Saturday, December 17, 2011

Come to the Cabret

I just got back from seeing Hugo, a charming and frustrating experience in equal measure, though I suspect that the charm will stay with me longer than the frustration -- not least because the frustrating stuff mostly is from earlier in the film, while the second half leaves you with a warm feeling.

Still, that feeling would be even warmer if I didn't feel worn out by the time we get to the end, and this brings up the question of when a movie is too long. It's a common complaint about recent movies, so common that I almost feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon by making it. And 128 minutes isn't that long. Still it felt long in this picture. Maybe it's not so much a question of length as economy. Some movies are extremely long but economical in their storytelling, in the sense that every scene performs an important function (not necessarily a plot function) and stops before it starts repeating itself or previous scenes.

I think you could argue that Hugo is an economical movie; certainly the scenes don't drag. But in the early part of the movie especially, I felt like there was some redundancy, with certain points being hit over and over again, points (like Hugo demanding his notebook) that made scenes overlap with each other. This kind of repetition would have troubled me even if the notebook had been as important to the story as this treatment made it appear to be.

Maybe some of the occasional sense of slackness also comes from the editing. This is one of the things I can never quite get used to, even though the idea that a two-shot is a special or unusual effect has been mainstream for most of my adult life. And Scorsese has been into heavy editing and massive amounts of coverage for a long time. Maybe it's the juxtaposition with silent movies that made me so conscious of all the cutting. But while it's supposed to help tighten up a scene (by giving the director and editor more control over pacing) sometimes I feel that constant back-and-forth cutting can slacken a scene by constantly changing the focal point of the scene. Also I think this may be more of an issue in 3D because every shot has more things to adjust to in terms of how much 3D is used, how much of the background is out of focus, and so on.

(Digression # 1: Gregg Toland died before 3D became operational, but in an article he wrote, he was very enthusiastic about it, much more than color, which he more or less dismissed as a gimmick. And when you remember how Toland liked to shoot, in long front-to-back takes, you can imagine what he might have done with 3D. I feel like the format is still looking for its own Gregg Toland, or at least someone to do new things with all the different levels of a 3D shot, instead of just putting all the burden of the shot on whoever happens to be delivering the line.)

(Digression # 2: There has been some recent discussion about over-editing as it applies to action sequences, which I'm starting to think almost has it backwards. Yes, there are some action sequences in today's film where you can't tell what's going on, but that's more about planning and staging than cutting; a lot of cutting in an action sequence can help to give it an emotional or visceral charge, as long as we know where everybody is. But constant cutting is sometimes a bigger problem in dialogue sequences, because those are the sequences where all the emphasis is on the actors' performance, and cutting on every line, or using every possible angle within a scene, can chop the performances into dust.)

All of that would be a minor issue for me if I had been swept up in Hugo's adventures -- as I mostly was, once the plot started to become clear. Early on, though, I wasn't caught up, and I think part of it may simply be the boy himself. Not so much Asa Butterfield in the part; maybe he could have been more fun, but the way the part is written doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for fun, and that's the point. Like so many children's stories about young boys in a big city (or a big chocolate factory), Hugo has a lead character who is a bit of a cipher. He does things, but he doesn't have a lot of personality, something that's all the clearer because the other kid character, played by Chloƫ Grace Moretz, is given plenty of personality and specific character traits. Hugo is more like Oliver Twist or the young David Copperfield (mentioned by Moretz's character). He has enough moxie to keep us following him, but his main purpose is to be the everykid through whom we experience the world.

Which is a familiar way to structure a story, and not an ineffective one. The problem for me is that for the first half-hour at least, I wasn't observing much through his eyes except a notebook and a cranky old man. Moretz's character is so much more alive -- with qualities of curiosity, intellectual pretension, and charm -- that she can make these things interesting, just by being interested in them. I don't think Hugo can, any more than David Copperfield can make things interesting by his mere presence. If something incredible is not happening around him, then nothing is happening. So by the time I got to what I found to be the interesting stuff (starting roughly around the point where Hugo and Isabelle go to see Safety Last) I felt like I had already spent too much time with this kid.

That all makes my reaction sound more negative than it is. The movie (and presumably the book) has a lot of interesting things to say that go beyond a simple tribute to the magic of the movies, though it certainly is the most expensive brief ever made for the importance of film preservation. It's also about technology and machinery, and the magical qualities they bring to everyday life. The movie is sort of a fantasy, or at least has a fantasy atmosphere, but the story keeps sticking to something resembling reality. So Scorsese almost tricks us into expecting the "magical" moment, the point where the weird stuff that happens will turn out to be supernatural, and what we see instead is that machines are magic: they connect us with the past, bring messages from dead people, give new hope to damaged people and turn people's lives around. Since a key plot point in the movie is World War I, where technology proved how destructive and horrible it could be, this story is like the flip side of that, the good and enchanting power of technology.

Add to that the technical virtuosity of the film (and nobody's ever denied Scorsese's abilities as a technician) and you have a movie that's intriguing and ever timely -- but especially timely now, when we're going through a more-marked-than-usual period of technological upheaval, and when we know that technology is going to change our lives but don't exactly know how yet. It's hard not to be inspired by the optimism of Hugo about technology as a tool for preserving, rather than obliterating, the past.

But, again, all of that is wrapped up in 128 minutes focusing on a hero who seems to me more a collection of plucky-little-orphan-boy characteristics than a character. Maybe I'll feel differently when I see it again, or maybe, with a better idea of where things are going, I'll enjoy the first part of the film more without the disorienting sense of wondering why we're being told all this. (Sometimes stories work better when they've been spoiled.) For now, I think Hugo incorporates some beautiful ideas and shots, which don't exactly add up to a story or scenes.

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