Martin Scorsese's new film, Hugo is a rare film that combines rich effects and an intimate story in an experience that is both emotional and visually stunning. It's also a tribute to the earliest days of motion pictures.
Based on Brian Selznick's New York Times best-seller, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Hugo is the adventure of a clever and resourceful boy living on his own in the hidden upper reaches of a magnificent Paris railway station nearly one hundred years ago. Left to maintain the fanciful clockworks in the station after his uncle disappears, Hugo embarks on a search to solve a mystery left by his father, and in the process also discovers an entirely new life.
An important aspect of the film is Hugo's connection to real-life filmmaking pioneer George Méliès, whose one minute film A Trip to the Moon, created in 1902, is considered cinema's first blockbuster. A former magician, he produced over five hundred films in his short career, and is considered the father of special effects: the first double exposure, the split screen, and the dissolve are just a few of his innovations. He was also the first to use storyboards in the preparation of his films. He was also a pioneer in meteoric rise and fall of a film career - he was bankrupt and largely forgotten by 1910. As in Hugo's fictional tale Melies was eventually rediscovered and enjoyed in his later years the adulation he deserved.
The boy Hugo is a fan of the movies, so we're treated to both original and recreated clips from many of Méliès films, and even meticulously recreated behind the scenes footage. We'll see some of the classic faces of early cinema, including Harold Lloyd (whose stunt hanging from a huge clock face is recreated as Hugo is suspended outside an impossibly tall clock tower).
Apart from such direct visual connections, Hugo itself is a tribute to the artistry of motion pictures. Presented in 3D, and featuring a seamless marriage of live action and digital imagery, we experience somewhat of the sense of wonder early moviegoers must have felt.
I tend to draw a direct parallel between early filmmakers like Méliès, who fearlessly produced hundreds of short films in a quest to develop their new craft, and serious online content creators, who are essentially doing the same thing in thousands of far flung locations. I don't believe many vloggers and webseries creators are aware of the history of early cinema, so I would hope that many see Scorsese's film, and draw the parallel themselves.
Méliès wasn't simply a entrepreneur out to make money - he loved exploring his craft and seeking out new ways of bringing the wonder of motion pictures to his audience.
That spirit of creativity and risk-taking eventually drove motion pictures to become a major force in creative expression; there are still lessons to be learned from the pioneers of early cinema.