Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

17 January 2012

My Flight (of Fancy) Has Been Diverted from Hawaii to Paris

I finally went to see The Descendants yesterday. I enjoyed it and thought George Clooney's performance was good, but what i liked most about it was that the voiceover narration in the beginning reminded me of another film where Alexander Payne uses this device: the segment on the 14e arrondissement in Paris, je t'aime (2006). A collection of eighteen short films by different directors, each set in a different Paris neighborhood, Paris, je t'aime is a montage of impressions of the City of Lights from different perspectives, using different stylistic approaches. Some segments made a stronger impression on me than others, but the one directed by Payne remains a sentimental favorite. In it, Margo Martindale plays Carol, an American postal worker from Denver fulfilling her lifelong dream of visiting Paris.
Carol (Margo Martindale) strolls the streets of Paris.
The film is organized as Carol's account of her trip, delivered in tone-deaf French to her continuing ed class. The voiceover narration reveals her struggles with the language while the visuals show her making her way through her final day in Paris. The film touches on all the stereotypes of American tourists in Paris: Carol is middle-aged, overweight, and badly dressed; she even sports a fanny pack. The trip seems to have been something of a disappointment up to this point. After five days she is still feeling tired and jetlagged; as she comments that the food did not live up to expectations, the camera reveals the remnants of a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. Dutifully following her guidebook, she visits the Cimetière de Montparnasse, pausing at the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In explaining the importance of the grave to the class, she confuses Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar.

In other hands, this slight story might have easily lapsed into mean-spiritedness.  But the combination of Payne's gentle humor and obvious affection for the character turn it into something very charming, a true love song to Paris. Martindale's face is wonderfully expressive and beautifully balances her deadpan delivery. At the end of the segment, Carol sits quietly on a park bench, no more museums to visit, no more need to consult her guidebook, and in that quiet moment, Paris and she finally find each other.

You can watch the entire segment on YouTube:
Margo Martindale in Paris je t'aime

14 January 2012

Searching for Méliès

It isn't every day that i go to a PG-rated movie, especially one in 3-D, but for Hugo I made a happy exception. The fact that it was directed by Martin Scorsese and paid homage to one of my heroes, the brilliant Georges Méliès, went a long way in leading me to overcome my usual aversion to being seated in the immediate vicinity of anyone under the age of 12, what with all the squirming and fidgeting and repeated trips to the snack bar and the bathroom that people in that age group tend to require. I suffered a brief moment of panic and almost headed for the exit when i realized that the woman and two adorable moppets standing in front of me in line were going into the same theatre as i. Fortunately, i overcame my curmudgeonhood in time, and my reward was a perfectly magical afternoon at the movies.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz) with the newly repaired automaton
Adapted from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the film is the beautifully executed tale of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan leading an adventurous life in a Paris train station. He spends his time tending the station's many clocks, purloining the occasional croissant to sustain himself, eluding an over-zealous policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his inexorable Doberman, and stealing parts and tools from a toyshop in order to restore a beautiful automaton that is his last connection to his late father. He is befriended by Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of the ill-tempered toy shop owner (Sir Ben Kingsley), and the two children set out to solve a mystery that eventually leads them to Georges Méliès, the pioneering French filmmaker, whose name today is usually followed by the words "father of ...," as in father of special effects, father of fantasy film, father of science fiction movies.

Georges Méliès
The first half of the film has plenty of action and adventure to satisfy young viewers, and even a cynical old celluloid addict like myself couldn't help but be drawn in by the wonderful sets, the Dickensian plot, and the presence of  Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee, the one who scared the bejeebers out of me in The Mummy when i was a wee sprout). But it is in the second half, when Scorsese the film lover springs into full action, that this movie had me weeping in my seat. From the moment that Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a movie theatre, and we see the look of wonder overtake Isabelle's face as she watches her first movie, Hugo becomes a celebration of early cinema. They are watching the famous scene from Safety Last! (1923) in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from a clock high above the street, a scene that will be replayed by young Hugo later in the film. As the two uncover the mystery surrounding the remarkable automaton, the narrative unfolds into a beautifully executed lesson in film history, bringing to life the first days of the cinematic era. We share the thrill of an unjaded audience watching in awe and terror as the Lumière brothers' train hurtles towards them, and experience the unfettered playfulness of Méliès. Hugo is both a celebration and an elegy to early film, delighting in the magical works of those first filmmakers and our good fortune in still having access to so many of them, while also making us painfully aware of how many more of the earliest films have been lost and how important it is to preserve and restore those that remain. I'll return to this topic at the end of this post with a few links to sites devoted to film preservation.

Georges Méliès was a magician by trade and seemed to delight in exploring the ways that the emerging technology of film could be used to bring magic into a new century. It is fitting then that a film that is so much imbued with the spirit of Méliès and his age should also make use of the latest in filmmaking technology. And although i remain ambivalent about 3-D in general and its use in Hugo in particular, for the most part, opinions about its use in the film have been very positive. My reservations were reinforced before the film even began, as i sat through an almost endless series of previews for animated movies that seemed to use that technology for the sole purpose of hurling weapons, birds, and other random objects in the direction of the viewer. Admittedly 3-D can be used to much better effect, as was the case in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). In Hugo, it is also used very well, for the most part, and contributes nicely to the feeling of vast space and kinetic energy in Hugo's clockwork surroundings. The technology, however, seems much better suited to deep rather than shallow focus. The focus in 3-D is so sharp, that in a shallow-focus shot the out-of-focus elements of the frame can sometimes seem distractingly blurry. This was especially the case in a few shots where the focus was on the middle ground, and a figure in the foreground appeared as a hazy blot in the composition. That being said, the film also contained a moment where the use of 3-D is so subtle and wonderful that it took my breath away: At the end of the film, when Méliès' rediscovered movies are being screened, you suddenly realize that he was experimenting with a form of 3-D himself and that the effect has been enhanced to accentuate the movement of the moon as it seems to approach the viewer. Is this sacrilege, messing with the cinematic pantheon? I have to think that if anyone would appreciate this playful application of new technology to his work, it would be that great innovator, that great magician, Georges Méliès. The cinema is magic and always has been. The Lumières brought the magic of the everyday to the screen, but Méliès brought the magic of the imagination, using all the tools at his disposal to take his viewers from the mountains of the moon to the depths of the sea, from the smoky chimneys of Paris to the land of dreams and impossible creatures.
The marines preparing to launch the spaceship to the moon
A Trip to the Moon (1902) 
A few words on film preservation:
The preservation of our film heritage is a subject close to Martin Scorsese's heart and one that he addresses quite movingly in Hugo. In a tragic moment in the movie, we see the disenchanted Méliès selling his old films to be melted down into material for the making of heels for women's shoes. He believes that his works have all been destroyed, but later, he (and we in the audience) discover that many of his movies had survived. And, just as in the film, miracles happen and movies that were long considered lost forever are rediscovered, often in the most surprising places. In one of the most celebrated and recent cases, an intact copy of the full two-and-a-half-hour version of Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927), unseen in its entirety for over eighty years, was discovered in the vaults of Argentina's Museo del Cine. The first three reels of Hitchcock's first film, The White Shadow (1923), were discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2011. A year earlier, the same archive yielded a veritable treasure trove of early American films. The discovery of these "lost" films in such far-flung locations as Argentina, New Zealand, and Russia is a reminder of the global impact of the cinema even in the early years of the last century.

Even when these long-lost films are rediscovered, however, often the real work of their recovery is just beginning. The cellulose nitrate stock on which films were recorded until 1950 was a notoriously unstable and highly combustible medium. At some point in the past, while researching early film, i recall coming across an article (maybe in Motion Picture World) that talked about old films being bought up and used to produce nitrate-based munitions during World War I (Unfortunately, this is just a vague memory and at this point i can't document or confirm that information; i don't know if it's accurate or apocryphal, so i'll just toss it out there in case any of my readers want to look further into the topic). Many of the old films went up in flames, but many others suffered a slower deterioration and require painstaking efforts to restore themVoyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), the most famous of Méliès' more than 500 films, was never lost, and is a staple of many film studies classes.The image from the film of a rocketship landing in the eye of the man in the moon, is a familiar one, found everywhere from teeshirts to music videos.
Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon
But until recently, A Trip to the Moon appeared to have survived only in black-and-white or monochromatically tinted prints. In 1993 a hand-painted color print was discovered in a private collection in Barcelona. After a long and meticulous restoration process, the color version of the film was presented to great acclaim at Cannes in May, 2011. For the purpose of comparison, click on these links to see the full black-and-white version of the film and a clip of the restored version of a scene in which the astronomers land on the moon and encounter the Selenites (inhabitants of the moon) for the first time.  As inventive, comical, and enjoyable as the black-and-white version is, seeing it in color--as Méliès envisioned it--adds a whole new level to the experience and underscores the importance of film preservation.

Postscript: Here are a few of Méliès' other movies that show how, as early as the 1890s, he was using techniques like stop-motion animation to produce special effects:

Cendrillon (Cinderella) (1899), i include this because of the clock motif which figures so prominently in Hugo as well.
L'homme a la tête en caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head) (1901), and this one i include just because i think it's funny.
Jeanne D'Arc (Joan of Arc) (1900)
Barbe-bleue (Blue Beard) (1901)