Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
Based on the Book by Brian Selznick
George Melies was a master showman, equal parts magician and fabulist, man-child and sentimental git, the cushy candyman as opposed to the young punks the Lumieres were, much like a close friend of Scorsese's. And if you're going to embody any rose-tinted love for cinema, it's hard to go awry with the proto-Spielberg, Melies being as fanatic a believer in cinema as a dream portal. Which is merely one of its many iterations, verging on the corny and susceptible to narcissism, but with sufficient mass-market traction. It only gets troublesome if you temper it with the object of Melies' pathos.
The first world war visited the real Melies with bankruptcy. All it visits on this fictionalized and over-romanticized Melies is a cutting short of his winning streak at the box office. But that's enough of a tipping point for him to shutter up his studio, burn all his props and retreat into the oblivion of a train station toyshop to mope forever. Pardon the snark but . . .what an epic diva! And what a chore to rally behind as an embodiment of why we make films or why we love them. If Hugo is a love letter to filmmaking, it's to a specific mode of filmmaking perhaps, one whose impetus and bedrock is profit and entitlement. More than the proto-Spielberg, Melies here is like the proto-A Lister, his doldrums relieved in the end by the returning blare of the spotlight and the swaddle of public adoration, not to mention serious ROI. And if you buy into the hubris that this candy-coated steampunk behemoth magically clicked into place all because Scorsese's daughter wanted him to make a film for her, then it doubles as its own meta shadow, an ostentatious monolith to how overprivileged Hollywood directors have become.
JJ Abrams' Super 8, in which precocious children gambol and grouse making amateur films and fight extraterrestrials while they're at it, is a love letter to filmmaking, too, and if its glittery promise is squandered by the glee with which it gives in to Hollywood's pathological need to reduce everything to spectacle, there is at least an eloquence to its first ten minutes that underpins all this preteen magic realism with emotional turmoil, achieving a purer catharsis also because it envisions filmmaking as more liminal joy than lucrative career, more a means to process the world than a retreat from it. The eponymous orphan of Hugo is not without his own existential mulch to sift through, his own bewilderment of loss, and when Scorsese traces his arc, with its missing fathers and surrogate sons, its machine dreams and weird science, its secret mean streets made of clockwork, the vague antipathies between auteur and source dissipate. Not that it reaches the wondrous heights you'd hoped, it lacks the full-bore quirk and sense of abandon for that, lacks the earnestness really, but it does gain sustainable emotional gristle, and becomes something else, something that hews it closer to the film Super 8 was essentially remaking, Joe Dante's modest and goofy Bradbury riff Explorers. That is, a love letter still, or half a love letter at least, but this time to the mad, impetuous spirit of invention.