Hugo, and the pointless raging against time
In my pre-Oscars post I talked a little about The Artist and Hugo, and how I thought The Artist would win because it was a film about filmmaking. There was also talk of how The Artist echoes Singin’ In The Rain, which is interesting because both came at a time when the way we watch films was threatened, or at least changing – television leading to the glitzy widescreen productions that included Singin’ In The Rain, and digital distribution leaving Hollywood stamping its feet and demanding that the internet be sent to its room.
The interesting point that I was too stupid to go on and make is that Hugo has even more in common with Hollywood’s 1950s wobble, as it’s part of the industry’s recent swing towards 3D (something still seen as television-defyingly cinematic) echoing the spate of post-war 3D releases like Kiss Me Kate, House Of Wax, and Dial M For Murder.
In a recent interview Martin Scorsese made a smart case for his decision to work in three dimensions, and being Martin Scorsese this case was bound up in the history of cinema and technology. He pointed out that each major technological transition in cinema has been greeted with hostility, whether it’s the move to sound fictionalised in The Artist and Singin’ In The Rain (“Do you know what those films sounded like, from 1927 to 1930? Nobody could move. They’re terrible films”) or the more gradual shift to colour, which was first introduced in 1935 but existed alongside black and white until the 1970s (Scorsese remembers in particular the critic Andrew Sarris pronouncing in 1969 that black and white was obsolete, and being “appalled”).
Of course, it was a decade after this pronouncement that Scorsese chose to ditch colour to make Raging Bull, in 1980. Why would a man so interested in exploring the possibilities of the medium, who’s now embraced 3D – why would he take a step back like that? The answer is that he loves film. The timing is no accident. Raging Bull came when colour was the established norm of Hollywood and cheap, quick-to-degrade film stock had become standard, but before the industry’s next great transition to home video or premium cable channels which would offer films a life outside of cinemas.
When colour became the norm is when colour became less stable. And when you were designing a film in colour – why do all that work, and design it in colour, and have that colour mean many different things, and within six years, why then have a faded version of that film? Faded pink and blue? I’m not going to do it. It was a political act in that way.
In other words, Raging Bull was a film that took a step backwards because the future hadn’t been invented yet. These days Martin Scorsese is a notable advocate of film preservation, his Film Foundation having “saved” over 500 films to date. In that way Hugo is clearly a film not just about films, but about saving films, which makes sense of the way Michael Stuhlbarg’s benign film historian leans into the camera to warn us that film is delicate, before restoring the heck out of Georges Méliès’ back catalogue. I’d also argue that Scorsese made Hugo in 3D for the same reason he made Raging Bull in black and white – because his historian’s eye frames technological shifts in a wider context, and in each case it was the best way to express his passion for and urge to protect cinema.
But of course if Hugo represents Scorsese’s fight to “save” cinema it’s also swept up in the industry’s rather less noble scrap to save itself – by thrusting 3D onto a largely undemanding audience, by awarding a stack of Oscars to The Artist and Hugo – films which ache for the past – and by aching for the past itself by campaigning for copyright measures that would artificially preserve an ageing industrial system.
In conclusion – Martin Scorsese is wise and extraordinary, and may well be proved right about 3D emerging from its awkward early technological stage to become accepted (and potentially then ignored) as standard. But also, whatever you think of them as films, The Artist and Hugo’s success at the Oscars is a sign of a solipsistic industry thinking happy thoughts and raging uselessly at the passing of time.