Turning a Blind Eye: Seeing DOGVILLE

•28/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

28 September 2014

Set in a small Colorado town during the Great Depression, Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, Dogville, tells of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious and potentially dangerous stranger who happens into Dogville (the town) seeking refuge from gangsters hot on her trail.  The citizens of the town agree to hide Grace for a trial period, and, in thanks, she tries helping out the citizens with chores: cleaning, visiting, gardening, etc.  As time goes on, the people of Dogville welcome Grace, but when the gangsters reappear searching for her once more, conflict mounts.  The citizens begin abusing Grace; feeling entitled to treat her like their slave because they are hiding her from danger. The men rape her, the women torture her, and even the children take a hand at tormenting the mystery woman. Even her closet friend, Tom (Paul Bettany), becomes abusive.  When Grace tries to escape the town, she is literally shackled with an iron collar and chain, preventing her from fleeing.  Eventually, when conflict peaks, Tom calls the gangsters, willing to give Grace over to danger for reward money.  What the citizens of Dogville do not realize is Grace’s father is one of gangsters; he is not looking to harm her; Grace’s father wants to reunite.  After speaking privately with her father, and gaining a new perspective on the evils of Dogville and its citizens, Grace orders the gangsters to kill the people and burn the town.

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From one perspective, Dogville is a film about sight, filled with references to blindness, misperception, and concealment.  First, there is a blind character who absolutely denies he is blind, that is until Grace tricks him into revealing his “condition.”  Also, there are several references to what the people of Dogville think they “see,” such as when a character “sees” Grace and Chuck having sex.  This was misperceived because Chuck raped Grace. Then there is what overtly hides from sight in Dogville.  Grace hides from the mobsters in the film; she is in Dogville so she will not be seen.

So, what is it all for?  In one of the most visual mediums of storytelling, what is the film saying about sight by highlighting blindness, misperception, and concealment?  Well, one possible reading is that the film is, ironically, warning about the dangers of turning a blind eye, misperceiving situations, and concealing by creating a “blinding” experience for viewers. In Dogville, von Trier conceals something in plain sight, something the audience spends the entire film misperceiving until the film’s conclusion.  That something (or, more pointedly, someone) is Grace.

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Jumping straight to the final hour of the film, the citizens of Dogville rape, abuse, and torture Grace. As a result, the audience feels anger and sadness for her; viewers see Grace as the victim of the darkest side to human nature.  And, in the end, through an epiphany realized by the way the moon’s light shines on Dogville’s flaws, Grace decides to burn Dogville and kill all its residents.  As a result, what does the audience see happen?  Justice for the wrong done to Grace?

The reaction the audience wants in the conclusion is justice.  Grace was victimized and her abusers must face a consequence for their heinous actions.  But, are they served a conscionable consequence?

When Vera breaks all of Grace’s figurines and tells her, if Grace does not cry after the first, Vera will not break another, knowing that Grace will not be able to control her tears, Vera is torturing Grace.  Yet, when Vera receives her consequence—having her children shot in front of her and being told, if she does not cry, the next may be saved, knowing a mother will react to her child’s brutal murder—this consequence is unacceptable.

The audience does not see justice at the end of Dogville.  Why?  Because, by the end of the film which has consistently drawn viewers’ attention to sight, both literally and metaphorically, Dogville allows viewers to see Grace for the first time, and she is not the character viewers thought her to be.

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Metaphorically, the blind man represents viewers.  He pretends to see, but he does not.  Viewers pretend to see Grace, willingly forgetting that, from the moment they first meet her, Grace is in hiding; her existence is about concealment, making it impossible to truly see the mystery woman.  The audience does not actually see Grace until she is found by the gangsters in the film’s conclusion, and the Grace viewers finally see is not the heroine once hoped for; not to lessen the severity of the citizens’ behaviors, but Grace is as calculating and, perhaps, more shrewd than any of Dogville’s citizens.

The final shot of the movie is of Moses, the town dog.  Up until this shot, Moses was represented via audible barking; no animal was ever filmed.  But, supporting a reading that the film’s conclusion reveals sight, as viewers are able to Grace for who she really is in the film’s climax, von Trier also allows viewers to see Moses.  Like Grace, Moses was with viewers all the film; he was a character who emerged at the exact time as Grace; yet, it is not until viewers finish the film’s journey and realize their own blindness can they see Moses.

On some level, Dogville is a statement that people wear blinders, perhaps by choice, and not being careful about what one sees can be dangerous.  It was dangerous for the citizens of Dogvillle.  And it is alarming to viewers who realize, at the very last moment, their film’s heroine is actually another villain.

Dogville Photo:  Framegrab

 

An Idiot’s Guide: HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (or a Poor Man, Criminal, Liar, Etc.)

•21/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

21 September 2014

Obviously, and unoriginally put, Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire is problematic for women.  In today’s world, this film is outdated and the humor is lost; however, in its day, 1953, this film was celebrated as a romantic comedy, a demeaning and oppressive comedy about women, marketed to women.  Essentially, this film is about three single women who create a “bear trap,” meaning they set-up a façade of wealth to attract millionaire husbands.  Setting the trap involves lying and cheating, not to mention using their feminine wiles to seduce the objects of their desires.  And, in the end, each woman marries, but each decides to pick love over money; yet, ironically, the bear trap worked because two of the three women did, in fact, marry millionaires.

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The real problems in the How to Marry a Millionaire revolve around the film’s representation and treatment of women.  Some limiting and degrading claims asserted by the film are: women’s only goal in life should be marriage; women are jokes; and women who step outside their traditional role in society must be corrected.

First, the three women in this film never aspire for any more in life than a husband.  Not one has a career objective; not one communicates any inkling that her success or happiness could be achieved without a man.  And, in the film’s narrative, how could any of these women be fulfilled and accomplished without a man?  These three women live in a man’s apartment, work as models for a man (where they model only for men), and devote their lives to attracting men; in How to Marry a Millionaire, it is a man’s world, and so the female characters in the film exist only to find a man to care for them.

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Furthermore, the women are the comic relief of the film.  Although each woman is unique—Schatze (Lauren Bacall), clever and hardworking; Pola (Marilyn Monroe), sweet but completely naïve; and Loco (Betty Grable), foolish yet fiery—each is reduced to one role, gold digger.  Despite their differences, which actually offer each of them independence from the others, the film eliminates their uniqueness by fitting each women into the same money-hungry category.  And, as gold diggers, these women are the butt of all the film’s jokes.  Pola, for example, is too vain to wear her glasses, convinced “men are not attentive to girls in glasses.”  She is so blind without her glasses she literally walks into a wall at one point in the film.  This moment, of course, is pure comedy, but it is the woman, the gold digger, who is the punch line of the joke.  Or, in the film’s conclusion, when Tom reveals himself to be a millionaire, all three women fall of their stools in shock.  The men stand up and “cheers” to their unconscious wives. A final crack at the women the film spends the entire time making fun of.

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According to film theory, female characters who break from the standard representation of “woman”—typically by trying to manipulate a man or assert her dominance/power—are punished by the end of the film, either by transforming her into the traditional representation of a woman or by killing her off.  This typically happens in the thriller and drama genres; however, even in How to Marry a Millionaire, an inferred punishment awaits all three women.

Sadly, the fiery Loco marries a firefighter.  Read on a slant, the marriage marks the end of Loco’s sassy, outspoken disposition, as her husband exterminates fire.  Pola finds her happy ending with Freddie, who also wears glasses and encourages her keep her spectacles on.  Trouble with this union is Freddie is a criminal.  He, quite literally, tries to kill someone just before the film’s conclusion, according to Pola.  Considering she now wears he glass (which means she will see things more clearly, both literally and figuratively) and that she met her murderous husband while reading the book Murder by Strangulation, Pola’s future does not look very good.  Lastly, there is Schatze, the only character of the three who actually marries a millionaire.  Shatze is clearly the smartest, most resourceful character in the film, but she, unexpectedly, ends up with a man as dishonest as she is.  Her assertion of power, as the ringleader in the entire film, is tamed by her husband who will always, because of his financial and business dominance, control her; she is transformed into a housewife…the role she wanted, then did not, but is now stuck with.

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Again, this film is a classic, but is not as celebrated today as some of its contemporaries because its ideology about women, men, and marriage is uncomfortably outdated.   Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at films of yesteryear, with a contemporary lens, and investigate how these films help perpetuate and shape society’s expectations.  In this case, the 1950s mentality about a woman’s role is evident.  Although some argue the film is trying to poke fun at the way women are stereotyped, the film also does a fine job contributing to the stereotypes itself, hence the problem with How to Marry a Millionaire.

 

 

Written in the Wind

•15/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

pending…

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To Have!: An Argument in Distinguishing TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT from Its Contemporaries

•07/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

7 September 2014

Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) is an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s 1937 novel of the same title.  The film takes place in Martinique, a French province, during WWII.  A fisherman, Harry “Steve” Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), gets involved with the French Resistance, eventually being tapped to sneak a Resistance leader and his wife to Martinique.  To complicate the situation more, Steve falls in love with an American woman, Marie “Slim” Browning (Lauren Bacall), who is staying at a local hotel. As the police catch on to Steve’s dealings, he and Slim must outsmart the French authorities to save the French Resistance leader, his wife, and themselves.

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Many suggest To Have and Have Not, as well as other noirs of the 1940s, is greatly influenced by Casablanca (1942).  To Have and Have Not specifically because it stars the same leading man (Bogart) and was released less than two years after Casablanca; also, there are narrative similarities between To Have and Have Not and Casablanca that further connect the two.

To some, To Have and Have Not has existed in Casablanca’s shadow for the last 70 years. Unfortunate because To Have and Have Not is not the same film at all, not on nearly any level—cinematic or thematic.  More pointedly, there is a glaring difference between the two films, and that difference is purpose.  One film focuses on the cinematics with the primary purpose of cinematic development and evolution; the film’s message(s) are secondary to its cinematic communication.  The other focuses on theme with the fundamental purpose of social and political commentary; the cinematics of this film are secondary.  Thus, while both films star the same actor, have similar settings, and follow a similar plot arc, each film has a respective purpose, and for To Have and Have Not to be appreciated to its fullest, that point may need to be explored more.

First, cinematically, To Have and Haven Not is extremely simple and to the point.  Yes, the film uses a variety of dramatic lighting, but dramatic lighting, for effect, was the style of 1940’s dramas, thrillers, and action films, particularly the narrower genre of film noir, which was exploding during this decade in American cinema.  Thus, To Have and Have Not’s lighting design is remarkable, but no more than any of its contemporaries.

Other than that, all Hawks’ cinematic moves are textbook: close-ups are used to show emotion and importance, patterns in cuts remain consistent with the time period’s norm, and, aside from a crane shot or two, no dramatic camera angles or movement are used in To Have and Have Not.

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Therefore, unlike Casablanca, a true noir, which relies on cinematic devices to capture the narrative, and therefore has a more complex cinematic construction, To Have and Have Not keeps it simple.  Why?  Perhaps because, unlike Casablanca, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not is less about how the film will communicate (the cinematics) and much more about what the film will communicate (the theme).  And this is the distinction, the difference in purpose between the two WWII crime dramas, which truly separates To Have and Have Not from Casablanca.

In fairness, although Casablanca is more interested in how it, as a film, communicates (the cinematics), the film does communicate strong messages about honor and dignity.  These messages are evident in Rick’s final sacrifice in the film’s conclusion.  Yet, two years later, when To Have and Have Not released, the world was a much different place.  War still raged on, but a glimmer of light shinned at the end of the bleak tunnel; the end of WWII may be on the horizon.  Therefore, unlike Casablanca, To Have and Have Not is a film about life, a film about new beginnings and hope for the future; not a film about dignified endings.  Without complex cinematics, To Have and Have not focuses on this message, making the film’s purpose to communicate that obstacles are overcome, hope remains, and, importantly, life always goes on.

Obviously, the on-screen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is electric, but it is not only their real life emotions spilling into the film that speak to the film’s commentary on life and vitality.  The script itself calls for a highly sexual relationship between Steve and Slim, and this sexually charged relationship is part of the film’s commentary on life and hope. Take, for example, Slim’s remark, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?  You just put your lips together and blow.”  The now famous line oozes with sexual innuendos.  Or, when the two walk into a nightclub, a sordid establishment, communicated by the fact that they must walk down stairs to enter the main room of the club.  Steve leaves Slim to use her feminine wiles to get a bottle of liquor for the two to share in his room later that night.  Slim, of course, is successful in her mission, secures the bottle, and returns to Steve’s dimly lit apartment in the middle of the spirit (pun intended).  In large part, the film’s vitality comes from the sexualized relationship between Slim and Steve, a relationship full of life with generous hope for the future.

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Hope is an essential part of To Have and Have not, and connected to the film’s message about life enduring and beating adversity.  Even though the dramatic lighting and many narrative details suggest the film is a noir, To Have and Have Not does not end in the traditional noir style.  In a noir, the ending would be bleak, perhaps not fatal for all, but unsettling and troublesome.  To Have and Have Not ends on a high.  Just as Slim tells the piano player before she and Steve leave in the film’s final scene, To Have and Have Not keeps it light in the end.  Steve, Slim, and their company all walk right out of danger, literally, overcoming the “bad guys.” In opposition to noirs, namely Casablanca, To Have and Have Not leaves the audience with a feeling of hope; the “good guys” do come out on top.  Together, Steve and Slim are off to new places, safer places, free of the danger they once encountered.  Then entire film, evident by some consistent attempts at comic relief, is working toward this uplifting, positive, and hopeful ending.

Unlike Casablanca, the film To Have and Have Not is all too often compared to, To Have and Have Not is a hopeful film about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life.  Beyond the casting and surface similarities in plot points, there is not much alike in these two films.  To Have and Have Not commits to a message, a theme related to the adversity in life and the fact that, in the end, hope still exists and the “good guys” can win.  And, in its execution, To Have and Have Not communicates its theme well, all on its own, without the influence of any cinematic contemporary.


To Give and To Receive: THE GIVER

•31/08/2014 • Leave a Comment

pending….

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Harry Potter and the …: Mixing Words, Mixes Meaning in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE

•24/08/2014 • Leave a Comment

24 August 2014

In steering away from the shot, scene, sequence, or stylistic reactions this blog typically takes, this week’s piece hopes to investigate something a bit different for Chris Columbus’ 2001 fantasy adventure Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  The film, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s immensely successful Harry Potter series, stays very close to the text.  Cinematically, the film plays it safe, perhaps too safe to sustain a lengthy or detail oriented analysis.  Therefore, to depart from the norm, the focus of this reaction will be a change made in the American book, and subsequent film, from its UK counterpart; in the UK the first book in the Harry Potter series, as well as the film adaptation, are titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, yet the American book, and adapted film, are titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

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Scholastic, the American publisher for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, explained the change.  According to them, the term philosopher has a different connotation in America than in the United Kingdom.  What this really means is the term philosopher, in America, is less attractive to readers than in the United Kingdom. Sorcerer, however, is attractive to American readership and reasonably synonymic to philosopher (a stretch, but the assumed ideology of Scholastic).  Thus, a change was made; Americas only know the first book in Rowling’s magical series and the first film of the series as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Yet, even synonymic words have their own respective significance; however similar sorcerer is to philosopher (debatable), the two words are not the same, and changing the title does change meaning.

To begin, the philosopher’s stone is a well-known myth (perhaps better know in the UK), and it directly relates to alchemy, a philosophy dating back to before the Common Era which had a tremendous impact on chemical science.  In short, alchemy looks for material perfection and spiritual enlightenment.  Put another way, alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone (an object with the power to turn invaluable or less valuable metals into silver and gold), use the stone to change materials, and then extract the elixir of life from the center of the stone for spiritual enlightenment.

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Alchemy also emphasizes metaphor and symbolism.  For example, alchemists once believed the philosopher’s stone was a tangible object, but they also realized its figurative significance; the creation of a stone that could produce greatness and then allow people to achieve their Great Work, or complete enlightenment, is a metaphor for the human experience; people are creations that have the power to produce greatness and, perhaps, achieve enlightenment in the end, according to an alchemist philosophy.

All that said, when Scholastic published Rowling’s book with the title Sorcerer’s Stone, for the simple sake of better appealing to American audiences, something significant was lost: alchemy and the meaning it offers the Harry Potter series.

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Because alchemy is deeply metaphoric and symbolic, and Rowling understood that, she uses a reference to alchemy and its prize symbol, the philosopher’s stone, be figurative herself and communicate something about her protagonist: Harry Potter, through the course of this series, is created, produces greatness, and eventually achieves enlightenment.  It is a brilliant juxtaposition Rowling explores in her initial novel of the series.  Yet, it is changed, and therefore meaning is lost.

Even though the American text and film discuss the Sorcerer’s Stone as through it is the Philosopher’s Stone, it is not.  The name change robs the novel and film from a purposeful allusion to replace it with something meaningless; there is no Sorcerer’s Stone myth; barring this novel and film, there is no such thing as the Sorcerer’s Stone.

 

 

Silent Homage: HUGO’s Tribute to the Silent Films of Yesteryear

•17/08/2014 • Leave a Comment

17 August 2014

Adapted from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo captures of the fictional tale of a penniless orphan who lives in the walls of Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, tirelessly winding and tending to the station’s clocks. Interestingly, the film, which is more pointedly historical fiction, ties in the biographical narrative of Georges Melies, a turn of the century Parisian filmmaker. In real life, after an inspired period of filmmaking, Melies lost his film studio and reels of work to the Great War. As a result, Melies came to work as a toymaker in the Gare Montparnasse. This is where, in Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly film, Hugo and Melies’s stories intersect and Hugo’s fictional narrative serves as a catalyst to tell audiences the biography of a legendary filmmaker.

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As background on Melies, the filmmaker made films when cinema was in its earliest stages of development. Like children, Melies played with cinema curiously and excitedly. There was no established etiquette for film or any expectations on films by the film community. Frankly, there was barely a film community. Melies was free in cinema, learning all he came to know about the medium through his own experimentations. Thus, when telling of Melies’s life in cinema through the medium of cinema (clever), what is better than juxtaposing Melies’s life with a child’s adventure? Figuratively, Melies’s beautiful, daring, tragic, and triumphant adventure in cinema enhances alongside the narrative of bright-eyed, precocious Hugo.

Poetically, Georges Melies’s inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring filmmaking style is not only discussed in Hugo, it is also the muse for the film’s own inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring moments. For example, Melies was one of the first filmmakers to use color in film. In his time, films were all black and white; however, Melies’s films were hand painted with color (as mentioned in Hugo). Vibrant color is a significant use of imagery in Scorsese’s Hugo; the vivacious shades of reds and brights in the Gare’s flower shop, the warm shades of gold and luminous natural light used during various daytime scenes, and the bleak and cold colors used behind the Gare’s walls where Hugo lives all set tone in the film, making Hugo, which is already a visual experience, an even more visually stimulating experience, as stimulating as Melies’s hand-painted A Trip to the Moon (1902).

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Moreover, Melies’s filmography includes experiments in multiple genres of filmmaking: fantasy, drama, sci-fi, comedy, and horror. Melies was not a director who continued to release the same type or style of film over and over; he was not fearful of mixing genres in one film. Recognition of Melies’s genre inter-play also finds its way into Hugo. Scorsese’s Hugo is a “family film,” if one was to force it into one category, but it is also full of tragedy, fantasy, and action. In other words, like Melies work, Hugo is dynamic and vast; Hugo explodes with imagination, while exploring cinematic elements ranging from film noir all the way to animation. Very unusual, very experimental, but also very inspired and inspiring.

Furthermore, Hugo also pays tribute to other silent films, such as Safety Last! (1923). In one particular sequence of the film, as Hugo, yet again, must run and hide from Inspector Gustave Dasté, the station’s security, Hugo dangerously dangles outside the station, clinging to a clock’s handle. Not only is it an allusion to one of the most famous scenes in Safely Last!, but earlier in Hugo the title character and his friend, Isabelle, sneak in a cinema and watch Safely Last! The children watch this death-defying scene from a noteworthy moment in cinema’s silent era and, later in the film, Hugo reenacts the stunt when cornered by Dasté. In that regard, it is not only the film Hugo that pays homage to Safety Last!, but the character within the film also pays his respects to a new, creative, albeit dangerous, action inspired by Safety Last!

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And, it is not just the references to silent film Hugo uses to pay homage to international silent cinema; Hugo itself uses silent sequences, namely the film’s opening, which undoubtedly and intentionally is inspired by Melies, his contemporaries, and the films of the silent era, to help viewers understand and celebrate silent film. The establishing shot begins with the golden gears of a clock turning, which dissolve into a bustling nightscape of Paris, likening the motion of a clock with the motion of the city. The scene sweeps the City of Lights until it finds the Gare Montparnasse, and then sweeps in to the train station, through the bustling city within a city—full of travelers and station workers—to a clock hanging high above the center of Gare Montparnasse. In this clock, peering out from behind the number four, Hugo Cabret looks about the station, noting its people, particularly the regulars: a flower shop owner, bookshop owner, and the station inspector. Satisfied, Hugo retreats from his vantage point behind the number four, entering his world, the world behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse; Hugo slides through the secret passages of the station to yet another clock, this one with a view of a toymaker and his shop. On the counter sits a wind-up mouse, which has Hugo’s complete attention. Patiently, he waits for the toymaker to fall asleep, slips through a vent in the wall, quietly and slowly makes his way to the toymaker’s counter where the mouse rest, and puts his hand out to snatch it. “Got you, at last,” says the toymaker, the first words uttered in Hugo.

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This opening explodes with information, action, and tension, yet no word it spoken until the toymaker’s line. Here, in the opening, Hugo makes a claim about the power of silent film. The symbolic likening of a clock’s gears to Paris by night speaks of movement and time (or, perhaps, movement’s relationship with time), which will become a significantly important topic in the film. The sweep into the station, matching the bustle of the station and its trains with the speed of the camera is equally communicative to a visual audience. And, of course, the image of a bright-eyed boy standing behind time, the timekeeper; the boy who reveals a world behind a world that is as interesting, full or movement, and effected by time as the world audiences first meet. And, finally, as the boy creeps toward a toy mouse (cleverly falling into a mousetrap), we finally hear it, “Got you, at last,” and wonder might that be Hugo’s filmmaker commenting on the magic of silent cinema that he just captured in his opening sequence? The opening sequence is one of the film’s strongest, not just because Scorsese knows how to make a film, but because it feels as though the opening pays tribute to silent film and embraces the best of it, allowing audiences to read the images without being told what to see.

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Tell someone something, s/he has knowledge; show someone how something works, s/he has an understanding, perhaps even an appreciation. This is, potentially, what Scorsese had in mind as he worked on Hugo. Hugo allows Melies’s cinematic impact and influence to evolve throughout the film, not simply telling people about this noteworthy director, but exploring Melies significance and the way silent film works to help audiences recognize filmmaking of yesteryear, understand its impact, and appreciate its contribution to international cinema.

 
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