There was a point about halfway through the Oscars Sunday night, having seen HUGO grab yet another win, that I honestly thought it might steal best picture or best director away from Michel Hazanavicious’ The Artist. That didn’t happen much to my delight, as I personally think The Artist is leagues better than Hugo.
I saw HUGO a few weeks ago and thought it was astoundingly OK, and found myself very puzzled as to who exactly its intended audience was. Early chases and slapstick comedy seemed to indicate it was a movie for kids, but a fairly slow moving plot and strong focus on cinematic nostalgia made it seem to me to be a movie about children, not for children.
Martin Scorsese is an extraordinarily gifted director. He’s made a deep mark on the history of cinema, and is clearly a deep lover of the medium himself. Totally respect him and his work, but I must admit I felt a bit like an alien after seeing HUGO, I just didn’t get why everyone loved it so much. It was very well made at a technical level (though best Visual Effects? Really?) but felt flat for me over all, especially compared to The Artist.
I had a hell of a lot more fun seeing The Artist than I did Hugo.
For me it simply boils down to the difference between talking ABOUT an experience, and actually having an experience. Hugo was all the former for me, while The Artist exemplified the latter.
For me, the most engaging portions of Hugo were the flashbacks of Meliers creating his films. The rest I found mostly dull and boring, often substituting “telling us” why cinema is a magical/delightful/waking dream, instead of actually giving us the experience of that.
Conversely, I could hardly conceal my giggles of joy watching The Artist. A conventional plot, no doubt, but one that was quite appropriate for the form in which the story was told. And how delightful a form it is!
In many ways, silent films are the purest form of the medium that exists, relying on nothing but visuals and editing to engage us in the telling of their stories. The Artist did that in spades, with simple visual gags that brought warm fuzzies to every inch of my heart.
By now the line is far beyond cliche for anyone that’s studied anything about screenwriting, but in this case I think it’s very true, in movies you strive to “show, don’t tell”. Why have a character deliver a wooden line when it can simply be expressed visually? Films are a visual medium in the end after all.
HUGO is a story that tells us we should be in awe of the magic of cinema and never forget the early roots it grew from. It tells us to feel that, though for me personally, watching it I was mostly bored and never actually felt it. It was about nostalgia, but for me it failed to create it.
The Artist, however, actually showed me the magic of cinema and how much we owe to the early pioneers of the form. Watching it I felt delight, awe, and so much appreciation for the craft I hold so dear. No elaborate special effects needed and no stunning 3d or virtual set extensions. Just a straightforward succession of images that strung together a story I cared about. That’s all cinema is in the end, and in that simplicity even in today’s day and age you can still give someone a memorable experience.
Importantly, much like any valuable experience, it’s not enough to tell people why it should be valued. “You should appreciate silent films cuz they were the first movies”, that’s pretty much the message I got from Hugo, yet
In fact, it’s pretty hard to do and why I think most “conscious” or “message” oriented films are such crap. Instead, the focus should be on actually giving people a valuable emotional experience of whatever you’re trying to convey. The best movies have a “felt body” experience to them, the shudder of awe, or pain, or simple delight as we witness what’s unfolding on screen. For me, I had those experiences in spades watching The Artist. I fell in love with the power of silent cinema again.