We saw Martin Scorsese’s newest film Hugo yesterday, the story of a young orphan who lives in the clockworks of a Paris rail station. I enjoyed it very much even with though I am still not yet sold on the need for 3-D in this film. Or most films, for that matter. Some of its use in the film was interesting but often I found it distracting and sometimes downright irritating.
But what I really did like was that one of the main characters in the story was the great pioneering filmmaker, George Melies. His life and body of work were key elements in the storyline. It gives an overview of his life from his birth in 1861 through his early years as an illusionist and magician, as well as a maker of automatons, which are self-operating machines that often resemble human forms. Clockwork robots– another important part of the film. It then documents his career in film , telling how he used his background in magic and illusion to create wonderous worlds in the new medium of film. He created some of the first special effects seen on film and even toda, with all the CG effects available, they are quite interesting to see.
The film also tells of his fall from the public eye and the destruction of many of his films, many of which were sold to the French military to be melted down to make celluloid heels for boots. As in the film, Melies ended up running a toy booth at a Paris rail station before a new generation rediscovered the genius of his early work. Though much of his work is lost forever, many have been recovered and restored.
Being a fan of early fims, I am glad that Scorsese was able to so beautifully pay homage to this early giant of cinema in Hugo. I’m hoping that a few moviegoers will find in Melies’ work a huge imagination and inventive spirit worth exploring more. There is an amazing amount of wonderful film from the earlest days of the medium and I hope that a new generation will discover these hidden treasures, much like those who rediscovered Melies after World War I.
Here is a restored Melies film, Le Diable Noir. Like many early films, it is short and a simple story. For modern filmgoers, the acting will seem a little over the top but you have to remember the time frame here. In early films, as well as the theatre of the time, gesture was big part of getting across emotion. But that aside, the effects Melies incorporates are tremendous for the time. Actually, ahead of his time.