Hugo & The History of George Melies
A silent film in colour? An extra-terrestrial epic involving rockets, monsters, and an undersea voyage; mixing live action with animation - dating back to the cinema’s very first decade? Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to get reacquainted with Georges Melies.
Film buffs will know him as the second most famous filmmaker of the movies’ first decade (after his French compatriots the brothers Lumiere). The story goes that Melies was among the people to see the Lumiere’s invention, the “cinematographe”. Being in showbiz (he was a magician who had taken over the theatre once operated by the great nineteenth century illusionsist Robert Houdin), Melies tried to buy their machine – but the canny brothers didn’t welcome competition, and refused.
Undeterred, Melies got hold of a projector from England, and added short documentary films – which were the only movies being made in 1895 - to the bill at his theatre. Soon he decided to make his own movies, and tinkered with the projector to turn it into a camera. (Apparently it weighed a packet.)
It wasn’t long before he was filming his own magic tricks. And then he discovered how the camera could enhance his stage act. By stopping the film and exiting from the frame, then restarting it, he appeared to disappear. If he stopped the film, ran it back a few feet and then restarted it he could create double exposures, so that things or people twinned on the screen. These were the first special effects shots in cinema, and they opened up all manner of fun and games for Monsieur Melies, whose imagination ran riot.
Melies started blowing up heads (his own mostly). He plucked it from his shoulders and threw it up into the air. In one film, he played a one-man band – creating seven double exposures so that each on screen Georges played his own instrument. In many, many films he dressed up as the devil and worked whatever merry mischief entered his head. And in his most famous picture – the one that he is remembered from more than a century later – he played a scientist who mounted an expedition to the moon… The rocket landing plumb in the eye of the man in the moon.
That was “Trip to the Moon”, the first ever sci-fi movie, a 14-minute epic crafted entirely within Melies’ glass-walled home studio in 1901.
Melies – who is played by Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese’s enchanting new film Hugo – was probably the most successful filmmaker in the world for a time. But his films were ripped off far and wide, and by the time WWI came along he had fallen on hard times. He was forced to sell his old films to be melted down for the chemicals (they were used to make boot heels), and later, in a fit of anger, he burned the negatives of many more – movies that are lost forever. At the time Hugo is set, 1930, he’s virtually a forgotten man.
Strange as it may seem, Melies has appeared in Scorsese’s work before. At least, the films have: the young Dalai Lama watches them in Kundun and is delighted (they are, if I remember rightly, his first encounter with moving images).
But what brings Scorsese to celebrate Melies now – and in such high style?
It’s no coincidence that Hugo is Scorsese’s first 3D movie. (Not only that, it embraces CGI without hesitation.) There is no more acute historian of film in the Directors Guild of America than Martin Scorsese, and I’m sure he senses that change is in the air.
Although the first sound film came in 1927, Hollywood took a year or two (but only a year or two) to transform its production methods. By 1930 silent film was dead and buried. For a while the studios produced silent versions to compliment sound films because not all cinemas were wired for sound, but by the end of that year they abandoned that practice. It was the first great technological revolution in movie history, and really there have only been two since.
The first was the switch to colour film – though that was a much more gradual change and as we have seen, colour was around almost from the start (albeit painstaking hand-tinted).
The second happened in the last ten years or so, with the shift away from celluloid to digital cameras. Again, this change has been more gradual, and in fact it’s still going on – but still it is a radical shift. The way that Hollywood movies look today is very different from how they looked in the early 1990s. CGI has made anything possible. Given the budget, filmmakers can achieve almost any visual effect they want, whether it’s populating an epic with a virtual cast of thousands, or it’s taking the camera on a dynamic ride through an entire station, as Scorsese does here in the film’s opening shot.
And then there is 3D – which may or may not be here to stay.
Many critics (and I’m one of them) have complained long and hard about 3D. We find it looks cheap and tacky, that it’s a distraction and a gimmick, and worse, the glasses cut off the luminescence of the screen. All of which is true, often. I don’t know if audiences will stand by it, but I suspect that part of the vehement opposition from the critical fraternity is inspired by fear: the fear that the kids who are growing up on 3D movies will reject traditional 2D movies just as their parents – many of them – rejected black and white, and their great grandparents rejected silent film.
But this is beyond any individual’s control. We’re talking about the great sweep of cultural history here, and there’s no point in playing King Cnut, not unless you want to drown in the tide.
What Scorsese has done is much cleverer. Hugo is a modern film, it points to the wonderful opportunities the new technology affords moviemakers. But it also reclaims the past. It celebrates the artistry of the silent pioneers, in particular this incredible one-man band, Melies, a master of illusion who wrote and directed, produced, edited, shot and starred in his own movies (shot in his own backyard). And it reminds us how little has changed, really. Those elements that thrilled Melies’s audiences 110 years ago – spectacle, special effects, adventure, suspense, pretty girls – these remain the core ingredients of almost any movie today. Including this one.