Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hugo (4 Stars)

Clocks and films, magic and dreams.

Martin Scorsese is a director whose films don't appeal to me. If anyone tells me he's a good director, fine, I won't argue with it, but that doesn't change the fact that his films don't speak to me. I've watched a few of his films in recent years, such as "Casino", "Goodfellas" and "The Aviator", and they all left me cold. The only film that I've enjoyed so far is "Cape Fear". And now I have to add this film.

The title character of the film, Hugo, is a fictional character, but large parts of the film have to do with the film maker Georges Méliès, who lived from 1861 to 1938 and made over 500 short films from 1896 to 1913. This was interesting to me, because my knowledge of films starts with D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" in 1915.

Georges Méliès followed his father's career and became a shoemaker, but he didn't enjoy this type of work. He became a stage magician and was successful enough to be able to buy his own theatre. In December 1895 he saw his first film, a short sequence of a train driving towards the audience. This inspired him to change from magic acts to making films, which he considered to be the new form of magic.

Over the next few years Georges made many films, everything from erotic films to fantasy and science fiction. Most of his films were less than five minutes long, the usual film length in that day, and were shown in fairground tents. Unlike most other filmmakers, Georges' films told stories. Other films were simply street scenes, countryside or short excerpts from sports events. At the end of the 19th Century audiences were fascinated by seeing real life as moving pictures on a screen, so they hadn't yet embraced the concept of storytelling with fake images being projected. What we take for granted today was a novelty 110 years ago.

Georges' films became longer as time progressed. Some were more than 10 minutes long. In 1912 he made "Cinderella", the longest film ever made, lasting 54 minutes. Because this was considered too long to retain the public's interest it was edited down to 33 minutes, but this was still too long and it flopped. In my opinion this wasn't really because of the audience, but because of the fairground owners. They wanted a quick turnaround of paying customers in their tents, and 33 minutes was much too long to be profitable.

The failure of his experimentally long films was the first of a series of setbacks for Georges. He went bankrupt, allegedly because of poor business decisions and bad contracts that he signed. His wife died, leaving him to bring up his son alone. When the first world war began he was unable to continue making new films. The French army seized most of his old films to melt them down for the value of their raw materials. After the war Georges destroyed all the remaining films to sell the materials to make heels for women's shoes. He used the money to start a small toy shop at a train station in Paris. And this is where Hugo meets him at the beginning of the film.

After Georges Méliès disappeared as a filmmaker the baton was passed to D.W. Griffith. Films left the fairgrounds and moved into theatres. In 1915 "Birth of a Nation", 190 minutes long, became the world's first full length film. The first of many. Then over the next 20 years the greatest film innovations were made in Germany. But that's a different story.....

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