Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” (previously referenced in Scorsese’s own “Goodfellas”) to Harold Lloyde’s “Safety Last!” act as secondary sources to the embedded tributes Scorsese peppers throughout the film. He seamlessly pays homage to the origins of cinema while consciously acknowledging the innate difference that exist between his own vision and that of Melies or Porter at the turn of the 20th century. With multiple references to the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 film “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” Scorsese recreates the experience felt by the first audiences to witness the screenings of that film. Through the use of 3D, audiences understand the exhilaration of thinking that a train is lunging at them from the screen.
It’s refreshing to witness a 69-year-old filmmaker still pushing himself creatively after more than 40 years in the film industry. Once again, Scorsese proves that he can direct almost anything, partly due to his ability to unearth the connections that exist between different films and genres. Here’s a man that time and again has been able to combine the charm of Charlie Chaplin, the spectacular qualities of Cecil B. DeMille and the subtle symbolism of John Ford to create a uniquely personal vision. Now, in a film based on the notion of immortalizing the great artists of the past, Scorsese offers a work that ensures his own immortality.