Most people do not think that they like silent movies. That’s understandable. In the 84 years since The Jazz Singer started singing, whole generations of humanity have been born, have grown to maturity, have conquered the world, and have died. Very few of us have any living family members who remember the silent era. Heck, very few of us have any living family members who can remember a time when the phrase “sound film” actually made sense. (What films don’t have sound?) Like classical music or American literature before Huckleberry Finn, there is something just so boring, so unsexy, so unrepentantly old about silent movies.
Which is why I think it’s just wonderful that some Hollywood executives so badly wanted to get fired that they let Martin Scorsese make a 150-million-dollar movie about the greatness of silent movies. The previews made Hugo look like a pratfall-happy kids’ adventure movie. Which it kind of is…at first. (Minor spoilers ahead.) But the film’s second half takes a glorious left turn when it turns out that the crotchety old toy-shop owner played by Ben Kingsley is actually Georges Méliès, the first great fantasy filmmaker, who created eye-popping visual effects at a time when directors still had to use natural light to make movies.
Scorsese carefully recreates the set of several Méliès films, conjuring a time when directors could actually direct while the camera was rolling. In the process, he also plays snippets of several famous silent films, including Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (which was the first indication that movies about trains would be fundamentally awesome.)
As a former Film Studies major and eternal nerd, I don’t mind telling you that some of this stuff brought me to tears. It’s almost impossible to explain to an average filmgoer why silent films are magical: How the thing that makes them seem so unlikable (a lack of dialogue) actually makes them universally enjoyable across cultures and generations. The best silent movies — like the eternally weird Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, or absolutely anything Buster Keaton did in the ’20s — seem to deny the need for movie sound. Hugo captures all that perfectly, without the air of preachiness that almost always afflicts film-geek arguments about silent movies. (Of which I am certainly guilty.)
At times, you almost get the sense that Scorsese kind of wanted to make Hugo a silent movie. (The extended prologue plays out without any dialogue.) The timing of Hugo‘s release is interesting, since the silent-film homage The Artist seems poised to become the next big apparently-unmarketable-film-that-becomes-a-box-office-success. I don’t imagine the film will be a huge success. The initial box office reports aren’t encouraging. But people who see Hugo might be intrigued enough to google Georges Melies, and if they like his movies, they might dig a little deeper into silent cinema. And that is very encouraging.
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