Most people don’t like silent movies. That’s understandable. Like classical music or English literature, there is something just so boring, so unsexy, so unrepentantly old about silent movies. Which is why I think it’s wonderful that some Hollywood executives so badly wanted to get fired that they let Martin Scorsese make a 150 million-dollar movie about the greatness of silent movies.
That trailer made Hugo look like a happy kids’ steam punk-adventure movie, didn’t it?
Well, it kind of is . . . at first.
I don’t mind telling you that the movie’s second half almost brought me to tears. That’s when it stopped being a kids’ movie and became Scorsese’s love poem to film pioneer Georges Melies and the glory of movie history.
It’s almost impossible to explain to an average viewer why silent films are magical. Their very silence actually makes them universally enjoyable across cultures and generations. The best silent movies have no need for sound. Hugo captures all that perfectly, without the air of preachiness that almost always afflicts film geek arguments about silent movies.
Hence, no need for this film geek to praise them. Hugo does that for me.
In my mind, a memory comes to life. Imagine it as an old movie projected on a screen. For a few seconds the screen is blank except for stains, and then an image wobbles into focus. My twenty-year-old self on a winter night in Paris. The drum intro of Hall & Oates Maneater plays in the background. The song is coming from the open window of my Renault as I stand on the sidewalk next to it, watching the building across the street. Snow is softly falling, a saxophone breezes in that takes the song into cooler, uncharted sonic waters, but my attention is focused on that building. It fascinates me, the most important sightseeing spot in the whole city as far as I‘m concerned, not for what it is now, but for what happened there once upon a time.
My young girlfriend sings along with Maneater from the passenger seat. She isn’t interested in my building, and she doesn’t know that the song will someday embody all those funny 80s clichés. She is semi-obscured by shadows, attempting to be cool, but coming off sort of geeky as she sings the line “The woman is wild, a she-cat tamed by the purr of a Jaguar.” I say geeky because she actually enunciates the words and for the first time I actually understand them.
“Really,” I ask her, “is that what it says?”
She leans her head out the window, the front of her hair styled into a dark Elvis coif, much like Daryl Oates in the Maneater video. She nods in rhythm to the song with an inquisitive glint in her eyes. “What did you think it was?”
That lyric had been giving me fits for weeks, constantly misunderstanding it. With a shrug, my answer echoed in eternity:
“The woman is wild, and she can turn by the pub and jack you off.”
She just shook her head and looked at me as if I were six. Then she was back in the shadows singing along with the chorus. “Oh-oh, here she comes, Watch out boy she’ll chew you up, Oh-oh, here she comes, She‘s a mad heater.”
Yeah, I used to get that wrong too.
In case you’re interested, here’s the music video (the offending lyric is at the 1:10 mark).
This song stuff might be off topic, but it’s actually what imprinted the memory in my head. The radio playing Maneater, snow falling on Paris, standing on the sidewalk, learning that line’s accuracy, and looking at the Grand Café.
The Grand Café.
It was just a restaurant, and a pricey one at that, on a fairly typical street full of unremarkable shops and offices. Right next to the Café was a movie theater, a multiplex no different from any you’d see elsewhere in the world.
The memory now fades, the image of Paris thirty years ago wobbles out of focus. And I’m now sitting here thinking what I had probably thought back then: there was a time when there were no movie theaters. Not in Paris, not anywhere.
That fact alone is almost too hard to imagine. I’ve lived a life saturated by movies and filmed entertainment. Going to the movies has been my preferred leisure time activity for as long as I can remember.
It isn’t just me either. It‘s impossible to imagine our modern culture without moving pictures. Popular films can generate billions of dollars for the multinational corporations that make them. Television broadcasts are seen every day, all over the whole planet. More people get more of their news from television than from papers. Hollywood’s stars are celebrities everywhere.
Yet there was a time, not even all that long ago, when this was not true.
Popular culture used to be local in character, when a night out meant the live theater, when stories were told primarily through literature, when advertising meant hanging the name of your business on a shingle above your door, when politicians waged election campaigns in person. A time when there was no such thing as mass entertainment.
Between that time and the night I stood on a snowy Paris sidewalk, was a moment of revolutionary change, when the world we now take for granted, first came into being. Forget the movie theater next door to it, in many ways, the first shot of that revolution was fired at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895.
Thomas Edison was the father of moving pictures. Actually, he wasn’t, but most of us think he was. That honor actually goes to Edward Muybridge. But what Edison did do was invent putting them on celluloid. And here‘s another news flash for you: Edison didn‘t think very much of the technology. In fact, he completely misjudged it. He saw it as a minor fad, a boardwalk attraction. He envisioned parlors filled with contraptions he called Kinetoscopes. People would stand at these cabinets, plunk a coin into the slot, press their eyes to a peephole and view a brief scene such as a woman undressing. After a minute or less, once the little clip played to its end, they could either pay to watch it again or move on and let the next customer have their turn.
That was the concept.
And for about a year, that was how you watched a moving picture. Where Edison’s design faltered was in how he exhibited his films. Surprisingly, people didn’t like being hunched over with their cheek bones pushed down against cold steel, even if they were looking at some titties.
The Lumière brothers now enter my story, and we consider them as having greater importance to the development of cinema than Thomas Edison, the guy who invented it.
Their father was a painter and vendor of photographic supplies. The two brothers, Louis and Auguste, grew up experimenting with their father’s equipment and in doing so, developed a better way to prepare photographic plates. By the time they were grown, they were business partners and built a factory to manufacture their innovations. In fact, by the mid-1890s, the Lumiere brothers had become the primary maker of photographic products in Europe.
But in 1894, they saw a demonstration of the Edison Kinetoscope that inspired the two brothers towards moving pictures. The following year, they had created and patented a device called a cinématographe, and that device would change everything.
While Edison’s camera was cumbersome, noisy, and had no technology to exhibit the film outside the Kinetoscope cabinet, the Lumiere brothers had invented something that was both a camera and projection machine. And their hand-cranked cinématographe was relatively compact and easy to transport, allowing them to chronicle daily events outside a studio.
When they finally unveiled their marvel to paying customers at the Grand Café in Paris, film as we know it today, was born.
Imagine you are walking down the Boulevard des Capucines on December 28, 1895. It is cold, but today is especially cold and nasty. As you walk along the sidewalk on your errands, there’s some poor guy on the corner handing out flyers. He‘s hollering “Movie show,” or something like that in French. It doesn’t much matter what words he’s using because you‘ve never heard them before anyway. The words for “film,” “movies,” and “cinema” don’t exist.
Maybe you just want to get out of the cold, maybe you are just curious, but you take the bait. Inside the Grand Café, you descend the stairs to the lavishly decorated Indian Salon in the lower level. You approach the turnstile to pay your ticket. The man who takes your franc and welcomes you to the show is no pimply-faced usher earning pocket change after school, no, this is the famed photographer Clément Maurice, one of the world’s very first cinematographers. Not that you have any idea who he is. You step inside the small auditorium to take one of the 120 seats arranged in front of a white screen.
Most of the seats are sadly empty. By attending the show, you are actually something of an anomaly. Only thirty-two other of your fellow Parisians have chosen to join you today.
The lights dim, and the first film that the Lumières have threaded up is a little something called Leaving the Factory. It is only about a minute long. There will be a total of ten of these movies on the bill, so the evening’s entertainment will not account for more than ten minutes or so of the spectators’ afternoon. Over time, the Lumiere program will change to accommodate new films as they were shot. Various shorts will be added or subtracted from the package, but one portion of the show will remain the same. Leaving the Factory will always be there, and always be first.
The reason why is simple. It begins with an image of the gate of the Lumière factory. The gate is partially closed, a man pushes against its weight while a group of woman stand patiently behind it. It is a moving picture that begins with a picture that does not move.
There is an impish perversion at work here, a conscious manipulation of audience expectations designed to create the maximum impact. This opening image of the reel is designed to momentarily fool the viewer.
No sooner has the crowd had a chance to feel a twinge of disappointment, a sense that the Indian Salon is simply playing host to projected photographs, than the room suddenly goes deathly quiet. At this point, no one in the room is breathing.
That’s because on the screen, the gate of the factory has opened.
This exact moment changed our world.
I’ve attached the hand-painted version, but there you go, people walking out of the Lumiere factory.
The clip is old, is silent, in black and white, and it flickers unsteadily. It is just a relic of that critical moment of transformation, when audiences were still innocent and men wore monocles and twirled their old-timey mustaches. But don’t misunderstand what you saw. People had never seen that before, and watching people walk through a gate will never again have the jaw-dropping effect it did in the very beginning.
I dislike the term “primitive cinema,” the accepted term for movies made before 1910. To me, the phrase implies a lack of skill on the part of the early filmmakers. A film like Leaving the Factory fails to excite modern audiences not because of some inherent defect of the footage itself but because of a change in context. The film remains the same, but we have changed. Give those first films their respect. They were made by extraordinary people whose ingenuity bequeathed to us the greatest art form of the 20th century.
Edison and the Lumiere brothers, however, were inventors and scientists, not storytellers. Their creativity was expressed in the act of invention. Eventually the novelty of seeing things move would wear off. The future of cinema as a form of mass entertainment depended on someone figuring out a way to use this fabulous technology to craft something better.
Sitting in the audience at the Grand Café on December 28, 1895, was a man who wasn’t an inventor. He wasn’t a photographer, not a venture capitalist, not a reporter.
Georges Méliès was a professional entertainer, a magician.
The movie culture we enjoy today traces itself back to that night. First, because the Lumière brothers conceived of the right kind of exhibition format, but more importantly, because Méliès was the right man to witness it.
There is a scene in Hugo when Georges Méliès first sees the magic of the cinématographe. Hugo chooses to highlight the moment Méliès watched Arrival of a Train, which is why that particular clip is the most important minute of celluloid ever made. He sees the audience cringe in mortal terror that the train is going to mow them down, and this reaction inspires him to create film as a magic act, essentially turning moving pictures into movies.
Arrival of a Train cannot have that effect today. I just watched it myself while writing this and it never once crossed my mind that the train might leave the flat surface of the screen and run over me. It just isn’t possible to replicate in the modern day the experience of seeing that film in 1895. At best, I can imperfectly simulate fragments. That’s the point of standing across the street from the Grand Café in the snow. But I couldn‘t watch a movie there. I could have watched a movie next door to it, but watching a French-subtitled Airplane II: The Sequel isn’t quite the same thing (yes, that’s what was playing next door to the birthplace of movie theaters, when I visited).
Hugo in 3D tries to replicate this effect. There is another scene in Hugo where Scorsese matches exactly the camera setup of Arrival of a Train. The same lensing, same camera angle, same line of sight, same positioned extras getting on and off the train. A nice touch that wasn’t lost on me.
That’s why I call Hugo a love poem to movie history.
On a side note, remember the train crash dream sequence in Hugo. This was a recreation of the famous derailment of the Granville-Paris Express at Gare Montparnasse train station in 1895. Again, Scorsese duplicated it perfectly:
Georges Méliès watched the world’s first projected films and immediately started building the world’s first movie studio. He was the first to use production sketches and storyboards. He created the art of special effects and was the first to use double exposure on screen, the first to use the split screen, the first to use a dissolve. He was also the first to have nudity in his films. He was French, after all. His most famous movie was A Trip to the Moon in 1902. At the time, it was the longest film ever made at 15 minutes. Think of it as the Avatar of it’s day, the first blockbuster in the history of cinema.
The simplicity of these movies is deceiving. What is important is that their success became the very foundation of the movie industry itself. Méliès wanted to make magic happen on the screen, and ended up created the basis of modern film.
As audiences’ tastes changed, Méliès unfortunately kept making the same kinds of films. In 1910, he went bankrupt and made a deal with another company to finance his next films. If the films failed, that company would take possession of his business. The films did fail and by 1913, his career was over. Not grasping the value of his movies, and with 500 of them recorded on cellulose, he sold most of his inventory to the French Army who melted them to make boot heels during the first World War. He managed to stay in his house a few more years until he lost that too. The world’s most influential filmmaker then made ends meet by working as an elderly toy salesman in a train station, just like in Hugo, until he was rediscovered and given a rent-free apartment by the government. Before his death in 1938, he was presented the Legion of Honor by Louis Lumiere.
One doesn’t usually associate a cemetery with a romantic stroll, but during that long ago visit to Paris, that‘s exactly what we did at Pere-Lachaise. A hauntingly beautiful place with all its rolling hills, snow dusted trees, and maze of winding paths through elaborate sepulchers and tombs. The first thing that struck me was the amount of graffiti. Jim Morrison’s monument was covered with it, the neighboring graves as well. That’s why the rock god gets a 24-hour police guard now. Across the cemetery, the neglected remains of Georges Méliès remains generally unnoticed by most visitors. It did not go unnoticed by me.
Our world thrives on the fictional and the fantastic, things that take us away from the mundane into the unknown and adventurous. For centuries mankind has used the power of stories to instill morals, inspire creativity and stretch the limits of the mind. As the centuries passed, these stories have been transformed from spoken tales to books, poetry, paintings, song and now, films. Movies brought everything together and merged them into a whole new art form, full of meaning, emotion and perception.
This is the real story behind Hugo. That one man tore away the barrier between what we know is possible, and what we dream to be possible. Georges Méliès dared to challenge limits, and became one of the most important, yet sadly forgotten, figures in modern popular culture.
He gave us movies and by extension, a new way of life.