Monday, July 18, 2011

Consider the Source: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 3:53 PM

  • Scholastic Press
Martin Scorsese is one of those directors whose every project invites close cultural scrutiny, even his half-successes. November 23 sees the release of Scorsese’s first family film, Hugo, based on the 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. As revealed in the film’s new trailer, Hugo depicts the eponymous orphan who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, where he tries to stay ahead of the guard and unravel a mystery involving a mechanical man, a quirky girl and some enigmatic inventors.

The material might sound like a stretch for Scorsese, but the book reveals deeper ties to film history than the trailer and a superficial description indicates. It’s written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, a relative of legendary film producer David O. Selznick. The senior Selznick’s credits include Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, Spellbound and Duel in the Sun — the latter of which just happens to be the first film that Scorsese ever saw.

A Caledcott-winning children’s book illustrator, Brian Selznick gives The Invention of Hugo Cabret an unusual structure. The subtitle describes the book as “A Novel in Words and Pictures,” but it doesn’t combine the two media comic book style. Instead, the book frequently alternates between its prose passages and its sequences of wordless illustrated action. Frequently the author’s black-and-white pencil drawings emulate cinematic storyboards.

The book’s first image shows the full moon, then the moon shining over the Parisian skyline, and the “camera” tracks down through the streets and into a train station. We follow young Hugo through the building, down a corridor and into a secret passage in the walls, from which he watches a lonely toymaker. Only then does Selznick switch to words. It’s the kind of art form that teaches you how to study it.

At the risk of hinting at spoilers, Hugo’s search for the answer to various mysteries leads him to one of the pioneering figures in French silent cinema. Near the end, several the book’s two-page spreads recreate some of the filmmakers’ famous images. It’s the kind of stuff that Scorsese, one of the world’s biggest the movie buffs, would eat up with a spoon, even though a silent, black-and-white adaptation would seem more faithful to the time period of subject matter of the book. The trailer’s slapstick chases and promise of 3-D seem far more madcap than the book’s melancholy tone.

Nevertheless, Scorsese taking on The Invention of Hugo Cabret sounds like one of those cases in which a simple, literate family story brings out delicacy and subtle narrative power in a great director, in the tradition of John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish, Agnieska Holland’s The Secret Garden and Alfonso Cuarón, A Little Princess. The cast includes Asa Butterfield as Hugo, Chloe Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee and two Harry Potter alumni, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths. Hugo might be merely a movie, however, while The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more than just a book.

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