The lovely Isabelle tells the little protagonist in ‘Hugo’: “Thank you for the movie today. It was a gift.” I wanted to say the same to Martin Scorsese after watching his latest film. And I wanted to say the same to the man whom this film is dedicated to.
‘Hugo’ (2011) is actually about Georges Melies (1861-1938), the magician-filmmaker, one of the first few humans bitten by the movie-making bug, and one of the rare few to have explored cinema in such an unbelievable manner. Blending facts with fiction, it is a delightful film told with the fictitious protagonist’s point-of-view, but is actually, as someone rightly remarked, “Scorsese’s love letter to cinema.”
On 28th December 1895, as the Lumiere Brothers, credited as the inventors of the Motion Picture, conducted their first public screening at the Grand Café in Paris, among the audience being amazed by the magic on the white screen was a magician with the incorrigible addiction to dreams. He immediately offered the Lumiere Brothers 10,000 francs for one of their cameras. They refused to sell it. The man refused to let his dreams die. While the Lumiere Brothers limited their movies to record occurrences in daily life (non-fiction films), and considered it to be an art form without any future, this magician, Georges Melies, immediately recognized the magical powers of the medium. He discovered and used several film-tricks that led into the development of cinema as something that could make dreams come true, and that could make you experience impossible fantasies. Melies made more than 500 films, including sci-fi and horror. He even used the earliest animation techniques and always thought beyond the conventional wisdom. Look at the names of some of his movies against the years in which they were made: ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1896), ‘The Vanishing Lady’ (1896), ‘The Man with the Rubber Head’ (1902), ‘Kingdom of the Fairies’ (1903), ‘The Impossible Voyage’ (1904), ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1907), and ‘Humanity through the Ages’ (1908). Melies had the incredible distinction of sending humans to the moon as early as in 1902! Very few film-makers have been able to explore the possibilities of the medium as he did. I can imagine how he must have been, like a child who has just discovered a toy and wants to keep playing with it forever. Many of us have that child within us. Alfred Hitchcock was such a child, Federico Fellini was one. Steven Spielberg is a child genius before our eyes. And perhaps remaining a child forever is the only way to do the kind of work that these film-makers could do. 36 years after he had refused to sell Melies his movie camera, Louis Lumiere was to present to him the Legion of Honor, and label him the “creator of the cinematic spectacle.”
Few would have expected such a light and charming fantasy film to come from the man known for stylish masculine crime dramas. But after watching it, you feel it did require someone like a Scorsese, as big a cinephile as a film-maker, to do this with so much of love and passion. Thanks to him, I got to talk about Georges Melies today here on this space, and am recommending his famous short “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) as a must-watch-before-you-die (#27). Click here to watch it. It is only 12 minutes long. And do share your reaction. It would matter to Papa Georges.