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Nostalgia Playing in Hollywood

Two of the top contenders for film awards this year are focused on the early years of cinema-- Martin Scorsese's Hugo and The Artist, by French director Michel Hazanavicius. The former leads the pack with the most Oscar nominations, while the latter is sweeping awards for direction, writing, and acting--and picking up a few Best Picture trophies, including one from the British equivalent of the Academy Awards. Both films have been described as "love letters to cinema" by their creators, and both are charming in that regard.

Hugo is focused on the birth of film and the crossroads of science and storytelling that gave the movies their magic, and it is unlike anything else I've seen by the normally-gritty Scorsese. The film pays homage to Georges Méliés, the great French illusionist who pioneered special effects at the turn of the last century and is regarded as the father of the science fiction and horror genres of cinema. Méliés and his work had a tremendous influence on other wizards like Thomas Edison and Walt Disney, who would help America to become the leader of filmmaking. Most of the Méliés films were lost during the Great War, and the man spent much of his later life in obscurity, selling toys and magic tricks in a Paris train station--where Hugo picks up his tale. Eventually, interest into the innovations of Méliés and his surviving films began to pick up, and in 1931 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor (presented by none other than Louis Lumiere), and Méliés spent the rest of his life teaching the next generation of filmmakers. As he sat in a hospital bed losing a battle to cancer, he invited some friends to his bedside to show them the final picture he would draw--a champagne bottle with the cork popping off. "Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams." This sentiment was shared well in the film.

The Artist is a fantastic example of filmmaking. The movie is about the death of silent films and the rise of the talkies, and it is itself both black-and-white and silent. The silence of the film forces the actors to use their abilities to tell a story through actions and expressions alone, and they are magnificent at it, especially lead actor Jean Dujardin. The Frenchman plays George Valentin, king of the silent silver screen, who resists the rise of sound in film, initially shrugging it off as a passing fad and then falling into despair as a new generation of actors with voices steals his limelight. While I was originally skeptical that a full-length silent movie could completely keep my attention in this day and age, I found myself loving every minute of it--the movie was great fun. Though I have yet to see The Help and The Descendants, I expect this film to win the Oscar for Best Picture (though some people tell me The Help and The Descendants are as good if not better than The Artist).

Both movies capture pivotal moments in the history of cinema, and in the process allow the artists to express their own thoughts on their craft. It is no surprise that Hollywood is in love with these love letters, and I think this could be a good thing; they capture the essence of what makes movies fascinating, fun, and sometimes even important. Films can make us laugh or cry, get us to think about things we normally would not, and allow us to escape the world for a few brief moments and let our imaginations play in the fantasies that these wizards conjure up. It is no coincidence that many of the earliest pioneers of cinema were also great scientists and magicians. Hugo plays with a well-reported scene from one of the first movies: the Lumiere brothers had taken a brief shot of a train coming down a track, and were showing it on the carnival circuit. When people watched it and saw that train come towards them on the screen, legend says they all panicked and began ducking for cover, fearing that the train was actually coming at them and would leap off of the screen to crush them. It was magic that it did not. From the pioneers like Méliés, Lumiere, and Edison to the titans like Disney, Hitchcock, and Welles to the plethora of great storytellers and technical wizards over the last century, they continue to entice us. It is good for Hollywood to explore its roots now and then, to remember where it came from and why it went that way, and to continue looking to the future for new ways to divert us and new magic to conjure up.
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Discussions - 3 Comments

I found "Hugo" beautiful. The story was good, yes, charming is good word for it and wasn't it nice to see the Melies footage that had been missing for so long. The beauty of the film was mostly that it so effectively used 3D as part of the visual story, not just as a cute trick. Insides were inside and had an internal round depth. The thrust of a dog's nose was both comical and a vivid reminder of the real thing. The story had a theme about the outsides of people or things being one thing and the insides, once revealed, being much more marvelous than one could have imagined. The visuals played with the theme, or illustrated it. As in the image of books and covers being a clue for how to think about people or even films. What's inside a film? It is people, a lot of people, trying to make magic.

I haven't seen the other movie, yet, but yes, Hugo was charming.

I though the Artist was okay, but not great. It was amusing, but the only reason Hollywood likes it so much is that it makes Hollywood feel good about itself. The plot drifts, and the romance is rather too simplistic. The best part is the dog.

This seems relevant: Hollywood Doesn't Like itself, from the L.A. Times: http://theenvelope.latimes.com/awards/oscars/la-ca-oscars-gabler-20120219,0,5459090.story

"This is, then, a special kind of nostalgia — the nostalgia of retribution. These movies are less about a lost past than they are about an unsatisfactory present. In modern Hollywood, it is easy to hate what you do. This year the Oscars are giving folks there a chance to say so."

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