The following article has been adapted from a lengthier essay on the film written in 2011.
Cinema is always in a state of change. Consequences of this constant flux become more obvious in retrospect, as movements come and go and film form evolves. One of the clearest indications of cinema’s major shifts lies in its technological advancements. Today’s changes are anything but subtle—we can notice them as they occur before us. Regardless of where one stands on the topic of cinema’s health as an art form, it can be agreed that it is going through some of its most monumental changes. Indeed it is even technically switching mediums, as the digital revolution is rendering celluloid obsolete. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), new technology is revealed to be not a danger but a challenge, and an opportunity to explore new potential in filmmaking. The essentials of film form established over a century ago remain intact, and Hugo acknowledges this while also expanding cinema’s capabilities. In the film, Scorsese interlaces the history of silent cinema with what is one of his most personal stories.
The history of early cinema becomes a key element of the movie, with references to the likes of the Lumière brothers, Edwin S. Porter, Harold Lloyd, and D.W. Griffith, to name a few. This makes for a most peculiar marriage between form and content, in which the newest cinema technology—Hugo is shot in 3D on the Arri Alexa, a state of the art digital camera—is used to tell a story about the oldest. In doing this, the film bridges the gap between the beginnings of cinema to now, as the aforementioned changes revolutionize the medium. Moreover, he is bridging the gap between the era of celluloid to the era of digital, and emphatically trying to establish and maintain cinema’s lineage in a new age.
Film history lives and breathes in the compositions of Hugo, whether Scorsese is explicitly appropriating images from other films, or more subtly quoting them. The mesmerizing shots of 1930s Paris are a digital channeling of René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930). The image of Hugo hanging from a clock hand, now made iconic by the film’s poster, is an obvious quotation of Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923). At one point of the film, Hugo and Isabelle, the film's young heroes, actually sneak into a screening of the Harold Lloyd classic. These references are woven into the language of the film. At one point, to communicate the devastation of WWI and a sense of hopelessness, the film cuts to a Max Linder movie poster in the rain, evoking the iconic silent star’s post-war depression and suicide. The film exploits the famous anecdote of how the first cinema audiences reacted to Arrival of a Train by gasping and trying to move out of the way. Using the 3D effect, he revives this sensation for 21st century audiences when a train comes charging towards Hugo and barrels through Gare Montparnasse. Simultaneous with this reverence for early cinema is Scorsese’s exuberant, even experimental, exploration of new technology.
Hugo reveals 3D’s ability to strengthen and expand film form with new possibilities of depth and movement. Scorsese finds himself in a position not so dissimilar to that of Méliès, in which he has the opportunity to invent new ways to make movies and to tell stories. Thus, the film’s retrospective concerns are beautifully melded with a willingness to explore cinema’s future. This gap bridging of early to new cinema and from old to new technology in effect transcends these very conceptions. The changes undergone by cinema do not separate it from its past. The essence of cinema that was birthed in the flickering light of Arrival of a Train exists in Hugo’s digital, 3D images of a different train arriving, over a century later.
Two examples of 3D effects in particular find the director not just modifying form but also adding to the vocabulary of film. In one unsettling close-up of Sacha Baron Cohen's Station Inspector, his face slowly moves closer and closer to the camera, and consequently closer to the audience. His face intrudes a zone of space normally left free between viewer and film. The effect is discomforting and completely new. Calling it a close-up does not suffice. It is a new shot in film grammar, an “extreme foreground close-up.” Another example of 3D innovation comes in the application of a dolly zoom. The effect of a dolly zoom, depending on its execution can be subtle or pronounced. Take for instance its original usage in Vertigo (1958), in which it is a shocking gesture meant to communicate the vertigo experienced by the film’s protagonist. Next, consider the more subtle usage in Scorsese’s own Goodfellas (1990), in the wide two-shot that slowly dolly zooms in on Robert de Niro and Ray Liotta at a diner table. In Hugo, Scorsese uses a relatively slow dolly zoom towards the end of the film, for a shot of Méliès on stage. The effect of the camera move is transformed. Nowhere near subtle, it actually provokes a physical response to the confusing distortion of planes of vision, as the foreground and background interact with greater prominence.
When asked whether he would like to make movies in 3D for now on, Scorsese said
"Quite honestly, I would. I don’t think there’s a subject matter that can’t absorb 3D; that can’t tolerate the addition of depth as a storytelling technique. We view everyday life with depth. I think certain subject matters aren’t meant for 3D but you have to go back to Technicolor; when it was used in 1935 with Becky Sharp, for about 10-15 years, Technicolor was relegated to musicals, comedies and westerns. It wasn’t intended for the serious genres, but now everything is in color. And so it’s just a different mindset. Granted once the technology advances and you can eliminate glasses that are hindrances to some moviegoers, so why not? It’s just a natural progression."
Scorsese embraces the new digital era of filmmaking, but Hugo beckons for this new age to be film conscious even as cinema expands, worlds apart from its origins. By appropriating images from the works of Méliès, Porter, Griffith and others, the presence of early cinema in present cinema is literalized, and the century-spanning lineage of the art form is sustained. The integration of Méliès’ story into Hugo further solidifies the significance of the relationships between history, fiction, creator, and viewer in what could be called the sociology of cinema. Like with the automaton, the clocks at the train station, and how Hugo sees the world, every piece has a purpose in order to make sure everything functions as a whole. This is no more intricate than the construction of Hugo itself, a film made beautiful by its invention, reinvention and regard for a past that ceaselessly informs all that has and will come, in cinema or otherwise.