Hugo : A Roundtable

 | Roundtable |

  BY Various

Hugo arrived very late in India, with starts and stops, with much howling in outrage at Viacom18 cancelling its initially programmed March 2012 release, only for it to be released on May 2012, and this after the film received 5 Oscars and this despite being directed by one of the world’s most renowned and respected film-makers. [1] One is reminded of the fact that Shutter Island too was delayed from its planned fall release in 2009 to early 2010. All these external factors along with an advertising campaign that was, in A. S. Hamrah’s words, “afraid to embrace its real values”, contributed to making Hugo a bigger event for those who followed the director’s career than it would have been had it been released properly. [2] For those who arrive to Scorsese’s films late, who followed his past glories on home video and TV, the potential absence of his latest films on local screens is a severe setback for the burgeoning cinephile community in India.

Of course, while Martin Scorsese’s name is dropped more often these days in interviews with Indian film-makers, he’s still very obscure and remote in our understanding of the overall complexity of his works and the changes in style and form that has accompanied different periods of his career. Awareness of these changes and ruptures perhaps makes Hugo less of a surprise than one might initially suppose. The following roundtable discussion makes an attempt to grapple with multiple issues related to Scorsese’s cinema, with particular attention to his recent films. Accompanying me in the ensuing discussion is Anuj Malhotra and Rahee Punyashloka.

1. Scorsese’s Dilemma

Sudarshan Ramani(SR): I discovered Martin Scorsese's films in the past decade. The first film of his that I saw in the theater was The Departed, followed by Shutter Island and now Hugo. Before seeing The Departed, I had familiarized myself with the Scorsese canon, both famous and obscure. My feeling for Scorsese in the 21st Century is that it's a career line that doesn't have a proper trajectory. There's a sense of scattering, which explains why this period is generally uneven, I am still partial to it however. Within this period, Hugo represents a kind of culmination as being the most anomalous work in a period of anomalies.

Rahee Punyashloka(RP): Yeah. I think the scattering that you talk about sort of compliments Scorsese's oeuvre, by filling it with things he had not done previously. He seems to have moved on from the self destructive personalities to grander frameworks.

SR: Scorsese has always been more versatile than people give him credit for. But these 21st century films have a sense of sameness despite tackling a variety of genres. All of them display his famous interest in self-destructive male behavior, as can be seen in the roles essayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator and The Departed, withShutter Island taking it to the extreme, the end where he essentially erases himself.

RP: Agreed.

SR: Even in Hugo, one can argue that the boy himself is fairly obsessive in his fixation with the automaton, while Méliès is shown burning down his sets in despair. Interestingly, in real life Méliès didn’t destroy the props and set-pieces; he actually destroyed some of his own film-prints in a moment of rage.

Anuj Malhotra (AM): I am not certain if in the historical context Méliès' act of burning the film prints is self-destruction.

SR: Within the context of Hugo, it qualifies as a kind of suicide, an aesthetic suicide.

AM: No, material suicide. I feel that in Hugo, through Scorsese's use of the mini-montage to indicate how Méliès' film may later have been employed to manufacture shoe heels, Scorsese points clearly at the materiality of film - of its essentially tangible nature, and thereby, the possibility of a physical death. But never of an aesthetical one, as the story within the film (via the Méliès retrospective) as well as Hugo itself, shows through its Méliès-influenced magical-realist aesthetic.

RP: As has been discussed in many quarters, I believe Scorsese has mellowed down with age. In Shutter Island, there is an overt reliance on the narrative, which in the case of effective deconstruction barely matters. Rather than trying to hold out purely on his aesthetic capacities, he seems to introduce generic elements and make his films more mainstream.

SR: Would Hugo be another sign of that for you?

RP: Yes. In my opinion, Hugo is indeed a sign of that. Not that I feel that his weaker films are without interest.

SR: So it isn’t “a true Scorsese film” then?

AM: At this point, I wish to pose a question that concerns a very important feature of all discussions that concern Scorsese and is a part of many critical propositions on him: what is a 'true' Scorsese?

SR: A film he seems to want to make and enjoy making. Of course that’s a bold assertion, since as auteurist critics you have to make assumptions on the level of interest a particular project holds for him at the outset. He’s himself discussed the dichotomy of being a Hollywood film-maker, likening it in his documentary on American films to having “a split personality” - the notion of “making one for them” and “one for himself”. I feel that this highlights a bigger dilemma which is, that for all his talk on genre film-makers who worked within the system like Jacques Tourneur or William Wellman, he is essentially not that kind of film-maker. He’s an “iconoclast” like Kazan, Welles or Cassavetes who’s now trying to work as a “smuggler”, and the tension shows. [3]

RP: Which is why it shows when he makes a film with a detached mindset; I categorize his post Gangs of New York films as rather weak in relation to his true pre-Gangs of New York period.

The Departed (2006) – Mark Wahlberg.

SR: I feel that’s especially the case with The Departed. It’s a good film but the style of that film made me think of late-period Hitchcock, after Marnie, where he made a few films with a sense of defeatism, in that they weren’t what he wanted to make, which were projects like Mary-Rose or Kaleidoscope [4]. By defeatist, I mean that it’s made with the consciousness that it won’t or couldn’t be a great film, just merely very good.

AM: I don’t agree with Rahee's assessment that the post-Gangs work is weak or detached. I feel that that assessment is an example of the critical fallacy which assumes that the 70s films were personal, 'gritty' and edgy, thereby the most intense, and therefore, symptomatic of Scorsese’s whole ambition as a filmmaker and so, his later films are somehow detached because of the absence of a single-loner, flawed individual at the center who must proclaim his reservations against the world.

Goodfellas (1990) – Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Catherine Scorsese and Robert DeNiro.

SR: Well it is true that Scorsese, since the 90s has shifted his focus from individual subjective portraits to a kind of anthropological exploration of groups, rituals and communities. Films like Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence or Casino set about recreating a way of life, focusing on the code and rituals through which each society functions.Hugo, in that context is fascinating, because it’s kind of a return, in its focus on a single individual's consciousness, detailing his subjective perspective of the world i.e. the boy Hugo.

AM: I feel it is important to understand Scorsese's career as the fulfillment of a single grand ambition to be classified in the history of American cinema in the category of the directors he admired: Stevenson, Ford, Wilder, Capra, Fuller, Ray, Zinnemann - as opposed to those who were his immediate colleagues in the 70s and 80s. As such, his ambition was always to make films in a grander, narrative-based framework, with large, overreaching ideas about American life and ensemble casts - it is only that he got the money to do it after the successes of Gangs,The Departed and such. His is a continuing work in the tradition of Hollywood classical cinema, as opposed to the New Hollywood of the 70s - even at a micro level, through his casting of Paul Newman (The Color of Money), or remaking a 1961 film(Cape Fear), or making, almost exclusively, period films.

SR: My feeling is the opposite because I always felt that Scorsese isn’t like Zinneman, Stevens, Wilder or Capra at all. Outsiders and pioneers like Kazan, Powell or Rossellini are far more important to him as far as examples to follow are concerned. 

AM: He may not, but that may very well be an ambition - to be integrated into a more mainstream American history of film.

SR: Well that’s probably a remainder of the loyalty to the New Hollywood dream, where Altman’s films played to the same audience that would see JawsShutter Island is a useful example, it’s constructed like a Film Noir patchwork but its spirit is closer to Ingmar Bergman, hence the presence of Max Von Sydow who notably discourses on the double meaning of the German word “trauma” for both “pain” and “dream”.

2. Hugo

The Invention of Hugo Cabret – Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick

AM: I think Hugo's Méliès, Shutter Island's Di Caprio and The Aviator's Howard Hughes are all the prototypical Scorsese protagonists - adamant men who couldn't keep up with the world (Méliès) or the world couldn't keep up with them (Hughes) but would eventually be offered a salvation, through a film retrospective or a lobotomy(Shutter Island). As such, I feel Hugo is an utmost personal film - his ultimate masterpiece, even, because throughout his career, Scorsese's tried to make films about integration of the margins into the mainstream - whether through cultural outsiders (Henry Hill, the Irish in an Italian mob), artistic outsiders (Dylan in No Direction Home) or spiritual outsiders (Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence): in that, Hugo finally shows a vision of the fulfillment of that grand, sustaining dream - a forgotten but important director gets a retrospective in a sold-out auditorium with seventeen of his films recovered and restored! There is not a trace of cynicism there in that - Keaton at his long overdue Retrospective: 'Thank you very much, but I am afraid it maybe a little too late.'[5]

SR: Well there might be a bit of that bitterness in the retrospective scene of Hugo. There’s a sense that Kingsley isn’t as happy as he ought to be there. A bit of weariness and sadness comes across.

RP: I felt that Kingsley's Méliès was happy at the retrospective. I didn’t think there was any cynicism or weariness there.

SR: As a cinephile who was familiar with Méliès’ films before I had seen Hugo, the film’s real interest is the way it presents a social dimension to cinephilia the way it envisions a community of loners, a family of equals, across barriers of age. The way the boy Hugo and the old man Méliès relate to each other as fellow clockmakers as well as surrogate father and son for each other. And of course when we see the historian René Tabard, he seems more childlike than the two kids.

RP: But this common feeling is promulgated through the use of a Deus-Ex-Machina, that is to say, the automaton.

SR: It’s not a Deux-Ex-Machina, it’s a McGuffin!

Hugo(2011) – Asa Butterfield

RP: I don’t see how it could be a McGuffin.

SR: The automaton merely creates the connections between the characters, giving them reasons to meet and get to know each other. It doesn’t resolve the characters’ problems on their behalf. They achieve that on their own, in the manner in which they relate to each other.

AM: I feel that the automaton may even be seen as Scorsese's end word on the debate on new technology that invades cinema - the film contains a statement of assurance - the belief that a machine's ultimate purpose is after all, the transmission of a wholly human message.

RP: I agree that the automaton is a metaphor for contemporary anxieties towards digital technology.

SR: Yeah, you know it's probably the only completely benign image of an automaton in film history. [6]

RP: But my problem with the film’s use of this discursive pattern through which the film connects the characters is that it hints at a higher force at work.

SR:Well, Scorsese can’t avoid being Catholic finally. The speech Hugo says about people having a purpose and reaching out for each other. It is the great spiritual moment in the film and it’s an autobiographical justification for Scorsese’s vocation in the cinema rather than the Church.

AM: That particular speech is entirely and essentially about the world being a giant machine - How does that tie into Catholicism?

RP: Well, Catholicism propagates values through the machinery of the Church. It is precisely his affiliation to a religious, or in the case of the Hugo, a cosmic tract that makes it look weaker in front of say, Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes. [7]

SR: Well Davies is an ex-Catholic.

RP: But there’s no cosmic force at play in his films.

AM: You know “God in the Machine” is an excellent alternative title for Hugo. The machine is not merely the automaton, but also the projector, the camera. It’s a film about machines and its set in the 1920s-1930s, a time when machines began to truly fulfill their promise. That is to say machines that fulfill a pre-determined (by humans), assigned purpose. A far cry from the machine-paranoia of The Terminator films or for that matter Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik.[8] Rahee, is your complain about the cosmic force more to do with how conveniently all the narrative problems of Hugo resolve themselves?

RP: Hugo tends to employ postmodern devices like the transmitting nature of machines, allusions to other films, the use of magic realism, and ineffective use of the cinematic space as a dream space and so on to seemingly arrive at the ontological issues pertaining to cinema. However, it also depends on the conventional trope of an over-arching narrative pre-destination, an authorial God, if you will, in order to attain its ultimate goal of fermenting cinema into a medium of communal catharsis, as you pointed out. This conventional trope, in fact undoes the possibility of many ontological issues being raised and clearly it’s necessitated by the need of integrating the film into something far more mainstream. This discursive negotiation is where my problem lies with the film.

3. Cinephilia - Scorsese contra Tarantino

RP: We discussed the self-destructive nature of Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters, but, in Shutter Island for instance, doesn’t he have agency vis-a-vis the whole overarching conspiracy theories of Post WWII American paranoia?

SR: Well yes. To explain by way of digression, Shutter Island seems to me to illustrate James Naremore’s observation of Double Indemnity. He notes that the film’s original ending was a critique of capital punishment, of death by gas chamber, which he sees as “the ‘end of the line’ of industrial culture”. Naremore doesn’t state this himself, but to me this implies that the memories of liberating the camps carried over to America’s post-war suburban lifestyle [9]. Shutter Island is about the Holocaust coming back home with the returning American soldier. The war-hero visited the death camps only to return home to find his children drowned and his wife mad.

RP: I guess, even without a direct connection it is pretty much well established in the theoretical circles that the whole Noir iconography is the product of the whole post WW and Holocaust anguish.

 Shock Corridor (1963) – Peter Breck

AM: I am not very certain of my feelings towards Shutter Island. I feel that Scorsese is not the most comfortable when engaged in an explicit discussion of his lead protagonist's psychology - he may make him suffer because of it, or maybe even redeem him, but to discuss it as a real object is an aim Scorsese has never fully accomplished. What one of the major inspirations for Shutter IslandShock Corridor (1963) does so effectively is to wrap the whole psychological complexity of the film in an interesting genre- horror, thereby making it only a smaller point in the larger narrative, while Shutter Island can never really escape the need to organize an exposition on DiCaprio's psychology - you can never, therefore, fully focus on the story. Also, I feel, despite Scorsese's overt (and obvious) visual capabilities, he truly falters in representation in Shutter Island: mental sickness is manifest throughout his film as dry, drippy, leaking corridors - or even worse, bleached film stock - that I think is used perhaps lazily to create a distinction between his lead character's 'reality' and 'memory', 'present' and 'past' (that, again, is done better in Shock Corridor, where Fuller uses very gratuitous super-impositions, double-exposures and basically, dirty asylum walls to suggest impending madness.

SR: I always feel that the deconstructive element in Shutter Island and other Scorsese films isn’t as effective in comparison to say, Tarantino’s pastiches. For Scorsese, the hero of Shutter Island is a pastiche of Noir Heroes like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo and Dana Andrews in Laura and also a compelling character in his own right. So this means that Shutter Island perhaps falls short of being a “satisfying whole” because it seeks to expose the limitations of the genres and clichés which someone like Tarantino is trying to celebrate it as post-modernist parody. Basically, Scorsese is trying to bury the genre by bringing out the pain and violence that was only hidden and barely suggested in the original films, because the censorship didn’t allow it to be directly addressed.

For some time now, I have opposed Inglourious Basterds with Shutter Island. An interesting co-incidence is that they released in India at near about the same time [9]. They are both about the memory of the Second World War and both of them engage in a dialogue between historical memories of the event and cinematic memories and records of the same. And of course Robert Richardson was cinematographer for both films.

RP: For me, IB is superior as a cinephilic discourse than Shutter Island and Hugo. He literally brings two kinds of cinephilia to congregate into the theatre at the climax, and both parties are considerable movie-lovers in their own right.

SR: What Tarantino does in IB is conflate actual history with film history, whereas for Scorsese, film history is a way to get at the actual history. There’s a lateral tracking shot in Shutter Island which moves from left to right, unrelentingly showing Nazi soldiers executed by Americans during the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. This scene completely subverts all of Tarantino’s revenge fantasies, what registers is the violence itself, regardless of whether they “deserve” it or not.

AM: Apart from the fact that both Hugo and Shutter Island eventually resolve in a movie-theatre, one to begin something and the other to end something, I feel the films are both pre-destined; in fact, IB has a more pre-destined narrative than anything else - apart from narrative-twists that are to be expected in a thriller of this sorts, everything works out perfectly for the Basterds.

RP" Well think of it in the Romantic spirit with which Tarantino puts it, there is a possibility that the “actual” history you talk about will get misappropriated through this cinematic alteration. Isn’t that important? To re-evaluate the past, and dispose of past mistakes, if possible.

AM: When you talk of “actual” history – it is a dangerous topic, and one has to tread the path very carefully. Making up an alternate history is far easier.

RP: Easier, that is true, there is a certain Romanticism attached to it. But it is up to individual tastes to like it or not

The cast of Inglourious Basterds (2009) with director Quentin Tarantino in the middle

AM: That said, however, I feel Basterds is a rather tardy film - the ending is the work of a madman, but the rest of the film is boring - and contains of much hoodwinking and overdone cleverness. I like how Basterds is entirely a film about awkwardness in a globalised work set in not-so-globalised times (the major issues that cause violence inBasterds are regional inconsistencies: the wrong way to indicate the number 'three' with your fingers or the pronunciation of a particular word), but that is about it.

SR: I felt at the time that IB is perhaps Tarantino’s best film, from a technical and craft perspective. I would agree to that even now in that it succeeds in expressing what Tarantino wants, however my problem is precisely with “what-is-being-expressed”, that there’s a sense of nihilism in his cinephilia. Film history as endless pastiche disconnected with anything outside the theater, literally in the case of the end of IB, whereas Shutter Island andHugo, even if they are not Scorsese’s best works, accord moral responsibility and social dimensions to film history. Since Tarantino and Scorsese are the two most publicly well known self-conscious cinephile auteurs, this difference in their approaches says a lot about the discourse of film history in mass culture.

AM: What do you feel is the moral responsibility of cinephilia? Speaking for myself, I am not so certain about moral responsibility, but if I had to answer, I would say it is the responsibility to assure sustenance, to assure permanence and to assure an extension of an ancient history.

RP: Cinephilia should aim to engage dialectically with history and re-evaluate discursive patterns.

SR: I agree in that it’s essentially what I mean by “social dimension” vis-à-vis Scorsese and Shutter Island and Hugo. But I have serious doubts that Tarantino’s films and IB especially, do this in a way that is meaningful.

RP: Well for me, cinephilia or an understanding of film history ought to lead you to challenge the historicity of accepted things. Cinema more than other art forms allows for the possibility of seeing the historicity of things from another perspective. It challenges pre-conceived notions of reality.

AM: I feel that we are making the mistake of conflating production of cinema with cinephilia. That is between the practice of making films and the practice of watching films.

RP: For me, there isn’t a real divide between the two.

SR: Well there are films about the impact of films on audiences and society, such as Hugo, and also The Artist(2011) which came out at the same time, and to back even further there is Cinema Paradiso (1988). What makes Hugo interesting is that it sidesteps the divide between film-making and movie-going, which the other films insist on.[11] There’s a sense of brotherhood between the film-maker and his audience and the film-scholars who salvage the work for the future. It’s about cinema’s capacity to transform society and culture.

RP: I feel that while a film like The Artist assumes a Romantic affiliation with cinema to pre-exist in the audience, Hugo merely propagates it. That said this makes Hugo in an important film even if I disapprove of its discourse. These days, film history is almost completely forgotten as mainstream values and if only to try and propagate it within the mainstream Hugo has value. 


1. Raja Sen – “We Want Hugo”

2. A. S. Hamrah – “The Artist: Why we crave silence”

3. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Directed by Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson. Produced by the British Film Institute. This documentary surveys the history of American cinema from the perspective of directors who worked within the Hollywood system, detailing the bureaucratic conditions and socio-political pressures imposed on them. “Smugglers” are especially important, dealing with film-makers (Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray) who subvert and critique narrative conventions, paying only the minimum necessary lip-service to censorship dictates. “Iconoclasts” (Welles, Stroheim, Chaplin) are identified as artists who directly challenged the status-quo, openly defying rules and boundaries in their films.

4. Alfred Hitchcock : A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan. “It Books” (September 2004).

5. The Parade’s Gone By Kevin Brownlow. Page 474. University of California Press. The great silent-film comedian and film-maker Buster Keaton, suffered years of neglect and destitution before receiving belated acknowledgement towards the end of his life. After a 1966 retrospective at the Venice Film Festival, he remarked to film historian Lotte Eisner: “Sure it’s great but it’s all thirty years too late.”

6. Automatons or Robots, in examples such as the “False Maria” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the Olympia doll in Powell-Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and the life-size wind-up toys in Fellini Casanova (1976) are sinister and frightening figures in comparison to the serenity of the device in Hugo.

7. Terence Davies is one of Britain’s greatest active film-makers. His early films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) deal with working-class characters in Liverpool for whom moviegoing is a central communal experience. In these films, cinema Halls are enshrined by Davies into tableaux of graven images.

8. Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik is a satire about a man who relates to the car he drives (named “Jagaddal”) as an object worthy of human companionship. One anecdote, especially pertinent to Hugo, concerns him and director Kumar Shahani (then his student at the Pune Film Institute) watching the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train à la gare de la Ciotat repeatedly, and laughingly describing the film as “one machine watching the other”.

9. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, James Naremore. University of California Press. Page 81-95. Naremore presents excerpts from the screenplay containing the original ending of Double Indemnity which Naremore notes upset the censors because of its unremitting depiction of execution by gas chamber. His argument is grounded in a sustained reading of the film’s critique of industrialization and mass culture - “the culminating instance of instrumental reason, the “end of the line” for industrial culture: the California gas chamber”.[It’s important to stress that Double Indemnity was released in 1944, before the official end of Second World War. My application of Mr. Naremore’s reading of the film through the lens of returning veteran trauma is meant to be poetic rather than literal.]

10. Actually, this isn’t entirely true. Inglourious Basterds[sic] released in fall 2009 in India, which was the scheduled release date for Shutter Island as well, but was then delayed to February 2010 and arrived in India by March or April of that year.

11. Another film even more pertinent to Hugo than the above examples is Woody Allen’s deftly constructed The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) which is especially poignant and self-critical of the social function of movie-going and cinephilia. Midnight in Paris (2011), shot at the same time as Hugo has many things in common with the film, not least its re-creation of 1920s Paris.