Wednesday, November 30, 2011


           This is my first post in six months.  I’ve been hard at work cutting Josh Radnor’s new movie, LIBERAL ARTS, and my intention was to write first about why it’s impossible for a feature film editor to engage in extracurricular activities such as blogging while working on a picture.  But I’m inspired, instead, to sing the praises of Martin Scorcese’s HUGO. 

           Mr. Scorcese’s new film is a profoundly moving, impeccably executed love story.   With a twist:  the love object is cinema itself.   Appreciation of the movie, indeed, may be enhanced if viewers are as passionate about motion pictures as the director.  But HUGO is so specific and detailed that its theme becomes universal; people who truly love anything will recognize their own fervor for what stirs them, and be deeply affected by the work. 

          The film’s central characters, Hugo Cabret and Georges Melies, are enthralled by the magic of filmmaking in the same way that baseball fanatics, for example, are captivated by the sport.   Thus when Hugo introduces his young friend, Isabel, to the pleasure of afternoon movie-going, the scene is so sensuous and joyful that it transcends literal content.  To be sure, the director and the actors deftly convey the heightened state we associate with viewing big screen movies in the dark.  But the scene might also evoke, depending on the viewer, memories of an early childhood trip to the ballpark, a first visit to the seashore or even a first rock concert.  Cinephiles, sports fans, beach lovers, audiophiles -- indeed, all of us who are fortunate enough to remain awestruck by things -- will feel a strong connection to HUGO.

           Martin Scorcese’s collaborators on the film, of course, contribute a great deal to this sense of magic and wonder.  Howard Shore’s brilliant hour and forty-five minute score, for instance, is deeply emotional without ever being manipulative.   The composer uses period instruments such as the ondes Martenot (an electronic keyboard invented in 1928) and the musette (a French accordion), as well as guitars and pianos from the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  But such choices never feel self-conscious; rather they lend authenticity to the movie.

           Mr. Shore is just one of many whose work on the picture seems Oscar worthy.  Bob Richardson’s 3-D camera work and lighting are astonishing, as is Dante Ferretti’s impeccably detailed production design.  Thelma Schoonemaker’s film editing is brilliant, as always.   Sandy Powell’s period costume design is inspired, and Tom Fleishman’s innovative sound mix (which keeps background dialogue low and principal dialogue relatively hot in order to enhance the effect of 3-D) feels groundbreaking. 

           Mr. Scorcese, to be sure, deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.  The picture itself should also be nominated.  And Sacha Baron Cohen has to be singled out for blending bits of Jacques Tati and Peter Sellers with his own acting genius to create HUGO’s memorable Station Master.

           Such recognition, for one and all, would be a boon to the picture’s box office.  What’s unfortunate is that it may need the help.  Opening weekend turnout was not strong.  And with a film as great as this, we have to ask why.

          The answer is simple and I could see it coming from a mile away:  HUGO, which is truly a love story, was promoted as a children’s movie.  The strategy -- sell a film about a child to kids -- was based on the absurd notion that viewers only want to see stories about people like themselves.  This idea seems to have taken hold in movie marketing in recent years.  But here’s no evidence to support it.  In fact, both common sense and actual data tell us that the opposite is true. 

          When my generation fell in love with American cinema in the 1970’s, we were not Sicilian mobsters, beat cops chasing transnational drug-dealers, or satanically possessed pre-adolescent girls.  We weren’t sex-addicted Beverly Hills hairdressers, ‘30’s-era L.A. detectives, shark-obsessed marine biologists, or Bay Area policemen with a penchant for vigilante justice.  Movie-going gave us respite from our quotidian concerns.  And that respite is the very thing that draws us to fiction.

           Which is why we also loved -- and continue to love -- Italian, Swedish, French, German, Japanese and Indian cinema.  It’s why the great John Hughes, Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe “high school” films of the ‘80’s appealed as much to pre-teens and adults as they did to teenagers.  It’s why television viewers kept a show about Ozark Mountain yokels in Beverly Hills running for 11 years, why tens of millions of people tuned in to the travails of a Minneapolis news team each week, and why the tale of a physician falsely accused of murder drew almost all TV watchers to its final episode.

           HUGO is appealing for the same reason our favorite motion pictures and television programs become classics:  they transport us from the routines of our daily lives.  The romance of Paris in the thirties, with its beautiful train stations and cafes, the magic of the dawn of cinema, and the exciting life of a movie-loving boy who lives with a robot inside a clock -- that’s right, a movie-loving boy who lives with a robot inside a clock -- will attract adults, just as the story of Truffaut’s young Antoine Doinelle drew older viewers to THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS.  Kids will love HUGO, too, and should see it.  But it’s a romantic, artful film, rich in detail and profound in ways that make it a truly grown-up experience.

           So the picture’s high quality will win out over its ill-conceived marketing campaign.  People will see HUGO because of its great reviews, because of its stellar word-of-mouth and because of the award nominations it will garner.   And perhaps studio executives will move past the folly of trying to sell mirror-gazing to the public when that’s the opposite of what most filmgoers want.