Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Deconstruction of Hugo Cabret

Big movie theatre chains aren't just opening larger and larger megaplexes, to take over your independent film-viewing choices and the cultural landscape. They're also closing older, less popular venues as they become obsolete, out of fashion, through competition or through fashion.

I happened to notice today while walking in town that the Avco Center Theaters in Westwood, owned by AMC since the '90s, was closing. This was a state-of-the-art glass-front triplex built in 1972 that showed all the "Star Wars" films, etc., until multiplexes took over. The new 15-screen AMC Century City 1 mile away killed any chances the Avco Center would last much past its lease expiring.

So I went in and saw "Hugo" on this theatre's last day open. This is the new Martin Scorsese picture (although you could hardly tell) based on the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," about a boy around mid-1920s Paris (the date isn't clear) who lives in the clocks in the main train station and has a broken robot his dad worked on he's now trying to fix. There's a grumpy toy-shop owner who makes knick-knacks and a sinister police officer who got crippled in the war and has a metal brace on his leg. The film actually isn't about Hugo so much as that toy shop owner, who ends up being the forgotten and bitter George Melies, whose artificial and magical constructions of films fell hopelessly out of favor, and how the boy, his father's incomplete robot, the magic and the keys and the clockworks, all tie in to help "fix" things - and mal-functioning people - and the past and their broken hearts.

All very neat, and the "big finish" as it were is a showing of some of Melies' original films, here found and for an audience, color tinted (as they originally were) in digestible bits and brand new eye-pleasing 3-D.

It's really a film-nerd film - no wonder Scorsese signed on - and beyond the obvious lavish attention to period and authentic posters and film-making trompe-l'oei, the backgrounds of Paris and grand 3-D setscapes are all so obviously fake, camera moves and snowflakes generated artificially way after the fact, Sasha Baron Cohen's mannerisms hopelessly sitcom, set in a train station of the imagination paying lip service to artistic landscapes and potential lost to the ravages of progress.

The subtext, barely hinted at in the book and absent from the film, seems to be an anxiety over how the industrial revolution both enabled and limited our ability to move in unfettered directions. In the late-era Westerns the "coming of the railroad" signalled progress - new modes that sped the domestication of the outlaw and the end of the West. This film's texture uses all manner of technological legerdemain to fetishize the display of gizmo-logical prowess; I think it's unconvincing, if unintentionally so.

A miles-long CGI zoom-in over the rooftops of Paris into the train station is less impressive than that dolly behind Ray Liotta through a real club down real stairs in "Goodfellas."

The heartbeat of the story is Melies' inability to remain resonant and relevant. Tarting him up with 3-D and color tints seems insincere if not downright dishonest. It seems the very opposite of how Michel Hazanavicius took on his similarly themed "The Artist," and how odd that Scorsese, one of our few remaining and working "old school" directors, employs up-to-the-moment 3-D and rendering tools to make a sentimental and retrograde tale that is undermined of its analog joys and transgressive potential by those very tools.

And also ironic that I saw this in a theatre the last day it was open, closing after 30 years, a victim of progress and its own corporate parent's competition.

* photo by Hollywood90038 via Cinema Treasures.