'Hugo' Must Be Seen in Its Intended Form: 3-D

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by Terry Curtis Fox
January 13, 2012 1:41 PM
4 Comments
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Hugo
Martin Scorsese's Hugo
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.
Martin Scorsese

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.  
 
 

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4 Comments

  • spunaround | January 20, 2012 1:37 AMReply

    Meh. I really appreciate Hugo 3D but it just confirmed that 3D perspective shifts draw far too much attention to the visuals and distract rather than enhance my enjoyment of films.

  • Kristin Thompson | January 14, 2012 11:55 PMReply

    I first saw HUGO in 3D. I liked the film, but except for a few minutes here and there, I was wishing I was watching it in 2d. A few days later I watched it 2D (in a theater that did NOT have Sony projectors). It was much brighter and far more enjoyable to watch. I could see the 3D effects clearly, since the human eye is attuned to depth cues more complex and multifarious than one can see in through 3D glasses. HUGO is a terrific film, and seeing it in 2D can only make that more apparent.

  • Ryan Sartor | January 13, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    I went to a theatre in Southern CT that had a terribly dark screen. I spoke to the theatre manager and he said that 2 of the 3D screens were good and two were garbage. Until they're all good, I want to avoid the format.

  • Owsler | January 13, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    But what if you have no access to 3-D? Interesting you're championing a 3-D film about preservation, and presumably making film accessible to everyone, which might not get seen by everyone.

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