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On Monday morning, I had the opportunity to sit down for a chat in Beverly Hills with the man who is arguably the greatest director of all time, Martin Scorsese.
Over the past half-century, Scorsese has made his name primarily through R-rated films for adults that capture the grit, grime and violence in major American cities, especially that in his hometown of New York — think Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006).
Now, however, at age 69, he is being celebrated — with this year’s best director prize from the National Board of Review and best director noms from the DGA Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards (his seventh best director Oscar nom; he won the prize five years ago for The Departed) — for a film that is unlike any of those: Hugo, a PG-rated family film released in 3-D.
At first glance, one might wonder why Scorsese would elect to venture into unfamiliar territory, in terms of genre and/or technology, at this point in his career. Clearly, he has no need to prove anything to anyone. But, when one really thinks about it, this move should not come as such a surprise; it actually makes quite a bit of sense.
Because people so closely associate Scorsese with the aforementioned films, they often forget that he has also made, to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, films in all sorts of other genres: musicals, like New York, New York (1977); comedies, like The King of Comedy (1981); period piece costume dramas, like The Age of Innocence (1991); historical epics, like Kundun (1997); biopics, like The Aviator (2004); religious/spiritual films, like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); documentaries, like The Last Waltz (1978), which he churns out biennially; and, yes, even family films (and not just of the gangster “family” variety), like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).
The reality is that he possesses — and, since his days as a sickly kid who spent his days devouring movies of every sort, has always possessed — a childlike love for and curiosity about the medium in which he now operates. It is why he has devoted so much of his life to not only making movies, but also studying them, championing them, and preserving them. It is why his films are packed with references and homages to an endless variety of films that came before them. And it is why he can’t help but want to try his hand at making each and every kind of them himself.
3-D was one of the that Scorsese had not yet tackled. As a moviegoing child of the fifties, he clearly remembers when 3-D films first burst upon the scene — and then flamed out. He saw Kiss Me Kate (1953), House of Wax (1953), Inferno (1953), The Charge at Feather River (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and all of the other well-known ones. And, as a student of filmmaking and film history, he knows what distinguished the films that used 3-D merely as a gimmick (like the 1953 musical-comedy The French Line, which starred busty Jane Russell, was promoted, “J.R. in 3-D: It’ll knock both your eyes out!”) from those which actually used the technology to serve and enhance the story (like Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder, for instance). And, like his friend and supporter James Cameron (who ushered 3-D back into favor with the 2009 epic Avatar), he embraced — and passed — the challenge of being one of the few films to succeed at doing the latter without also doing the former.
Above all, though, it seems to me that Scorsese made Hugo for the most personal of reasons.
For one, I believe that Scorsese, consciously or subconsciously, relates to the film’s two central characters: both Asa Butterfield‘s lonely, somewhat sickly-looking, but perpetually wide-eyed young boy, who sounds to me a lot like Scorsese as a kid, and Sir Ben Kingsley‘s long under-appreciated old master who finally gets his due during the third-act of his life, who sounds to me a lot like Scorsese before he finally won his Oscar — and even more like Michael Powell, the co-director of Scorsese’s favorite childhood film, the 1948 British drama The Red Shoes, who was unemployed and all-but-forgotten when Scorsese saved him from the dustbin of history. (While in London to promote Taxi Driver, Scorsese tracked down Powell, told him how much he had inspired him, and helped to bring him to America, where he was celebrated as the master filmmaker that he was, given awards and teaching posts, and met and married Scorsese’s longtime film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with whom he spent the last years of his life).
But, even more importantly, Scorsese, as a 69-year-old father of a 12-year-old girl, found a way of communicating and connecting across the generations that is not unlike the way that his own emotionally-distant father connected with him: a trip to the movies. Heretofore, Scorsese’s daughter — as his wife reminded him before he made this film — had not been able to see his films because they weren’t age-appropriate. This story, which his daughter loved in book-form (as The Invention of Hugo Cabret), certainly was. And, by all accounts, it has brought the two of them even closer together.
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