Hugo could have been more boring if Martin Scorsese had directed it from a chair attached by bolts to the shoulders of a brain-damaged Tom Hanks, like a cinematic Master Blaster of schmaltz. Twenty minutes in I started fidgeting, looking around at the other bougies packed in the theater, wondering if I was in the wrong film. Nay, the wrong skin. I’d read Hugo‘s ecstatic reviews, and heard Scorsese waxing poetic re: 3D on NPR. The premise—an orphan who winds the clocks between the walls of a post-war Parisian train station brings a robot to life, and accidentally befriends real life filmmaker Georges Méliès—seemed promising. But Hugo fetishizes instead of reveals the beauty of its subjects. Clocks, trains, machines, silent movies, and all manner of other steampunk knickknacks brindle brightly to melodic accordion music throughout Hugo, but the story never pushes them past the level of prop. I went in expecting steak and vegetables, salad and wine, cake and ice cream, but got a cotton candy buffet, and exited the theater with a stomach ache in my soul.
Hugo presents filmmaking not as porous, but implacable. Would that a story about the magic of visual storytelling had had a good story to tell itself. The never-ending army of precious objects—heart-shaped locks, flower girls, mechanical mice, blue-eyed children with British accents, blueprints, sketches, automatons, glimpses of le Tour Eiffel—all seemed summoned to underscore an obscure art history lesson: remember this director (who is actually interesting, but whose Wikipedia page is conveys more of why than the movie). Scorsese attempt to exalt art, imagination, adventure, etc; but in pursuit of these ideals, his heroes pay no price. Without stakes, the scenes are leaden, and the theme yawns on: in the adoration of precious surfaces stuffed with good intentions, a piety as dull as it is cheap can be achieved. The beautiful logic of what the clocks mean, how they or any of the other props surprises us, is beside the point if they are shiny, and everything is shot in friscalating 3D™ dusklight, and “celebrates imagination.” It’s haunting to me that a movie supposedly so sincere about art making climaxes at an awards ceremony. Remember that scene in Toy Story 3 where the toys, faced with their imminent meltdown into magma, turn to one another, then decide to hold hands, lest they face death alone? Nothing anywhere near that real or human happens here.
Scream 4 plunges us navel-deep into the conceit that made the original pleasurable. I felt something tingling in the fun-center of my brain for half an hour before I located it—the joy of trying to figure out who done it, or rather, who doing it, stabbing voluptuous starlets in the stomach and their nerdier male antipodes in the dick or the forehead—crossing suspects off the list one by one as they are killed or witness a killing, trying to guess who’s behind the mask before the big reveal. I didn’t, and this simple excitement hums, assisted by strong acting in half the cast; and dialogue, action, and satire that are cleverly executed exactly half the time. Scream 4 stumbles, but so do some House episodes, and so do some of the most addictive twitter feeds. You know what’s going to happen, just not quite how, and if Wes Craven’s direction is depressingly antiquated, and Neve Campbell phones it somehow sumptuously in, and half the good jokes are ruined by dumb ones bubbling up in their wake—the simple presence of a mystery to solve makes Scream 4 a far sweeter diversion than Insidious or The Roommate or whatever other scary feature is out there, coming soon, cobbling itself together in the void at the center of the vision of the savvily barbarian overlords we euphemistically anoint Producer with every ticket we purchase.
With better visual storytelling, 4 could’ve been awesome. Franchise detractors have always pounced on Scream‘s marquee self-awareness. Even in high school—small town, south Georgia—my artistic friends scorned Scream’s sniping the icons of their darling nostalgia; they wanted popcorn horror’s world to hold forever still. But as Rango and Inglorious Basterds and Toy Story 3—nevermind this very narrative—prove, self-awareness accompanied by bold and sensitive direction, writing, acting, etc—can work the well-wrought artifact into an abundant prism through which our very glimpse becomes a kind of key of light, unlocking the deepest, crystalline palimpsests of the sacred secret mystics call reality. Scream 4’s disease is weak expression, not post-modernism, and even then it’s only half sick. Frankly, we need more Screams in our forms. Or at least the ideal to which they Icarus-ly aspire. To enter prevalent, calcified, auto-piloted tableaus and decouple weary code from weary code. To pry open conventions zeitgeist’s jaws have clenched, steal gesture A out of B and hold it up while stuffing the void with C-4. Even when it fails this act is laudable. But, as I believe Hannah learned, going to see 4 for any of these reasons is to court your own disappointment. Go see it because you enjoy watching young people try to figure out who is stabbing them while trying to figure out how not to get stabbed using all manner of meta-reasoning while someone continues to stab them.
That visual fictions can wormhole us to places of emotional fact is no proof of God, but it is cause for marvel. How is it that of all the movies of last year, only Toy Story 3 put tears up in my eyes for its characters? I think Scott McCloud points to a smiley face in some essay on comics and says that because cartoons are more general representations of people, people project their own specific psychologies into them. Wes Anderson gems help illustrate the point that hyperstylized characters and scenes, when bulldozed forward by a powerful narrative, by virtue of being visually distant from our experiences, push our psyches into vortices of content no camera can see. Eschewers of realist mise-en-scène who nonetheless model a realism of desire with plot can re-thread viewers’ gazes through a continually blooming interior. The Illusionist (L’illusionniste) features an aging magician who wanders postwar Europe struggling to compete with the escalatingly realer illusions of more modern forms of entertainment. Eventually playing a Scottish backwater so isolated that, to the kilted hicks there, his stiff shtick is a hit, the hoary mime cum sleight-of-handist attracts the attention of a teenage stowaway with whom he eventually settles in Edinburgh, maintaining a stoic intimacy exactly as non-interesting as it is non-Nabokovian.
This sad, boring French-feeling… affair… was okay, but it was ultimately too pretty, and taught me that all the good drawing in the world can’t bucket up emotion from an undramatic well. When suspense was present, I felt a bittersweet regard for our hero and heroine. At the end, the defeated showman abandons his naïf and goes home, leaving her only a bouquet and a note that says, “Magicians do not exist.” This moment of honesty and sadness made me think of my own endlessly pathetic performances; their spectacle…their impotence… But most scenes were not so shot through with conflict or truth, and served foremost to showcase the nostalgic sensibilities and talents of the animators. When that was happening I did like it for a few seconds, but then my eyes glazed over and I thought about the shittiness of the popcorn at Pleasant Street Theater (Northampton MA). Pleasant Street also gives you no ice in your drink; there are no cup holders; the chairs are hard; sometimes the sound sounds like it’s being sieved into the theater through busted laptop speakers. More like Unpleasant Street! I do not want to think these things, indie cinema. So keep animating quirky crap, but work harder to cut it with the cocaine of pure suspense, so I can pour my consciousness into your pictures.