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Hugo (3D) – Scorcese’s dazzling FOF (Front Of Frame) technical tour de force


Hugo, Isabelle and friend




Hugo (3D) – Martin Scorcese

A technical tour de force. It is fascinating to see major Directors of regular 2D films grappling with the possibilities and limitations of 3D stereoscopic filming. Fast on the heels of Spielberg’s performance capture 3D Tin Tin we have Scorcese taking a radically different aesthetic approach to 3D but within a somewhat similar narrative: youthful adventures in a European setting – here a meticulously CGI’ed 1930’s Paris but populated by real, not technically derived characters.

In my review of Tin Tin and a follow-up note I tried to identify two very different aspects of 3D as experienced by the audience: what I have called hitherto the ‘novelty’, literally in-your-face use, where objects and missiles etc appear to fly out of the screen towards us. With this method we are always aware of and constantly reminded – this is a 3D movie. I contrasted this with the more subtle use of 3D used sparingly in David Yates’ final Harry Potterfilm and followed fairly scrupulously by Spielberg in Tin Tin. In this use Yates and Spielberg adhered to what I called ‘respecting the frame’ i.e not bringing images out ‘into’ the auditorium, instead using the 3D effect to create a greater sense of depth ‘within’ the frame and behind the foreground image.

Scorcese takes the opposite approach in Hugo: the result is striking though very self-conscious. There is no point in this visually fascinating film where Scorcese lets us forget it is in 3D. He exploits every distinctive 3D perceptual experience in virtually every scene in the movie. Even when we are close in to the characters, he ‘dresses’ the scene with objects and props all closer to us than the character, thus constantly enhancing the 3D effect. I guess it depends what aesthetic effect you are trying to achieve: unobtrusive enhancement of depth and solidity to a scene; or startling visual effects as images constantly reach out towards us to occupy that psychological and perceptual space between screen (frame) and viewer. For the sake of discussion we might call these two approaches RFT (respect the frame) and FOF (front of frame).

I prefer the RFT approach as it better subserves the narrative, doesn’t become the focus of one’s conscious attention and is much easier and more comfortable to watch. That said, Scorcese’s use of FOF is more powerful and inventive than I have ever seen before. Carefully designed sets and dressed scenes create an endless series of striking, often startling images which more than once brought exclamations from the audience: especially in my cinema, from children.

Avoiding the ‘puppetkin’ effect of mid-shots in 3D, where humans appear oddly small and slightly unreal (eg Pina et al) Scorcese’s camera spends an extraordinary amount of time in very close on characters’ faces, or closer still on eyes etc. If 3D mid-shots make people look a little odd, constant close-ups create almost a surreal tone to the image. It is a little like watching a scene through a magnifying glass: you see everything bigger and more intensely, but it is a bit overpowering: almost like watching an IMAX image from the front seats. Even with a 2D film, staying in so close for so long would be noticeable, but in the end intrusive. The cumulative effect for me was uncomfortable, even freaky. I kept feeling that this disorientating effect may have some real dramatic pay-off in say a thriller or even a horror movie: but here it intrudes so much that I found it was taking my attention away from the narrative and the action: like being so distracted by an unusual physical characteristic or say a facial piercing, that you don’t at first take in what the person is saying. Anyone, like my wife, who finds 3D difficult to watch, is likely to find Hugo very disconcerting I think. I would be very wary of this PG-rated film for very young children. Some of the effects are quite disturbing.

In 1938, early teenager Hugo Cabret (British newcomer Asa Butterfield) and his father (Jude Law) love watching movies together and fixing mechanical toys and objects for a museum Law curates. Together they are trying to repair a particularly fine piece – an automaton figure that when working will even write a message with the pen in its hand. They lack a vital part – a heart-shaped key.

When Hugo is orphaned by a fire at his father’s museum he has to join his uncle, a drunk whose only employment is winding up all the Clocks at what looks like the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. When his uncle disappears Hugo avoids being put in an orphanage by continuing to keep all the clocks in time and wound up while avoiding the War invalid station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen). Believing it will give him a message from his father if only he can make it work, Hugo keeps working on the automaton and seeking its vital key. In the process he has to steal parts from a toyshop booth on the station and meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) grand-daughter to the owner of the booth (Ben Kingsley).

Tomboy Isabelle is up for adventure and it transpires she wears around her neck a heart-shaped key that fits the automaton. Constantly evading the Orphan-snatcher Gustav, Hugo gets to know Isabelle’s grandparents better, Mama Jean (Helen McCrory) and Kingsley. We discover that Kingsley’s character is in fact pioneer film-maker Georges Méliès – a real figure from the early days of cinema. Through flash-backs we learn that Méliès was a stage magician who became fascinated by the newly emerging cine camera. Using his magician’s experience of stage and illusionist props, George became a technically innovative Director in the early days of cinema, inventing many of the first cinematic special effects with Mama Jean as his muse and leading lady.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Méliès’ fortunes crumbled and almost all his nearly 500 films were sold and melted down. Disillusioned, he bought the booth at the railway station with the proceeds and set up making and repairing toys. We discover that Hugo’s Automaton had been Méliès’ most intricate and complex creation long believed lost.

This narrative, based on Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, gives Scorcese an opportunity to offer an obviously heart-felt homage to the early cinema and its pioneers like Méliès. Unfortunately this means the action plods a bit at times and Scorcese is perhaps forced by the lack of inherent dramatic drive to exploit 3D as a means to generate a sense of pace and excitement. This works well visually but the constant exploitation of 3D makes the process heavily and intrusively contrived.

Whether the fault of Scorcese’s Direction or an unexpected consequence of filming in 3D, the acting in Hugo often seems ponderous and portentous in tone. These sometimes giant-like people seem to speak like a big man walks: slowly, deliberately, lumberingly. At times the whole thing seems a bit like one of Méliès’ clockwork creations which appears to be slowly winding down.

Butterfield and Moretz, apart from this single-pace deliberate delivery, are engaging and watchable; Kingsley is very good; and other parts on the whole ok. Sacha Baron Coen’s Inspector is the glaring exception. Mono-toned, mono-paced Gustav looks like a cross between the French Policeman from ‘Allo ‘Allo and Peter Sellers’ Clouzot. A tiny romantic sub-plot between Gustav and Emily Mortimer’s Flower-seller is so thin it just slows things down even more.

Scorcese’s fascination with the possibilities of 3D simply overwhelms everything else in Hugo: an already thin narrative almost becomes a distraction from the urgent, attention-grabbing visuals. The perceptual distortion of constant frame-filling close-ups also creates a visual tone that is both unreal and at times unsettling. While I can think of narratives where this could be an aesthetic advantage, it seems wholly out of place here.

It is psychologically intriguing as to what it is about Scorcese’s use of 3D close-up that seems both unsettling and uncomfortable. My only thought is that, as I have argued elsewhere (Cinema vs DVD) the 2D close-up invites us in to the private space of a character formed by a 30’ image on a screen which though inescapably voyeuristic, permits a sense of intimacy and engagement with the character that lies at the heart of the absorption a film often generates. It is almost as if Scorcese is offending a deep convention: his characters often lean so far beyond the frame ‘towards us’ that they are ‘invading’ our private space without permission, making us, as in life, uncomfortable.

Hugo is worth seeing for lots of reasons: but I would hate to think that this would become the ‘accepted’ way to use the 3D process. Unfortunately there is a flashy, look-at-me style to it that would be just the kind of thing The Academy would go for.

There is perhaps a parallel with CGI: initially Directors were so taken with the visual opportunities it gave them that the form dominated content. Eventually CGI became the ‘star’ in too many, mostly action films with poor writing, plotting and performances.

CGI has ‘settled down’ to a satisfying unobtrusiveness when used well. Perhaps 3D will go the same way once Directors have stopped playing with it. But that Scorcese – man can he play.

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