The secret was always in the clockwork – Scorsese’s own Tales Of Hoffmann

Finally, finally, finally I saw HUGO. I’ve been rather expectant of this since October 2010. Those of you have read my blogs earlier, probably know what I’m on about. If not, here a few links: Million Dollar Weekend, Scorsese In Osdorp, Seeing Is Believing and Seeing Is Believing Visited – Hugo and George.

Before I saw HUGO my initial excitement had turned to slight trepidation as I heard so many different reactions to the film, not all good ones. So I went well prepared, decided on the first screening on the Sunday morning. Available choice of seating in a half-full cinema, mostly children. Conditions pretty much perfect to see a children’s movie. Of course there was the usual barrage of the two things I hate the most nowadays, commercials and trailers, a topic on which I will have a rant in a later entry. This time one of the trailers had a beneficial effect on me watching HUGO. In the first place I recognized the trailer from TITANIC 3D on time, so I could cover my ears for a bit avoiding the most shrieking pieces of voice-over nonsense and Celine Dion. In the second place I was reminded very vividly why I really don’t like most 3D-movies. They are a step back in time. Titanic 3D looks like it is made twenty years before the original Titanic. It detracts what it should enhance. The dynamics are gone, movement has gone through the window and any sense of depth has faded quicker than an old black and white photograph in full sunlight.

And for those reasons HUGO was a treat and not only for the children attending. It’s a real Scorsese-film. Yes, it’s an attempt for a blockbusting commercial success, but it’s a personal film as well. Personal in style and technique and personal in the retelling of Brian Selznick’s story. The Invention Of Hugo Cabret

HUGO starts with a pre-credit sequence that is an “Ouverture in 3D” of 12 minutes both showing off Scorsese’s 3D-abilities and framing the story by more or less following the book page for page, drawing by drawing. Yes, the grand old man mastered 3D alright and is proud of it. It’s a bit ostentatious, a bit flashy, but it’s also evidence of a still youthful spirit. Then from the credits the pace is slowed somewhat, because timing is everything. The wonderful score by Howard Shore is the main clock that is ticking in the background. So nice to watch a movie again where the score is not used as an instrument to warn the dumbest numb nut in the audience that something is going to happen. Image and music is in perfect sync. The 3D hasn’t stopped Scorsese to shoot his trademark free-flowing traveling shots or his quick editing. But that’s not all, HUGO has tremendous depth because of 3D and not only horizontally. Scorsese shoots in 3D from all angles, especially from up to down, so that the audience really gets inside the clockwork. The luscious sets by Dante Ferretti are a treat in their own right (please can I have one of these beautiful posters?!), but it was the 3D that made me fall in love with a flower stall.

The story of HUGO is very personal. For him the secret always has been in the clockwork. His thirst to master all things technical and inspirational for making movies is never quenched. The added temptation of teaching (children this time, not adults, or both) about film history was unresistable. His first commandment is to cherish the past, his second is to embrace the now. Have a sense of history, but stay with the times. And that he has done. HUGO is further proof of the fact that Scorsese is willing and able to take anything on necessary to make films. Looking more closely to HUGO there’s more personal stuff going on. It’s possible that I am overanalyzing and that I want to see things that aren’t possibly there, but surely HUGO is the most grossing Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger-tribute that ever has been made.

I did call the opening sequence an “Ouverture in 3D” for a reason, like I mentioned the perfect combination of image and score. The ability of Powell and Pressburger to make more than a movie, but to make a work of art out of moving images, music, dance and stories, is indeed something to reach for. I must ask Scorsese some time how often, while making HUGO, he thought of Powell and Pressburger’s TALES OF HOFFMANN. Scorsese has often declared his love for this movie based on Offenbach’s operetta. It’s one of his sources of inspiration when he was  young.  As it happens TALES of HOFFMANN has a segment about the evil doll maker COPPELIUS who tries to control his creation OLYMPIA.


Hmmm dolls and a clock, coincedence? Maybe, still Asa Butterworth as HUGO with his pasty face and skinny legs is a bit of a Pinocchio figure in the movie, but not in Selznick’s book. There’s more stuff that’s dished out comparable to Powell and Pressburger. Ben Kingsley’s speech at the end in HUGO cannot only double for an acceptance speech at Oscar-night, but he’s also Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in THE RED SHOES when announcing that Miss Victoria Page won’t dance that night. Not only clocks are important, keys and keyholes are as well. Looking through the clockface as the new scoptophilia, lessons in voyeurism for automatons. The comic exchanges in HUGO also reminisce of Powell and Pressburger. The use of 3D and language when Sacha Baron Cohen’s head moves slowly forwards whilst mumbling about physiognomy, visage and face has a definite P and P feel. By the way, how do you call such a shot, an outward zoom-in? In the realm of comic effect HUGO sports two dachshunds where A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH has two cocker spaniels.

Finally, Scorsese has done a Powell. By this I mean a scene which is not congruent with the rest of the movie and will leave some people loving it and others loathing it. The scene where Isabelle is about to get trampled by ongoing train passengers is Scorsese’s giant whisky bottle from THE SMALL BACK ROOM. The scene also reminds of the visual joke in the opening sequence of I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING, but only because that’s also a visual trick in a train station. The scene in HUGO does not fit in the rich French look of the early 1930’s of the rest of the movie. It’s a kind of a montage you see in a Russian or German film of the 1920’s. It’s a wink to other movie days gone by, like the festival of the silent movies that Isabelle and Hugo sneak in. (By the way I need one of those beautiful posters).  I was talking about coincidence, anyone seen the scene from SMALL BACK ROOM? Do it now and be surprised:


Kind of expressionistic, what? And what interesting ticking objects.

Is HUGO all olive and glory then? Is this Scorsese’s ultimate production? No it’s not. There are a few lesser points. There’s the odd moment that the 3D does not come off. The scene with Hugo and Isabelle on the bridge with the panoramic view unfortunately has the old-fashioned onedimensional 3D look of old postcards or Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. Although absolute eye candy, the Méliès scenes towards the end  are a bit too long for my taste. As the movie has to carry a rather simple plot of a children’s story, it loses dramatic tension towards the end. Furthermore I think Ray Winstone’s casting was not a moment of genius, but then again that of Christopher Lee was. No-one will ever speak the words “HUGO CABRET” so deliciously as him. And for me, being a bit of an old bore, HUGO does provide me with the pleasure that at no time in the movie the most dreaded of all lines is uttered. Even though the story of HUGO is, it is never stated that this was a “true story”. Thanks Martin Coppelius, eh .. Scorsese.

Leave a Reply