The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently rewarded two movies that celebrate movie making with a combined total of 21 nominations for this year’s Academy Awards: Hugo (11 nominations) and The Artist (10 nominations).
Hugo, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows twelve-year-old Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in a Paris railway station, who finds himself at odds with a toymaker for stealing mechanical parts in his attempt to repair an automaton he had worked on with his father. The toymaker turns out to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a real-life pioneer of early filmmaking. Méliès’ best known film today, perhaps, is A Trip to the Moon (1902), which depicts a capsule shot from a gun that strikes the man in the moon in the face. Hugo meets Méliès’ niece (Chloë Moretz), who aids him in his quest, which ultimately leads him back to Méliès.
Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, gives us glimpses of the early days of movie making, before the golden age and the studio system.
Méliès, a magician and creator of automatons, pioneered early special effects and camera tricks to create fantasy and sci-fi films. He directed 531 films from 1896-1913. He built his first camera from parts from his automatons, robotic figures built from clockwork parts that performed simple, human-like actions. Films that Méliès directed ranged from one to forty minutes in length, and he taught himself how to develop prints by trial and error. Later, Méliès went through bankruptcy, and during World War I, the French confiscated over 400 original film prints to melt them down for the celluloid and silver content. Film scholars revived his reputation in the late 1920s, and he influenced countless filmmakers who followed him. Many of his films survive today, though quite a few were lost.
Scorsese, a life-long student of film, shows a love of film magic through the characters and story. His masterful use of 3D technology enhances the film greatly.
The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, focuses on the transition from silent films to talkies, and follows two silent film stars whose careers take divergent paths, one to stardom in talkies, and the other to decline. The film has the unusual distinction of being itself a silent film presented in black and white. The acting mirrors that of silent films, with excessive expression and movement to tell the story. The film was also shot in a slightly faster filmsetting to imitate the motion of early movies. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a classic silent film star in the 1920s. Valentin is playful and basks in his stardom. He soon meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) by accident while clowning around for reporters. Miller kisses Valentin for the cameras, causing the morning headline, “Who’s that Girl?” Miller is cast in one of Valentin’s films, and Valentin suggests that Miller dab on a beauty mark with a grease pencil. When sound films come into vogue, Miller ends up as the new star and Valentin’s films are no longer in demand.
Through most of the film, the only sound is a music soundtrack borrowed from many classic films, though a few times director Hazanavicius gives the audience a few surprises by clever use of sound. Hazanavicius also kids the audience about watching a silent movie. In the film’s opening, for example, Valentin plays a character being tortured. He says, via title cards, “I’ll never talk!” Later, his long-suffering wife, who has a habit of blacking out her husband’s teeth in pictures of him in film magazines, says to Valentin, “You never talk!”
Jean Dujardin, who could easily have been a star in the silent era, has an infectious smile and expression that adds to the enjoyment of the film. In one moment, we see him put on an exaggerated stern expression repeatedly as he attempts to perform a serious movie role, but his clowning around side keeps intruding. Bérénice Bejo, who also does her share of clowning, performs one of the film’s most amusing sight gags when she slips her arm inside Valentin’s coat to bring it to life. The Artist, a black and white and silent film in 2012, deservedly made the majority of critics’ ten best lists.
Movies about movies are a rare breed, but it is refreshing to find a renewed appreciation and love of classic movies. Movies are magic, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is right to point that out. Personally, I loved both films, but if I had to choose, I would go with The Artist for best picture. It brought the experience of movie magic to life in a fun, romantic way that is all too rare these days.