One of the most respectful and compassionate acts a human being can perform is to rescue the memory and achievements of a great man or woman from obscurity. Not only does this confer deserved longevity on the legacy of someone who has contributed something good and lasting to civilization and culture; it also is a gift to the rest of us, enriching our knowledge and perhaps providing us with inspiration as well.
This is what Martin Scorsese does for the early French film pioneer Georges Méliès in his new movie, “Hugo.” The film is a fictionalized account of how Méliès, a producer, director, actor and special effects innovator, was rediscovered by film-lovers and his countrymen after years of discouragement and depression. In a nice piece of irony and symmetry, Scorsese’s film duplicates the phenomenon his movie describes. Forgotten after World War I, Méliès and his work were celebrated late in the 20’s, and he received long overdue acclaim and recognition, including France’s Legion of Honor. After his death in 1938, his contributions to the art and craft of cinema faded from public awareness a second time. Once again, thanks to “Hugo,” the public is learning Méliès’s name and being delighted and inspired by his creations.
Scorsese does something else noble in “Hugo” too. For Scorsese is also devoting his considerable talents to saluting one of the artists of the past whose shoulders he has stood upon to reach his own professional pinnacle. “Hugo” is an act of gratitude and the repayment of a debt, as well as the resurrection of a reputation.
I’ve seen “Hugo,’ and to relate much about it is to risk spoiling the experience for others. It is not really a children’s film, though the beautiful use of 3-D helps: Méliès was a magician as well as a filmmaker, and the movie feels magical. I will be surprised if it is a box office success, but I think it is destined to be a classic, or at very least a cult classic. I don’t think any of this matters too much to Scorsese. This is a movie he made for reasons other than his own money and fame. He made it for Georges Méliès.
May someone do the same for Martin Scorsese a hundred years from now.
He’s earned it.