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Culture Warrior: Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ and the Death of Celluloid

By  · Published on November 29th, 2011

The self-reflexive practices of the meta-film take various forms. On the one hand, there’s the legacy of cinephilic directors from Brian De Palma to P. T. Anderson to Robert Rodriguez who shout out to specific films through their in-crowd referencing, or even go so far as to structure entire narratives through tributes to cinema’s past. Then there’s “the wink,” those film’s, like this weekend’s The Muppets, who exercise cheeky humor by breaking the fourth wall and by constant reference to the fact that they are in a heavily constructed film reality.

The third category is less common, but perhaps the most interesting. There has been a recent influx of films that don’t use past films to construct present narratives or engage in Brecht-light humor, but have as their central narrative concern the broad developmental history of the medium itself, from practices of filmgoing to particularities of projection, and anything in between. Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is a good example of this mode of meta-filmmaking, but more high-profile films have begin to make this turn, specifically by directors who formerly operated in the first (and perhaps most common) category, like Tarantino with Inglourious Basterds two years ago. Now Martin Scorsese has followed suit with the 3D love letter to early cinema and film preservation that is Hugo.

As strong of a film as Hugo may be, it’s certainly a bit odd in the context of major Holiday releases from Hollywood studios. While many critics see the work as the closest we’ll come to a veiled autobiography of Scorsese’s childhood as Mean Streets (1973) was formed from his young adulthood (Slate’s Dana Stevens even goes so far as to say Hugo is his Fanny and Alexander), we mustn’t forget that it’s also a loyal adaptation to an award-winning children’s book by Brian Selznick. Now, I’ve never read the book, but upon speaking to a few people who have, I’m surprised to learn that it’s a rather direct adaptation. If Hugo is in some ways an unlikely Hollywood product, that’s because it’s source material is a successful and highly regarded children’s book about early cinema of all things! It’s difficult but fascinating to imagine that, for some children, somewhere, George Méliès is a Gepetto-style figure within their imaginative folklore. It’s hard to picture Hugo’s story told in any medium but the moving image.

Hugo’s weekend box office performance is promising considering its strong word-of-mouth, but its intake was modest, especially considering Scorsese’s recent financial success. I only say this because it feels to me like the film has limited appeal to its alleged target audience, children, simply because of the comparable level of patience it requires in the face of recent 3D competitors like dancing penguins and shiny talking cars. However, I genuinely hope I’m proven wrong. If Hugo, against all odds, becomes a sleeper hit, I (and I say this in total self-awareness and with all sincerity) hope it inspires at least one kid out there to add “film historian” to their undoubtedly long list of potential future occupations. I’m not saying it should rank as high as “astronaut” or “cowboy,” but in the more realistic realm alphabetically situated between “famous person” and “firefighter.”

Hugo’s combination of rekindling initial childhood wonder of a magical medium and its work as a polemic for film preservation is potent for cinephiles. In many ways, this big, shiny, studio-sleek and confidently crafted ode to cinema’s long history could not have come at a better time. Panavision and other companies recently announced that they will cease production of celluloid film, and apparently several major film studios have ceased distributing their repertory of 35mm prints. We are now experiencing the time that has been portended for the last decade or so: the death of celluloid, and the full integration into cinema as a digital form.

But the real movement away from celluloid and towards digital filmmaking, exhibition, and even distribution has often been hyperbolically equated in some critical circles to the death of cinema itself. Such a rhetorical strategy is misleading, especially when taking into account that cinema, in the eyes of critics, filmmakers, and fans, has suffered many “deaths” with new technological changes that vastly reshape the medium. In the 1920s, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and a group of other Soviet filmmakers bemoaned the arrival of sound filmmaking as the death of what they deemed a “purely” visual medium. Ten years later, Eisenstein himself would make his first sound films, all as visually compelling as his silent work. Over half a century ago, television posed the next big threat to cinema’s hegemony, but cinema in response (or, at least, Hollywood cinema) became something different to establish its unique, then-inimitable theatrical experience with the advents of CinemaScope, new color processes, and experiments like 3D.

Throughout all these changes, what we’ve come to know and understand to be “movies” – what they look like, what they sound like, where we see them – has changed drastically, but through it all cinema remains and will continue to. “Film” may no longer exist one day, but you don’t need celluloid to make “films.”

Hugo (and, by extension, Scorsese) seems to me to be rather unconcerned with the final days of celluloid in the film production sector. Auteurs like Scorsese may continue to use film throughout their directing careers, but this shift in media material does not necessarily portend the ruins of a form. Watching the pristine quality of Hugo digitally projected (in a small-ish town theater no less, signaling digital projection’s growing ubiquity) and accompanied by state-of-the-art 3D, Hugo certainly doesn’t confuse the value of preserving history with a well-meaning but purely nostalgic effort to continue it. Like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo uses new means of visual storytelling to depict old means of visual storytelling (and as a result, both of these are the only two films I’ve seen so far where 3D is substantially justified through content and not merely spectacle). By literally recreating Méliès’s work with 21st century technology, Scorsese renders the old new again.

Scorsese, as demonstrated by this film and his own restoration work, understands the vulnerable tactility of film stock, and the tremendous loss film history has endured from being a product ascribed with little cultural regard in its initial years. As Hugo’s declaration of the recovery of 80 of Meilies’s 500+ films indicates, the history of early cinema that we’ve managed to retain doesn’t even tell half the story of early film history (in fact, we only have somewhere around 25% of early films). While cinema as a concept will inevitably change its form as an object, the inevitability of such change renders the preservation of film (as with any history) a moral and cultural imperative.

As whimsical, wonderful, and emotionally engaging as Hugo is, its thesis (in juxtaposing the old and the new) is surprisingly realist in its maintenance of the urgency of preservation. While Scorsese himself may choose to continue utilizing film stock his entire career (he is certainly one of an increasing few who has the privilege of making such a choice), he’s likely more concerned about the fact that studios are not renting out their film prints than by the fact that Panavision is changing their business model. Each technological shift cinema has experienced has only proved the impermanence of movies. If studios converted all their existing prints to digital files, that will not render them any more immortal than they are now in 35mm. Decades (and certainly centuries) from now, with technological changes we can’t even envision, new crises in preservation will emerge. As cinema creeps toward its 125th year of existence, the ability to continue making available its many means of making moving images appear onscreen from both then and now must be possible. We cannot understand cinema only by its content, but its means of image-production as well: the digital projector should not warrant the complete extinction of the hand-crank projector.

This is not romantic nostalgia of cinematic years long past, but the preservation of reality – not a reality depicted, of course, but the reality that, to borrow the terms of Ben Kingsley’s Méliès, brought “dreams” to life by a hughly specialized means of running thousands of individual pictures quickly through metallic reels. Hugo does not reluctantly resign itself to the fact that new will be new (the characters enjoy the brothers Lumière as much as they do Harold Lloyd, as we look on through our 3D glasses) but celebrates it. However, at the same time the film exhibits an adamant refusal to live in a world where both old and new can’t simultaneously exist (either through changing studio business practices or the stigma of obsolescence), for this is to relegate Méliès once again outside of the glass studio and back into the tiny toy shop.

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