March 16, 2012

Hugo, The Oscars, And Sad Nostalgia

I recently did my very best to enjoy Hugo.

It shouldn’t have been dif­fi­cult. Besides a wealth of Oscar atten­tion, the film had strong pro­duc­tion tal­ent behind it, a won­der­ful com­munity of good act­ors (many recog­niz­able from the Harry Pot­ter series), and an over­whelm­ingly attract­ive visual design.

So what went wrong?

Unfor­tu­nately, too much. Watch­ing the film was like watch­ing all that’s neg­at­ive about mod­ern Hol­ly­wood wreak havoc upon a good film in real-time. What clearly began as a sweet, com­pel­ling seed of a story—com­plete with charm­ing char­ac­ters, ima­gin­at­ive ideas, and oppor­tun­it­ies for sump­tu­ous visual flair—soon col­lapsed under the weight of bizarre choices, mis­guided effort, and flat out poor direction.

One of the strangest aspects of the film, stranger than the fact that such an utterly poor script was allowed to develop around such a beau­ti­ful core concept, was the pres­ence of many little details that betray a sig­ni­fic­ant weak­ness in dir­ect­orial merit on the part of Mr. Scorsese, whose leg­acy needs no intro­duc­tion and—one would think—needs no defending.

Except Hugo is simply a weak film. Weak on so many levels, and in such cru­cially telling ways, that it becomes impossible to look at it crit­ic­ally without wor­ry­ing about the mas­ter film­maker at its helm. What happened? Why was the edit­ing so notice­able, so abrupt, so out of step with the world it was por­tray­ing? Why were the visual effects—the Oscar-winning visual effects, lest we for­get—so dated and strange look­ing as to appear com­ic­ally out of place alongside the peer­less art dir­ec­tion (which deserves every accol­ade it has received)? Why was the idea allowed to be cor­rup­ted by such a vapid script, to the point where much of it was insult­ingly banal even when viewed as mater­ial aimed at chil­dren? How is it pos­sible that so many ter­rific act­ors com­ing together pro­duces such a wooden and uncon­vin­cing set of per­form­ances, espe­cially from dear Chloe Moretz, whose usual act­ing tal­ent bears no resemb­lance to the strangely awk­ward por­trayal of Isa­belle in this film?

I have been hard on the script, so in the interest of fair­ness I will cite a glar­ing example of the issue to demon­strate what I’m talk­ing about. Mid-way through the film, the chil­dren dis­cover a book on the history of film, and in many ways that is where everything really starts to rocket down­hill. Sud­denly, we go from a charm­ing film with an air of mys­tery and steam­punk intrigue to a hor­ribly on-the-nose documentary-style mont­age of why film is great and why, specifically, the old film­mak­ing tech­niques should be cel­eb­rated. Set­ting aside the heavy-handed approach of using a mont­age for that, surely someone on the team could have found a way to write it so that it didn’t feel so much like an infomercial.

Now if you’re any­thing like me, some­where around this point you’ll pause and think waaaaait a minute, this is all start­ing to sound rather famil­iar.” Sud­denly, you real­ize why the film is dis­ap­point­ing, why it fails to meet its poten­tial, why it des­cends so abruptly from the pass­able stand­ard set in the first half: it’s because some­where along the line, the film stopped being about the kids and their adven­ture—it became about an old film­maker who was strug­gling to stay rel­ev­ant and be appre­ci­ated in a world that’s left him behind. Sound like any­one we know?

Once your mind puts two and two together, it’s no longer sur­pris­ing that Hugo turned sour. After all, what else would you expect to happen when you turn a col­our­ful, ima­gin­at­ive film into a sappy, self-indulgent auto­bi­o­graph­ical plea for atten­tion? At least Ben Kings­ley is charismatic.

Hugo is a wasted oppor­tun­ity, but the big­ger pic­ture is what’s troubling. The prob­lems plaguing Hugo are rep­res­ent­at­ive of the men­tal­ity that’s push­ing Hol­ly­wood fur­ther down the cur­rent slope into banal irrel­ev­ance. The engine of innov­a­tion and cre­at­ive celebra­tion that once was seems to have become a tired, complacent giant, snor­ing and drool­ing, dream­ing of how great it used to be without real­iz­ing that it is asleep, that the world has moved on, and that the audience’s patience for self-congratulatory nos­tal­gia is wear­ing ever thinner.

The Oscars, ostens­ibly a formal observ­ance of the finest in the industry, is evid­ence enough. Hugo was nom­in­ated for no fewer than 11 cat­egor­ies, and won five of them—tied with The Artist, a silent film in black and white. Noti­cing a trend anywhere?

In the visual effects cat­egory, Hugo’s cheesy ren­der­ings won over Harry Potter’s gigantic palette of extraordin­ary visual wiz­ardry (the only cat­egory in which that film received any notice), and nowhere was Andy Ser­kis’ bril­liant vir­tual por­trayal of Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes given its due. Instead, the Oscars focused their atten­tion on cel­eb­rat­ing the past, on glor­i­fy­ing the old ways, and on com­pletely miss­ing yet another oppor­tun­ity to bring some life and con­tem­por­ary energy to a dying star.

How much longer Hol­ly­wood expects to sus­tain this sys­tem seems like the wrong ques­tion to be ask­ing, since their smug fin­gers plugged firmly in deaf ears betray a lack of aware­ness that there’s even a prob­lem to begin with. I watch the Oscars every year, searching and hop­ing for a glim­mer of innov­a­tion. In the mean­time, I support indie film­makers who are in tune with the world, who are adapting to it, who are push­ing the medium forward.

Had I the power to do so, I would humbly sub­mit that the factory-film industry should take a year off. Col­lect the mil­lions upon mil­lions of dol­lars that would be spent on the next Trans­formers, the next super­hero film, and dis­trib­ute the money among the most prom­ising of the new gen­er­a­tion of film­makers. Give them an oppor­tun­ity to truly explore the bound­ar­ies of their abil­ity. Reward their will­ing­ness and ambi­tion to usher in a new era for film, and see what happens.

Until that hap­pens, I will con­tinue to offer my sup­port to those whose vis­ion of film is fresh and whose ener­gies are focused on telling new stor­ies rather than wrap­ping old presents in new paper and deliv­er­ing them anew like the world’s most piti­ful Santa.


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