"Death and resurrection feature prominently in both 'Hugo' and 'The Artist' "
At the Golden Globe awards ceremony in January, Martin Scorsese won the Best Director award for his film "Hugo," a mythic and melancholy fable. "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is a dazzling and delicious paean to the golden age of silent movies, and it won the award for Best Comedy, for Best Score (Ludovic Bource), and for Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). But as I write this, the awards and nominations don’t stop there for this unusual pair of movies that have at their heart a backward motion toward the roots of early cinema.
"Hugo" is an unabashed love poem to the origins of moving pictures in general and to one of its pioneers in particular, Georges Méliès, best known for his 1902 film "A Trip to the Moon"—a work that winds up being at the center of "Hugo’s" mythology and its mysterious, recursive nature. "The Artist" is in ravishing black-and-white and presents a dashing and charismatic leading man of silent films, the fictional George Valentin, and the women who love him, then leave him in the dust. Sort of. The heroine of "The Artist"—Peppy Miller, played by the luminous Bérénice Bejo—never quite lets go of her original crush on Valentin, whose decline she follows for several years after he refuses the opportunity to segue into talking pictures. “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” he mouths into the camera even as the Hollywood mogul yells out, “Speak! Speak!” Silently of course, as the movie itself never says a word, except at the very end.
As both elegant pastiche and brilliant deconstruction, "The Artist" is riveting—a daring and spellbinding effort to elevate aspects of the history of cinema, giving this movie pride of place as opposed to a shabby makeover for the sake of nostalgia or parody. "Hugo" is a movie dipped in the aged metallic tints of old brass, rusted iron, weathered bronze and a depression-era, Paris-in-winter, romantic drabness highlighted by the color of flowers out of season, a police officer’s vivid uniform, and the magical glow of a silver automaton—a machine in the form of a man that may or may not be the missing link in Hugo Cabret’s quest to connect with his dead father. This is a movie drenched in loss, abandonment and wounds of the body and the soul, yet its primary function is, ironically, the reincarnation of enchantment.
The movie more than achieves this, particularly in its lead role, played by the limpid-eyed, knock-kneed Asa Butterfield as Hugo, who has more than a passing resemblance to a character from Dickens. But the movie is based on a contemporary young adult novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick, who, by the way, is also related to the famous Hollywood Selznicks—another example of the snake that bites its own tail in a kind of eternal return that both "Hugo" and "The Artist "celebrate.
"Hugo" appears to be the culmination of Scorsese’s passion for film history, and for anyone interested in this topic, there is Scorsese’s documentary" Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies," a recent project by the director that also came out in 2011 but was not released in theaters. (It’s part of a series of videos on art-related topics produced by Arthouse Films.) Scorsese’s documentary pinpoints the precise moments from which moving pictures evolved—Eadweard Muybridge and his zoopraxiscope; Thomas Edison and his assistant W. K. L. Dickson and their kinetoscope films; and then the first commercial projections by Auguste and Louis Lumière who invented, in 1895, the Cinematographe, a device for shooting, printing, and projecting films, not in a box, but on a wall. Their technological revolution gave still images the final push into cinema as we know it. The first film by the Lumières, "Workers Leaving the Factory," was followed by "Arrival of a Train at Ciotat," a movie that made people jump and scream because they thought a train was actually coming out of the wall right at them.
Méliès, a practicing magician at the end of the 19th century, became entranced by the work of the Lumière brothers, but they refused to sell him a camera because, they said, film had no future. Méliès proceeded to make his own cameras, however, and he went on to reinvent the world of movies. He presented the first films in color by hand tinting them, as well as introducing the first 3-D effects by employing multiple cameras, all while shooting scripts that he wrote, produced, and even acted in.
So begins another golden age of cultural exploration with all its sleights of hand, disguises and myths, conflicts and concurrences and pulsing narratives grounded in comedy or tragedy, all of which reflect the nature of our conscious and unconscious selves with their collective archetypes churning in the landscapes of the mind. Certain themes were seized upon immediately in early films and they continued to be reborn as filmmaking blossomed in the 20th century: adventure, love and eroticism, nature, fantasy, humor, horror, combat, exotica, death and resurrection. And it’s the last two generative principles—death and resurrection—that feature prominently in both "Hugo" and "The Artist." In both films there is a deliberate arc of meaning in the storylines that reflects not only the symbolic death and resurrection of principal characters—for example the roles of Méliès and George Valentin—but also the death and resurrection of the early days of cinema mirrored in each film. Motion begets motion until there is, in "Hugo" and "The Artist," this backward reach toward the roots of film’s own unique essence, its own franchise on the nature of the dreaming mind. Film provides an amazingly refractive space in which to be metaphysically reborn that is unlike any other cultural arena.
"Hugo" would be nothing without its gigantic representations of clockworks—those enormous gears and springs and counterweights that run the clocks in the Montparnasse train station, in Paris, where the character of Hugo lives within its labyrinthine walls. But a more delicate and enigmatic complex of interlocking parts takes the form of the automaton, the implied deus ex machina on which the plot revolves. I’ll say no more about the mystery of the automaton except to add that the great ensemble cast of "Hugo" functions as a marvelous machine with its intricate and interdependent parts that turn, eventually lock together and point back to its driving wheel: the desire to overcome loss and abandonment, to lose oneself in a cinematic world of the imagination where anything is possible, secrets are revealed and mysterious codes undo the loneliness of the orphan child. In the world of fables, all children are really orphans and all adults are essentially children always trying to escape the ogre who will beat them and eat them and further separate them from the rest of the world order.
The theme of death and resurrection takes shape in "The Artist" as well, and there is a kind of reversal of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that unfolds. It is Peppy Miller/Eurydice who must go into the underworld to find and bring George Valentin/Orpheus back to the world of creative possibility. In this case it will be a return to movie making and the reinvention of a performative genre—the two characters become a prototype of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers song-and-dance artists who will captivate a whole other generation of film goers. And if anyone has to be convinced of the richness and sensuality of black-and-white film, they just need to see "The Artist" and study the quality of its lights and darks as they play against flesh and a thousand-and-one textures.
Watching the credits for "Hugo", filmed in 3-D, I happened to catch the credit that referred to the opening tracking shot of the movie as it travels in a straight path through crowds of people on a long platform as they embark and disembark in the Gare Montparnasse. The credit for this swooping bird-flight camera work was given to the group Industrial Light and Magic, and I borrowed those words for the subtitle of this article. If ever there was a turn of phrase that defined the roots of cinema, this is it. Scorsese takes the idea of Industrial Light and Magic and uses it to embrace the story of the lost, then found Méliès and all the other pioneers of early film who gave the world not only "A Trip to the Moon" but all those collective initiation experiences we have come to take for granted in our high-tech era. The philosopher George Santayana once suggested that those who forget their own history are doomed to repeat it. In the case of cinema, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.