Past/Not Past: A Tale of Two Cinemas

On the conflicting ideologies of _Hugo_ and _The Artist_ and their divergent approaches to the history of cinema.
Adam Cook

“…The train in the La Ciotat station still keeps arriving, a century later. It’s still possible to put oneself in the position of the frightened spectator, which means that there is something in cinema that is of the past but not past” —Serge Daney

When I quoted the above for a piece on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I published late last year, stripping it of its context (the beautiful interview between Serge Toubiana and Daney from Postcards from the Cinema) and appropriating it for a film in which the train literally does arrive again at La Ciotat, I wanted to highlight an obvious connection, as well as an ideological link, between Daney’s statement and Scorsese’s film. Both suggest that there is something immortal in cinema and something cyclical in the medium itself. Firstly, they suggest the idea that the Lumière brothers’ image of the train somehow exists behind every moving image and that its relevance can never expireits power remaining intact even as it is projected in digital 3D. Secondly, they suggest that the cinema rejuvenates itself—that with innovation comes rebirth. Michel Hazanivicius’s The Artist is a film also concerned with cinema’s ability to reinvent itself, but its ideology differs greatly from that of Daney and Scorsese. Hugo and The Artist are pitted against each other at the Academy Awards this year, and while we can scoff at the meaningless ceremony, this “coincidence” is nevertheless instructive, as is the overlapping of their exhibition. The films’ pairing helps clarify the divergent qualities in each.

The most obvious, perhaps even revealing, distinction between the two is rather ironic: Hugo is a 3D/color/American “blockbuster” shot in Paris and London and The Artist is a 2D/black and white/French “festival” film shot in Hollywood. But first, let’s establish that the films share some common ground in their approach to the silent era and the medium itself. It’s clear that both filmmakers have a knowledge of cinema and a deep fondness for it. Hugo and The Artist both articulate cinema as a resilient force and implicitly argue that as technology alters the fabric of the art form, cinema will evolve and survive. However, while both films optimistically look ahead to the future, only Hugo adheres to the past—The Artist panders to it. Scorsese finds new ways to express a love for cinema’s past while Hazanivicius fetishizes the old, which in the parodic, happy-go-lucky universe of his film feels detached from any sense of the importance Hugo links to it. Admittedly, The Artist’s central goal is to be a light entertainment. Its shallow but thoroughly clever adoption of silent film aesthetics is not an inherently negative quality, yet the nature of its homage is condescending. While much of the film’s narrative dwells on a lament over the dying silent era, it tacitly celebrates its demise. Jean Dujardin’s Douglas Fairbanks is a Gene Kelly in disguise, finally brought fully to life by the promise of the sound era. As soon as the sound era is reconciled with the protagonist it is as if the silent era ceases to matter, and ceases to exist. In direct opposition to the “cyclical” philosophy of cinema, The Artist sees things only in linear fashion. In a sense, it sees cinema as a business (no wonder it’s the latest Weinstein award-donkey) that will gleefully shed its skin for a more profitable one when the time comes. To liken it to a cliché, The Artist is “out with the old and in with the new,” whereas Hugo’s discourse is more accurately likened to Faulkner’s “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Where The Artist is capitalist, Hugo is spiritual. Scorsese sees cinema’s history as equally intertwined with world history and personal history; it is a means to connect and interpret the world, even to help one define oneself existentially. Perhaps this is why I find Scorsese’s cinema the most moving of all. His cinephilia, not unlike Daney’s, is inextricably part of his identity and how he relates to the world. It is not simple film-geekery but rather a part of one’s understanding of humanity and how to figure an individual into a cultural lineage. The Artist feels closed off from the world that it is supposedly a part of, concerned only with the dire economic circumstances that serve as a Darwinian inspiration to the movies to stay fit to survive. Hazanivicius fails to see the responsibility of images and our responsibility to them.

Functioning as perfect figurations for each film’s point of view are their respective “mascots”: the Méliès-made automaton in Hugo and Uggie the dog in The Artist. The latter provokes an “isn’t that cute?” type of response that affirms its condescending position on silent film. In contrast, the automaton is a complex representation of cinema and its amalgam of technology and humanity. It is an object through which the protagonist, a Scorsese-surrogate, is able to transcend his limitations. There is no question about which of the two treats cinema more seriously. That issue can also be measured by the question of which of the films is more likely to inspire a less informed viewer to be more open to silent film. It’s difficult for me to pretend to see from this perspective, but Hugo makes the prospect of watching a silent film exciting. The Artist, on the other hand, provides a substitution for watching an actual silent film, and I can hardly see it being able to convince a viewer to watch “one of those silly old movies.” The Artist’s awkwardly anachronistic references to Welles and Hitchcock, and its Singin’ in the Rain cut-and-paste-job, render its tribute impotent and muddle any intentions to glorify the “silents”. Hugo builds references to other films within its own language, in congruence with how culture and its meanings are inherently built up of all things.

The Artist’s award-sweeping streak isn’t really surprising. Sadly, it’s actually the more successful at capturing Hollywood’s view of silent cinema, as well as revealing its inability to recognize the 20th century in the 21st . The pairing of these films might turn out to be a demonstration of the preference in Hollywood consciousness for stimulation via shallow realization versus actual exploration. Ultimately, whichever film the old, white men in Hollywood vote for doesn’t matter. What does matter is that The Artist sees the silent era as something finished—worth a laugh, maybe, but expired. That’s wrong. Hugo shows us that that train will keep on arriving, again and again.


Martin ScorseseSilentMichel HazanaviciusOscars
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.