February 15, 2012

Sons of the silent age (The Artist, Hugo)

Enjoy the silents? How strange it is that two films that pay tribute in different but equally affectionate ways to early, silent cinema should appear so close together. One is a French film set in the American industry, in California; the other is an American film set in Paris, and concerning the French industry. Each film looks back at a different period of silent cinema but both are set at roughly the same historical moment – 1929/1930. That was the point at which silence was replaced by sound and Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist is a buoyant, undemanding consideration of the ways in which some benefitted from the new technology and some did not. As it opens, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, pictured above as the Sun King) is one of Hollywoodland’s – we even see the archaic sign – reigning stars, appearing in Douglas Fairbanks-type pictures. Hazanavicius’conceit is that his black-and-white film about silent films is itself silent, with a minimum of intertitles, although the conceit doesn’t extend as far as actually mimicking the shooting and cutting style of a 1920s film (if anything, it looks more like an American studio film from the 40s or 50s). As sound comes in, and studios turn their backs on silents, Valentin won’t or can’t adapt to the new era and is cast out by studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) who tells both him and us that the audience wants the new and the audience is always right. The star goes it alone, writing, directing, producing and appearing in his own version of a Valentin picture, and ends up bankrupt, like so many who have tried to work outside the system.

The film benefits enormously from the charisma of its two French stars – Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, the latter playing up-and-comer Peppy Miller – and peddles a pleasant, even anodyne vision of 1920s Hollywood (this ain’t Hollywood Babylon). It is also less conceptually daring than it could be, or than you might want it to be – Guy Maddin has toyed with silent film language and style more radically than this. The end result is closer to an in-joking gimmick film for cinephiles, in the tradition of earlier old/new tributes like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon. But of course there is contemporary resonance: the idea that big players left behind by new technology can catch up and satisfy audiences anew must be soothing to a Hollywood fretting about rapid change in the way that films are made, distributed and consumed. Is this at least part of the reason why a film so slight – enjoyable, yes, but slight – is being seriously considered as an Oscars frontrunner? Another question: how close does Terrence Malick's much more deserving Oscar contender, The Tree of Life, come to being a silent film, only a silent devised in a film language that is subjective, personal and experimental? That has, essentially, moved on in leaps and bounds from the 1920s?

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is set in a movie-dreamed, effects-enhanced Paris (think Amelie, Moulin Rouge) populated by British actors (Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths), which tells you that it was shot in studios in the UK. The main set is an intricate version of the 19th century Montparnasse station, where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) hides from the station inspector (Baron Cohen) and keeps the clocks running. The unlikely notion of a kids’ film from Scorsese is a lure -- as critic Karina Longworth said, it’s “a personal statement disguised as a sell-out” -- and the film, like Spielberg’s AI, occupies a difficult middle ground: a film about childhood that isn’t really for children but still depends on the perceived purity of the child’s response to (film) “magic”.

When Longworth says this is a personal statement, it’s because the film's real subject is French movie pioneer Georges Melies, who was rediscovered working in a toy and sweet shop at Montparnasse station in the late 1920s, long after he too had been bankrupted by the movie business, events that Hugo dramatises. Like George Valentin in The Artist, Melies is shown to have been abandoned by audiences and changes in popular taste (which was not entirely true, as Giovanni Tiso notes in his very good blog entry about Hugo: the aggressiveness of Pathe and Edison also helped to put Melies out of business). This film is ultimately a lesson about the value of preserving cinema history, of maintaining good archives -- a Scorsese passion for decades -- sneaking into multiplexes as a 3D holiday film. But how many cinephiles will think it’s a travesty that Scorsese has inserted a contemporary actor’s face into a reproduction of one of Melies’ films? What would we say if George Lucas pulled the same stunt?

Or, then again, maybe we would think it was fitting. Melies was essentially the father of movie special effects rather than cinematic storytelling or the art film. So it’s easy to reinvent him as the original hero of a Hollywood increasingly peddling empty spectacles. French film historian Georges Sadoul wrote, “With Melies, the gimmick is always trying to startle us: it is the end, and not a means of expression. Melies invents the syllables of a future language, but still prefers ‘abracadabra’ to words.” For Gilbert Adair, writing in Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema – the entry for 1902 is Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune – Melies “invented the articulate fireworks of special effects. Sherlock Jr, King Kong, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Star Wars and even Terminator 2 are all films in the Melies tradition."

In Hugo, cinema is shown to really work on kids: Hugo and Isabelle in the present, watching Harold Lloyd hang from a clock in Safety Last!; fictional film scholar Rene Tabard as a kid in a flashback, looking in wonder at Melies’s glass-house studio. But this is one of Hollywood’s present marketing concerns projected backwards and it reveals a certain desperation about the future of cinema, or at least big-studio viability, as does the intended comparison between increasingly routine 3D technology and the kinds of visual breakthroughs that Lumiere and Lloyd – among others -- came up with, which Scorsese then gives us less thrilling digital versions of (there is no longer any magic in the magic). No spoiler to say it ends in triumph: a gala screening of rediscovered films by the rediscovered Melies, complete with rapturous audience response, so closely resembles an Oscar lifetime achievement award moment that you might feel that Hugo has even come with its own self-congratulatory commentary, like a sitcom with a laugh track.