Hidden in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s filmic allusions
In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies of contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in a reverse chronological order—working backward through film history. This week, we’ll be looking at Martin Scorsese’s 3D love-letter to cinema, Hugo.
Adapted from Brian Selznick’s graphic young adult novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo tells the story of an orphan living within the walls of a Paris train station in 1930. There he meets legendary filmmaker George Méliès, an early pioneer of cinema. Méliès, however, has fallen so far in his career that he has taken to selling chotchkies in the station’s gift shop. The film tracks Hugo’s investigation of the mysteries surrounding Méliès’ fall from grace and his attempt to deal with the death of his parents. In one sense, Hugo is a jarring departure from Scorsese’s filmography—it’s a children’s movie with lots of tenderness and without any blood-soaked murder montages choreographed to The Rolling Stones. At the same time, Hugo—like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or any of his other films—is a testament to Scorsese’s deep love and respect for classic cinema. This week, we’ll be looking at films that share stylistic, thematic and narrative connections with Scorsese’s latest film.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Like Hugo, Guiseppe Toranatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso is a demonstration of the cathartic and redemptive nature of cinema. Told in flashbacks, it tracks the adolescence of a boy named Salvatore (nicknamed “Toto” in the film) who is captivated by film and befriends a projectionist who works at the theater in his Sicilian hometown. When the projectionist is blinded in a fire, Toto takes over his job and deals with the repressive censorship of a local priest. As in Hugo, the cinema is intimately connected with freedom, and the film is equally concerned with the relationship between films and the dream life. A must-see.
Zazie dans le Métro (1960)
Few films capture the chaotic exuberance of childhood quite as well as Zazie dans le Métro, Louis Malle’s 1960 film. To the degree that there’s a plot in Zazie, it involves a young girl running around Paris, fleeing her idiotic uncle and trying to find a way to ride the metro for the first time. To me, this is a seminal film of the French New Wave—it’s a wild, whimsical mish-mash of styles, tones, colors, sounds and music, and you can see its influence in Hugo—especially all of the scenes involving the self-serious, foolish station guard played by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Zéro de conduite (1933)
Another film that celebrates the anarchy of childhood is Jean Vigo’s 1933 short-ish film (at 41 minutes, it’s neither a short film nor a feature-length film), Zéro de conduite. Director Jean Vigo only made four films in a career cut short by his death from tuberculosis at age 34. Zéro de conduite is an apt representation of Vigo’s career: it’s a surreal little film that portrays the repression of a group of school-aged boys at a strict French boarding school and their subsequent attempt to liberate themselves from their teachers. The film is a celebration of childhood and the anarchistic spirit, and the penultimate scene—set in slow-motion as the boys celebrate their successful coup over their teachers—is reflected not only in Hugo but in Scorsese’s whole body of work. Many of Scorsese’s films are concerned with repression, liberation and redemption, and Zéro de conduite, with its whimsy, style and anarchist spirit, is a clear precursor of Hugo and other films.
A Trip to the Moon (1902), or any film by George Méliès
A Trip to the Moon was the Méliès film most frequently featured in Scorsese’s flick, but its kinship goes far beyond mere reference. Scorsese—a well-publicized film purist whose hardcore fans lashed out for his foray into 3D—used 3D effects in his film about the magic of cinema as a homage to the creation of special effects. It is the world’s first science-fiction film, and arguably the world’s first narrative film. Relying on new techniques like animation and stop-motion effects, it tells the story of humanity’s first trip to the moon. As a cultural artifact, A Trip to the Moon tells the story of humanity’s first trip to the cinema as it is known today. Indeed, Méliès is credited with giving film its fantastical qualities. Previous filmmakers, like the Lumière Brothers (the inventors of cinema), thought of film as an objective medium, best suited for filming and projecting “happenings,” fly-on-the-wall films chained down by a reality claim. Méliès broke that chain, and nothing proclaims film’s liberation from reality like A Trip to the Moon.