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How Martin Scorsese Pulls Off Hugo’s Nostalgia

With Hugo, Martin Scorsese reclaims some of Hollywood’s old power as the great unifier, uncomplicated and sophisticated at the same time. This hymn to the unfettered imagination—Scorsese’s first work in 3D—is terrific popular entertainment, a magnificent children’s adventure story, with heroes and villains so delicately drawn that even the melodramatic moments have a comic wit. And to lend shadows, halftones, and highlights to the directness of the narrative there is the brilliance of Scorsese’s historical vision, a view of 1930s Paris that centers on a gigantic railroad station animated by all the urban movement and mystery that the Surrealist poets of the time adored. Scorsese uses the kind of intricate period details we associate with the films of Max Ophuls and Luchino Visconti to deepen his portrait of a lost age. It doesn’t really matter if you realize that one of the posters on the wall of the station is advertising the legendary photographically illustrated news magazine Vu, where work by avant-gardists like Brassaï, André Kertész, and John Heartfield reached a wide public. The production designer, Dante Ferretti, understands that such associations can have a subliminal power. This is a Paris of myth, magic, and poetry. It is the Paris we know from Atget’s and Brassaï’s photographs, André Breton’s Nadja, and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, only reimagined for the multiplex—and, miraculously, reimagined without distortion.

Working from Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese has made a movie that is gentle without ever turning saccharine. Asa Butterfield is the twelve-year-old Hugo, living by his wits in the secret spaces of the grand Parisian train station after the death of his dashing, magnificent father. His father—played by Jude Law in a few early scenes—is a clockmaker obsessed with automatons, figures propelled by some hidden mechanism, the proto-computers that since ancient times have fascinated everybody from philosophers to kings. Hugo, dragged off to live in the railway station by a drunken relative who maintains the enormous clocks, has learned how to operate the mechanisms himself and is desperate to keep them running after Uncle Claude disappears. Ben Kingsley is the aged Georges Méliès, founding father of French cinema, now reduced to selling wind-up toys in a tiny shop in the station even as, unbeknownst to him, Hugo attempts to repair an automaton that Méliès once created. This mechanical figure amounts to another character, with the head of a doll, the innards of a machine, and the soul of a young man. Restored to mechanical life, the automaton draws a picture that sends Hugo and his new friend, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), on a great adventure. Sasha Baron Cohen, in a performance of astonishing restraint, is the Station Inspector, who threatens to send Hugo to the orphanage. And there are many more characters—Madame Méliès, a flower seller who loves the inspector, a bookseller, a woman with a dog—each drawn with the quickening clarity of a figure in a Maupassant story. But perhaps the real protagonist of Hugo is the train station—with its soaring heights, elaborate clocks, brimming bookstore, toy shop, restaurants, musicians, and crowds. Scorsese’s Paris is both a historical reconstruction and an epic invention, recalling in many respects the city of Marcel Carné’s immortal 1945 exploration of nineteenth-century theatrical life, Les Enfants du Paradis.

Approaching Hugo from the vantage point of the art world, as I inevitably do, it is particularly interesting to see Scorsese integrating into his new work the early history of the movies and the even earlier history of the automaton—subjects that have in recent years captured the imaginations of many artists who exhibit in galleries and museums. Filming in 3D, Scorsese is embracing rapid technological change even as he stops to salute Méliès and romance technology’s past. Scorsese has of course been a tremendous advocate for the preservation of old movies, and in the last scenes of Hugo he recreates Méliès’s films, only now rendered in the most up-to-the-minute 3D technology. Scorsese is drawing past and present together in a way that could make perfect sense to some moviegoers in their twenties and thirties who, even as they play with their iPads, are also provoking a mini-revival of typewriters and record players. There is a lot of back-to-the-future action in creative circles these days. The Brooklyn-based Cabinet Magazine is often dedicated to themes that might have animated the curators of a nineteenth-century science museum. A decade ago Damien Hirst had an enormous show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York that included automaton-like figures in huge glass boxes. William Kentridge is fascinated by early cinematic techniques. The DVDs by the late Jeremy Blake incorporate colored images that suggest films by Edison or Méliès. Tony Oursler is a student of all sorts of pre-modern optical and mechanical devices. Christian Marclay is besotted with LPs and the entire history of the movies. And it is now not unusual to hear the clickety-clack of a 16 mm projector in a gallery in Chelsea. In 2001 the Getty Center mounted an exhibition called “Devices of Wonder” that included everything from a nineteenth-century automaton not unlike the one in Hugo to works by Lucas Samaras, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Wall.

The trouble I have with most of the retro-tech material in the contemporary art galleries is that it ends up feeling desiccated, with inventions that were never really meant to be contemplated as freestanding works of art now isolated from the history that gave them their meaning. What might originally have been a technological marvel—a figure that moves, a machine that speaks—becomes at best a historical specimen, now experienced only as a Dadaist object, a variation on one of Duchamp’s Readymades. The secret of Scorsese’s success in Hugo has everything to do with the inherently impure and unstable nature of the movies, where art can be precipitated by—can maybe even be a by-product of—technological innovation. Say what you will, that’s not possible in an art gallery, where purity and stability are the standard and traditions have to be transformed gradually, from within.

Working in a medium that is nothing if not forward looking, Scorsese can afford to indulge in a nostalgia that from the very different perspective of the art gallery amounts to little more than tradition reduced to kitsch. With Hugo, Scorsese has reintegrated the technological exhilaration of times past into a work of cinematic art we accept as absolutely alive in the present. We see everything—the automaton’s clockwork body, Méliès elaborately hand-colored movies, the spectacle of 1930s Paris—through Asa Butterfield’s young, avid eyes.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.