By Robert Kolker
“That’s that,” quoting Ace Rothstein at the end of Casino. I didn’t end the Martin Scorsese chapter on an optimistic note in the fourth edition of A Cinema of Loneliness. There is more than a hint that the Scorsese’s creative energies might be flagging.
My pessimism grew from the direction — or lack of direction — Scorsese’s films had taken over the past decade. I thought that the big productions of the 2000s — Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed — indicated some kind of flailing about for ideas. These films were not as lean and mean as the earlier gangster movies that worked at the speed of light and were deliriously comic in their basic brutality.
Shutter Island seemed to seal the decline. An unofficial remake of Samuel Fuller’s 1963 Shock Corridor, the film could have been made, I thought, by anyone. It bore none of the hallmarks of Scorsese’s style and all of the hallmarks of an overwrought Hollywood gothic tale.
An obvious riposte to my pessimism is that I am not in a position to question an artist’s evolution. Scorsese no more than any other filmmaker is bound to repeat himself, and the great gangster and street films of his early period are a thing of the past. Artists change with time, and the results of that change may not be to everyone’s taste. At least not to mine.
With this in mind, I went to see Hugo with a lot of skepticism. Why would Scorsese make a film in 3D? The only reason I could come up with — aside from the fact that he might just wish to experiment with the old/new screen technology of the moment — is that Alfred Hitchcock made a 3D film when that format was first introduced in the 1950s: Dial M For Murder. Scorsese almost always roots his work in films of the past. His imagination is constructed of film. He is an amateur archivist, with a huge collection of movies that he watches continually. He has his cast and crew look at old movies when they are preparing a new one. His films become something of archival works themselves, full of allusions to their predecessors. But there is more to it than this.
I have resisted the recent 3D craze. I did go to see Avatar out of curiosity. James Cameron does not often repay curiosity. But something stood out in that film. The mise-en-scène of Cameron’s mythical world, with its floating vegetation in a liquid like atmosphere, reminded me of the underwater sequences of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune, 1902). This magical film — Méliès was a magician as well as a filmmaker — was just one entry into his enormous filmography of fantasy filmmaking, his counter to the “documentary” style of the Lumière brothers. Cameron’s alternative universe owes much to the alternative reality of an old French filmmaker.
Seeing Hugo some years later lead to a chain of thought. 3D is in itself a kind of alternative reality to the two dimensional image we are used to looking at on the screen. The cinematic “reality” that we take for granted is, in fact, a trick that we allow to be played on our eyes. 3D creates yet another reality and another trick to the eye, obtained by squinting through glasses in order to see an illusion of the depth that we otherwise have to supply ourselves when looking at the conventional 2D image. Scorsese’s decision to shoot Hugo in 3D is therefore based at least in part to honor cinematic trickery — which was what Georges Méliès was all about — and create his own alternative reality, more convincing than Cameron’s.
Hugo is a time machine, using modern digital and 3D technology to create a world about time, about keeping time going, which is what Hugo does, as he tends to the clocks in a Parisian railroad station, discovering Georges Méliès in the process. The film is about old technologies and old movies, about automata and the whirring mechanisms of a film camera (Hugo was shot digitally; whirring was virtually non-existent.) But it would be a mistake to call the film nostalgic. It is celebratory rather than sentimental. It speaks to the robustness of the history of film by recreating that history within the spaces of modern cinematic technology. It enfolds that history within a narrative of discovery and revelation. It proves Scorsese’s imagination is still vital and nourished, as always, by the history of film in which he lives.
Robert Kolker is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Maryland and Adjunct Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous works on film and media, including A Cinema of Loneliness; The Altering Eye; Film, Form, and Culture; and Media Studies: An Introductory Textbook.