How good is "Hugo"? More importantly, how shall we ever know?
The problem is that Martin Scorsese uses 3-D not as an enhancement but as an integral part of the film’s aesthetic. And, by now, "Hugo" is disappearing from 3-D houses. The picture left on view – the one Academy viewers will see if they view it on a screener – is merely a shadow of the picture Scorsese made.
Some 3-D films ("Up" comes immediately to mind) play perfectly well in two dimensions. 3-D enhances "Up" but its drama does not rely upon it.
That’s not the case with "Hugo." Yes, there is a fine emotional story at the heart of the film (adapted with great care by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel). But Scorsese and Logan have done something that Selznick could not do in print: they have given us a way to directly experience the wonderment audiences felt when movies were new.
Anyone who has ever taken a film course (or read a cinematic history) has been told how viewers actually jumped out of the way when watching the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving at "La Ciotat Station." We chuckle at their naïveté.
Scorsese shows us that moment – or, rather, he shows us the Lumière film being projected and then, suddenly, audience members pop up, blocking our view of the screen. Up and out at us. And guess what? We jump. Just like they did. With a hundred and ten years’ cinematic experience, we react in as simple and naïve and direct manner as they did.
Scorsese achieves this by being extremely sparing in his use of images coming out at us. There’s a wonderful moment when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector comes looming out at us and an even more luminous moment when Georges Méliès’ moon hovers in the air before our eyes.
For the most part, however, Scorsese uses 3-D for depth. Like Vicente Minnelli eschewing close-ups for more than two hours in "Home from the Hill," Scorsese makes his moments really count because there are so few of them.
But those moments only play when the film is viewed in its intended form.
We’ve been here before. Like most film students, I long thought that "Dial M for Murder" was a minor Hitchcock effort. Then I saw the film in a rare 3-D revival and realized that I had never seen the film at all. What appeared clumsy and awkward on a flat screen suddenly was among the most daring and experimental films in the Hitchcock canon (one that, like "Hugo," used far more depth than thrust, making the jutting movements that much more visceral).
Where would I place "Dial M" today? Honestly, I can’t say. All canons are established by dint of history. Films can look wonderful on first viewing and just miserable a decade or two later.
Back in the sixties, Pauline Kael once publicly berated Jean-Luc Godard for admiring "Vertigo." Fifty years later, "Vertigo" looks as good to us as it did to Godard – and has done so in each of the intervening decades.
But with 3-D televisions barely having secured a place in the market (there just isn’t that much to see on them) and only a few places left where one can see projected film revivals, most of us will have no chance to gauge whether "Hugo" is as good a picture as those of us who love it believe or just a little diversion as its detractors would have it.
"Hugo" isn’t the only film in this situation, of course, but because it is about filmmaking and history and fragility, it’s the one that makes this dilemma all the more obvious.
While still in circulation, "Hugo" needs to be preserved.