The theatre was dark and cold, as it always seemed to be. We sat patiently in our seats as we waited for the image to appear on the screen. I could tell that some of the others were distracted or disinterested, but I knew what was coming, and I was riveted. Finally, the image appeared: a bullet-shaped capsule, being hurtled into outer space. It’s an image that was majestic and inspiring, fanciful and prophetic; within sixty years of the film’s creation, real human beings were travelling in similar capsules with a similar destination in mind. We watched as cosmic travellers roamed a far away land, encountered adventure at every turn, and returned safely home. I was a first-year film student, and this was Film Studies 210: Introduction to Silent Cinema. The film was Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), by Georges Méliès. And it was the first time I’d seen one his films in its entirety.
As I sat there in the cold, dark theatre at the University of British Columbia, I was 24 years old. I had been a film enthusiast my entire life. I had heard of Georges Méliès, and I knew that Le Voyage dans la lune was one of his most famous films, but until that day in class I hadn’t been truly aware of the contributions that Méliès made to the development of cinema as a medium of artistic expression. I suspect that many film students and scholars who are my age or older would find my experience to be a familiar one; we as a culture tend not to spend enough time talking about the people and events that brought about the miraculous cultural and artistic developments we take for granted, so the classroom becomes one of the few places you might be exposed to such things. But this past year, something amazing happened: Martin Scorsese – he of Goodfellas and The Departed and Casino, films replete with violence and foul language and all manner of adult content – made a beautiful children’s film called Hugo. And as a result, an entire generation of children is going to grow up knowing exactly who Georges Méliès was.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Hugo, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (even the author’s name conjures up cinema history), is the story of a young boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives and works at Gare Montparnasse, the main train station in Paris, in the 1920s. There he meets an elderly toy shop owner and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). Together Hugo and Isabelle figure out that Isabelle’s godfather Georges is really George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the famous filmmaker, and they go about helping him rediscover his love for cinema after years of dejection and rejection.
For Scorsese, Hugo represents the coming together of his artistic career and his behind-the-scenes role as an advocate for the restoration and preservation of films. In the early days of cinema, many films were shot on nitrate film stock, which was both highly flammable and prone to severe degeneration. To combat this, in 1990 Scorsese founded The Film Foundation, an organization which brings together a number of well-known filmmakers in an attempt to ensure that many of the classic films of yesteryear can continue to be enjoyed by audiences for decades to come. A complete list of the films that The Film Foundation has helped restore can be found here; it’s impressive, and it includes at least two films by Méliès himself.
With Hugo, Scorsese embraces yet another way to preserve the history of cinema: by hiding it in plain sight within the story of a film. In this respect, Hugo must be hailed as a stunning success. For me, the key to the film’s brilliance is how it can work on two totally different levels depending on the audience. For children and those who may not be aware of Méliès’ influence on early cinema history, the film is a charming and engrossing mystery, with more than enough light-hearted and wondrous moments to keep the kids entertained. For people like me, though, who came into the film already aware of Méliès and his accomplishments, the film is nothing less than a love letter to the cinema itself. Scorsese captures the glory of those crucial first few steps towards the type of narrative feature films we know and love – the type filled with amazements that keep us on the edge of our seats and emotions that can make us well up with tears. It’s a testament to Scorsese’s character that he would choose a project that would so selflessly honor one of cinema’s early heroes, and only a director of his caliber could pull it off with such aplomb.
With Hugo helping filmgoers worldwide to understand the significance of Georges Méliès, one can only hope that other figures from the early history of cinema will also be given their proper due. People like Louis Le Prince, Eadweard Muybridge, and the aptly named Lumière Brothers set the technological stage for the cinema, and they deserve a chance to stand alongside the likes of Alexander Graham Bell as pioneers of the communication age. After them, of course, came the generation of people who turned film into, as Virginia Woolf put it, the only art form to be “born fully-clothed”: Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein (the director of a number of classics, including Battleship Potemkin, which might just be the most important film ever made), Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith (who has the distinction of not only being a visionary but also making one of the most racist films ever made, Birth of a Nation, and one of the most sexist films ever made, Intolerance), and many others.
If Hugo has shown us anything, it’s that the story of how something came into being can sometimes be as interesting as the completed creation itself. So if you have a few minutes, check out some of the videos below. They may not be in 3-D or Dolby Surround 7.1 or feature a bunch of CGI, but without them all of those developments would never have been possible.
Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, considered to be the oldest surviving film. It is only 2 seconds long, and was shot at 12 frames per second (modern films are usually shot at 24 fps) in Leeds, England on October 14, 1888:
The Lumière Brothers’ 1895 film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, often considered the first staged scene ever shot (the brothers shot three different versions of it)), and probably the first film ever shown to a paying audience:
The 10-minute-long landmark 1903 David S. Porter film The Great Train Robbery, which saw the invention of cross-cutting, location shooting, and double exposure, amongst other techniques:
And finally, the famous Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, the film that introduced truly modern editing techniques to the world, and whose influence can still be seen today:
Isn’t cinema great?