Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese


Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen











The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.


2 responses to “Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

  • Didion

    I agree wholeheartedly, and I’m glad to hear you say this because I too was strangely unmoved by Hugo. Maybe it was partly the 3-D (I have yet to see a 3-D film that really makes great use of that technology); or maybe it was my high expectations (I had loved the graphic novel on which the film was based) — but whatever it was, this film felt over-cooked, almost overly self-consciously designed to hit the right plot points. You’re exactly right to call it mechanical rather than genuinely affecting.

    Scorsese’s last film that really worked for me was The Departed — a film I liked more than some others, perhaps; the central push-pull between Matt Damon and Leo DiCaprio really worked for me. And DiCaprio’s charm/ range of acting talent is usually lost on me. But I’ll say in retrospect that none of his recent films have the core power that his 1970s films possessed. It’s as if, with all the money in the world to create *perfect* films, Scorsese has grown his production crew to such an extent that all his films err so far on the side of over-production that he hasn’t noticed all they might gain from a little messy, gritty imperfection.

  • Garrioch

    I’m not sure to what extent Scorsese is involved with Boardwalk Empire (definitely got the ship moving forward in terms of look and feel), but I’d say it’s a much bigger achievement than Hugo. It delivers the kinds of character driven storylines that make his other works with De Niro so appealing – honest character studies. Hugo lacks character. We never really get to know the characters or even care about them. We don’t know enough about them, and many seem pointless (the inspector, Jude Law, the uncle). It definitely is a wind-up movie. It progresses forward but are we along for the ride with any feeling of anticipation or urgency to know secrets the automaton is hiding? Not really. Visually, I enjoyed it. It had some fun moments. It shows a ton of cinema craft. But it’s a bit hollow and slow.

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