Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Two excerpts from "Spatial Upsets," an unfinished piece about Hugo, as well as (unmentioned in these excerpts) Immortals and The Three Musketeers. It was intended for Mubi and written in November 2011.


One thing all of the current 3D processes have in common is a tendency to miniaturize space. Everything looks fine in medium shot, but as soon as you go wide, a sort of tilt-shift effect occurs—3D's sliced-up planes of depth make large sets look like models, and without a frame of reference it's sometimes difficult to figure out whether you're looking at something that's supposed to be really big or really small. Everything goes out of whack. Panoramas turn into dioramas.

 Barring some new technology, there are two possible solutions to this "problem." The first is to use a lot of movement, concentrate on medium shots, and eschew dramatic 3D effects when going really wide; this is more or less what Martin Scorsese does in Hugo


 It's difficult not to compare Hugo with Midnight in Paris. The two films share a setting (Paris), a focus on the interplay of nighttime (surprise and action) and daytime (routine and stasis), a bit character (Salvador Dali, played in Midnight in Paris by Adrien Brody; in Hugo he appears in a split-second cutaway gag played by Ben Addis, a Welsh stage actor who kinda looks like Adrien Brody) and a historical period (Hugo is set in the early 1930s, while Midnight in Paris' Gil travels back to the 1920s; both films feature detours into the late 19th century). Both films frame an individual's encounter with capital-C Culture in generic terms—in Midnight as a typically Allenesque romantic triangle (complete with morally superior hero and monstrous conservatives), and in Hugo as a traditional boys' adventure (complete with the usual trappings of orphanhood, self-discovery, and adult intrigue). Where the two movies really diverge—besides in terms of plain old style (which, don't worry, we'll get to soon enough)—is their attitude toward art.

In Allen's neurotic worldview, art exists to reassure. Gil gravitates to literary Modernism because he believes it echoes his own feelings about what life—and literature—are supposed to be about. The more Gil gets wrapped up in Lost Generation nightlife, the more the film confirms his suspicions about the idiots—his wife, her parents and pretentious friends—that surround him; they begin the film as broad characterizations and end it as shrill caricatures. The tidy moral at the end—that every time period romanticizes an earlier one, and that you should make the best of what you've got—is pure middle-brow reassurance, and the movie's winky references to the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Buñuel—although often funny—are little pats on the back to anyone who's ever taken AP English or an introductory college film course.

Scorsese is Allen's opposite. In Hugo, art functions as an upsetting force, opening up new possibilities and reconfiguring old orders. While Midnight's supporting characters devolve into either cartoons (Gil's family) or moral points (the Marion Cotillard character), Hugo's get opened up. The mean toy shop owner turns out to be sad old Georges Méliès, while the film's broadest major character—the mustachioed, child-catching station inspector played by Sasha Baron Cohen—is revealed to be a socially-awkward romantic, a former orphan, and a World War I veteran ashamed of his war-inflected disabilities.

Midnight's art reassures the individual, revealing the crassness and falseness of others; Hugo's is predicated on its ability to alter viewpoints and affect a group. It's therefore not all that surprising that the 35mm-shot, pragmatic-looking Midnight in Paris represents a sort of aesthetic comfort zone for Allen, while Hugo was shot digitally in 3D with extensive computer effects and is production-designed and color-graded into a carefully controlled palette heavy on cobalt and russet—an effect that recalls the polarized color schemes of two-strip Technicolor without ever actually looking like two-strip Technicolor. The camera nosedives its way through practical and digital sets and makes dancey lithe movements around the actors—like in the final scene, where all of the characters, major and minor, are linked by a Steadicam weaving in and out of rooms into a sort of social dance (a final all's-well-that-ends-well note that my colleague Ben Sachs pointed out is nearly identical to that of Rushmore).

And yet...

"Spectacle" in the purest sense, Hugo plays on all the obvious strengths of a medium (check out Scorsese's take on that apocryphal story about the first screenings of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, where a 3D audience bounds into the frame, reacting to a 2D image) and none of its peculiarities. Ironically, Hugo's smartness about 3D ends up reassuring what's already know about the format—that it can make objects pop out, and add depth to particular shots—without trying anything new. It's not cinema's future, but cinema's past having a go at its present.