I am a mechanical man
And I do the best I can
Because I have my Family
-- Charles Manson ("Mechanical Man")
Was it chance I saw Hugo (2011) and The Terminator (1984) in the same day? Two tales of automatons... one amok and one clockwork, both about going into the past, as it were, to either repair or destroy icons. With amazing actors glassening up their eyes and amazing photographers capturing the play of light therein, you don't have much of a chance to stay unmoved on an emotional Sunday afternoon watching Hugo, but the clockwork momentum and awe and everything coming synchronicitly true was much more machine-like than the pre-CGI Terminator; in other words the science fiction film seems ancient and primitive while the nostalgic look back to the silent film era is futuristic slick --the true 'tech noir'.
Like Scorsese, I know there's no getting past the space-time conundrum of my own memories, and like any film critic / theorist love to dredge long lost gold from beneath the skittering heels of post-industrial society. The resurfaced and belatedly lauded (within the film) Méliès is just perhaps the latest/first example of a reflexive Cine-Lazarus resurrection. Alas such resurrections are subject an unspoken bourgeois law that says ahead-of-their-time 'underground' artists must lie buried for not less than one and ideally not more than seven decades. Then the wizard curator gives them something better than life, he gives them a retrospective! Hugo's tin man's heart-shaped key can't compete with its own clockwork orange-hued enshrinement in the perma-pantheon. Though the artist's work has not changed its essential form the world has tick-tocked so many times around the orb that old is new, quaint is revolutionary, whimsical antiquation is post-modern surrealism, cheap drive-in fodder and comic books are hundred million dollar box office business and night table films about film preservation are filled with enough clocks you'll never have to reach very far to smash the snooze button on the industrial age for another two hours of hand color-tinted dreams...
The problems in Hugo are the heart-shaped key (the brand-symbol on the poster) and the Méliès 'brand' of that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye (ever try to watch Trip to the Moon in one sitting? Sure it's imaginative but it's also boring, and all static long shots), and the douche-chilled bouts of bouncily orchestrated whimsey--Amelie's Triplets of Belville cutaways to the budding romance between old dude and the old lady who sits at the cafe, oui, monsieur, but she has, 'ow you say, a bitey dog? So he gets a dog of opposite gender for to woo said dog, and the evil stationmaster (Borat) has a flower girl (Emily Mortimer) who lost a brother the way the stationmaster lost his leg, and Méliès lost his negatives... in zee Great War!
Then there's The Terminator, a film that makes me want to rescue from obscurity James Cameron, not the Titanic control freak, the Pirhana 2 Corman protege. I remember seeing the preview for The Terminator at the Montgomeryville Drive-In (the main feature was C.H.U.D!) Shuffled in with about six other similar-looking (i.e. Italian American Gigolo) indie sci fi-ish titles, The Terminator looked cheap, sleazy and we in the car, all Conan fans, loudly mourned how far Arnold had fallen since 1982. The preview showed the Tech Noir bar, with its tacky neon and Arnold dressed like the kind of guy who usually has fake breasts or knives or Rutger Hauer reflecting in his Gucci sunglasses.
Of course that's not the way it panned out; the reviews glowed and the box office soared, and my jaw dropped in pleased amazement. I remember seeing Terminator by myself in the cinema to get away from my family Thanksgiving day in 1984 and lord knows I felt pretty wowed. The trouble was that it became too popular. Overnight Cameron became an auteur, the most recognized newly minted wunderkind to emerge from the exploitation genre since John Carpenter in 1978 with Halloween. And if you meshed Hugo and Halloween together, wouldn't you have The Terminator? Look at the resemblance of the 'shape' and the mechanical man in the below shots:
1. Automaton!: The idea of the automaton goes back to the 1890s (see below) and was forgotten in the 1920s, but the automaton killer thing began actually with Halloween (or maybe the 1940s Mummy sequels). Of course I'm talking about the slow moving but unstoppable variety, the shambling shapes who can't be killed yet are not alive, and are already slowed yet won't be stopped. And like The Terminator, Halloween was a scrappy independent low budget ($6 million; Halloween was $320K) thriller that wound up being iconic and inspiring many much bigger-budgeted imitations, all of which corresponds to the figure of the undiscovered auteur and his lost gem 'automaton.' The filmmaker's own alienation from the actual machinations of projection, of the mechanism of screening and seeing the film with an audience (aside from the premiere), anxiety about the cross-country marketing and promotion, and the obsessive need to tinker, to keep taking things in and out of the final cut until the last possible moment. What does it all deconstruct to?
|"Draughtsman-Writer" by Henri Maillardet c. 1800|
2. Women are the fathers of robots - And now, gender controversy comes into the mix, because creating mechanical people is a man thing. The mad scientist is classic Apollonian archetype, attempting to replace the chthonic madness of woman's birth canal with living tissue over titanium endoskeleton... or big fat cogs. The man rejects reality and creates his own, either a shape, a tower, an automaton, a poem, a science fiction or horror film...
So wouldn't it follow that women, then, are perhaps the 'fathers' of automatons, and science fiction and horror films?
Consider yet another Halloween-Terminator similarity: in both films the target of the monster is a normal, good-hearted girl who locates her true heroic self in the course of events, and both films transcend cheap boy's club sexuality and feel more assured about gender than a genre picture had seemed capable of prior to. And a look at the credits reveals why: women were actively involved, as writers and/or producers, in both productions: Debra Hill in Halloween and Gale Ann Hurd in Terminator, and though their contributions tend to go unrecognized in the rush to canonize directors like Carpenter and Cameron, looking at the later works of each lady you see a lot of the same wit and charm that made both these early films so successful (Hill also worked with Carpenter on The Fog and Escape from New York and Hurd on Cameron's Terminator 2, Aliens, and The Abyss), and can feel the absence of same in later work by said auteurs. The trick of course is to have a woman creative voice who understands the masculine psyche without being contemptuous of it (the genius of this being Katheryn Bigelow, below w/ Oscars).
|Debra Hill, left|
|Blue Meanies: (from top) Terminator, Halloween, Hugo|
|Man Ray - Rayograph|
To avoid this we like to keep a respectful distance from the mechanisms, to hide the wires behind the walls, but as we prepare for 2012 it becomes pretty terrifying to realize how hopelessly addicted we are to electricity. If it goes out, we will be totally lost. The Terminator and the mechanical man in Hugo are both examples of machines that don't use electricity - one just needs to be wound up, the other is nuclear-powered. Neither needs an outlet. They, alone, are truly independent.
4. False Nostalgia Syndrome - Like a suspicious number of films nominated for a 2011 Oscar Hugo bathes in nostalgia for pre-WW1 silent film whimsy, recalling Modern Times if it was remembered by the film scholar who managed to find its lost reel in a mislabeled can and won a prize, and Scorsese is certainly a major savior of film preservation, but is his nostalgia enough to warrant the 'greatness' label for Méliès? Is the subject even a worthy entry in the oeuvre of the man who made Raging Bull and Goodfellas? When dealing with the working class Italian neighborhood of Little Italy or Brooklyn, Scorsese gives us 'real' nostalgia, as in he 'really' witnessed it. For an escapist like myself Hugo seems as suspiciously bourgeois as its fellow 2011 nominee, Midnight in Paris. These are the fantasias of pampered rich kids who have been able to spend their lives tinkering with sound and image and now wonder if maybe, if they could travel back in time, then even Earnest Hemingway would call them geniuses, and they'd be able to recognize themselves in fictional disguises in work by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and get to drink absinthe. It works as their fantasy, but it can't work as ours because they've inhaled the fun out of it, and they've brought nothing but desire, they've shown us nothing but the act of showing us something that meant something to them when they were young and dumb like they think we are now.
The Terminator on the other hand is my experienced moment of childhood whimsy (well, late childhood, I was 17)--and revisiting the film in the light of so many CGI blockbusters it seems, at least on the surface, trashy. With its pouffy hair, pastel clothing, Italian rock synthesizers, rear screen-projected stop motion animation, neon, and casual sex roommates getting killed off first, slasher-style, this pre-digital futuristic film is the 'real' wake-up to nostalgia that Hugo can only catch from a fleeting Parisian postcard (that is, unless Scorsese remembers going to films at the turn of the century and pinning that rocket-in-the-moon's-eye image on their bedroom door to piss off his mama. Because without that genuine connection, only an egoist would think he could deliver any real meaning... unless he admitted Méliès sucked after all that fuss.
Depending on how long it's been since we saw our favorite childhood films our expectations are seldom met, but it's in not meeting them the actual magic occurs. It's the very gritty low budget tangibility, the tactile vividness, of the 1984 Terminator that somehow makes it seem more alive today than a CGI-sandblasted 2011 film like Hugo. No one knew at the time of its making that "I'll be back" would become such a catch phrase, if they did perhaps they would have taken it out to as avoid its embarrassing repetition in the sequels. The original Terminator is a movie free of that kind of presumption which is why it's so indelible. Hugo all but tells us we have to let its magic symbols -- the rocket-in-the-moon's-eye, the heart key--into our hall of future golden memories. But for me, even though I well-knew of Méliès beforehand, and I had his Trip to the Moon on super 8mm and we'd project it on the drummer in our band's light show in 1986-9, what that moon makes me think of all these decades later is "Tonight" by Smashing Pumpkins, another recreation that doesn't even bother with the rocket in the moon's eye shot... to its credit.
5. Pumpkins - The Pumpkins take the look and feel of Méliès' pre-modernist world's fair whimsicality and then update it to rock, speeding up the imagery and adding deep emotional hooks. Scorsese instead tries to slow us all down into Méliès' worship, to put the film in a shrine or museum and destroy its last link to the real world. If Hugo were truly to be worthy of the Scorsese canon it might end, for example, with the audience slowly realizing that the static long shots and endless flurries of spastic activity make Méliès' films kind of boring. The films only capture attention when used in a new context, a collage like the Pumpkins, or as an element of a multimedia fantastic plastic acid test with my own Mexican Mud Band, c. 1987. Scorsese instead captures the chaotic making of the films and does way better hand-tinting and covers up the dullness through just showing a long Academy-style montage of highlights from the found Méliès oeuvre.
Hugo's unthinking reverence for the great Méliès reminds me of the ending of Teacher's Pet: Clark Gable plays a scrappy self-taught city reporter going up against Doris Day as a journalism teacher whose father won a Pulitzer for his smalltown paper editorials. Love happens against their will, with Gable preferring to pick fights with Day's platonic pal Gig Young than make love. It's not until Gable finally reads Day's dad's old editorial clipping that he can proclaim "they stink" and come into his own as the confident uneducated lover of an educated gal. Call it reverence prior to investigation, or just bourgeois idolatry, but it takes him awhile for Clark to value his own opinion enough to make this claim, and until he does he's stranded behind this slab of journalistic integrity that he's expected to measure up to even though he's long since surpassed it. I wouldn't even bring it up if it wasn't Marty.... Marty, come back to the 'hood!
I'm not knocking Hugo; I cried and thought Asa Butterfield was eerily perfect, but while I normally love Moretz she seemed ungainly and confused... Super 8, which was released the same year as Hugo but not nominated for an Oscar, is nostalgic for the era that I too was a a young super 8mm filmmaker in (the Terminator era), but also proactive about actually making movies instead of revering the makers or cleaning the projector. There's no real salute to the creative energy of the moment in Hugo; it's all about preservation and repairmanship; it has to run all the way around the massive sets five times just to make us think the right hand doesn't know the left from a hole in the wall, through which it hopes to add some Amelie Rear-Window-Psycho touchstones without drawing attention to its own absurdly over-qualified self-awareness.
|Eyes of Laura Mars|
If that doesn't make a Hugo, I don't know what does, or a Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator, who is also in his way, an archivist, going back in time to preserve some imperiled damsel in mid-bloom. Don't we all hope some Hugo is going to dig up our little forgotten super 8mm films up when our time is ready? Or that some secret agent on a motorcycle will pull us out of class and whisk us off into the next world, and our friends will all whistle in envy? Or some collector of my old hand-drawn comic books look me up in hushed awe?
|"A mistake is made."|
|Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley (Bride of Frankenstein)|