Back in the 90s, there was a rash of films about, set in, imitating, what have you, the silent era. They seemed to be oriented toward the centennial of cinema - the trend kind of faded out after a while (other than the true believers, like Guy Maddin.) Last year, though, we got a couple new entries - The Artist and Hugo - pretty good films that are quite highly regarded - The Artist is even the favorite to win the Oscar! This doesn't seem to be a trend this time, just a coincidence of two films - though, you never know. We are, here in 2011 and 2012, in the midst of a technological shift more or less as profound as the coming of sound - we are pretty much at the point of the end of film itself... and this is running parallel to a number of other changes, that may or may not take over the artistic side of cinema - 3D, CGI, digital projection, the replacement of public film viewing with home viewing, shifts from physical home formats (DVD, Blu-ray etc.) to streaming - etc... All these changes create anxiety in the cinema world - and that anxiety tends to find its way into films. So - films about technological changes may well become a trend again.
The films in the 90s were, I say, oriented generally to the anniversary of cinema - many of them explicitly so: Lumiere and Company, A Trick of the Light, etc. , etc. They came in many forms, too. Some were about the early days of cinema: Chaplin, Shadow of the Vampire say; some were in the style of ancient films: Lumiere and Company, Train of Shadows; some were a bit of both: the Wenders film, or Forgotten Silver, or Makhmalbaf's Once Upon a Time, Cinema. However you want to classify Irma Vep, Freaks and Men, Shadow Magic - and that's not to mention filmmakers who adopted early cinema as their own style - Guy Maddin prominently. Hugo and The Artist would have fit in fairly well. They are different in some ways, but the differences would still land them somewhere on the continuum - Hugo as a thoroughly modern fiction film; The Artist as a pastiche of late silent, mainstream style, where the 90s films tended to emulate either primitive styles or art films, or to adopt a more explicitly historical (or mock-historical) tone. They'd have fit.
Still - I think Hugo has more in common with that run of films then the Artist does. Because it was a very explicitly cinephilic, self-conscious trend, films directly concerned with the history of films, the development of films, as art, as culture, as technology, often an explicit reenactment of that development. Experimental film has often worked by retracing the history of films, reclaiming abandoned techniques - and many of the 90s films I named followed the same path - many of the filmmakers (Maddin, Guerin, Makhmalbaf, etc.) work on the edges of experimental film anyway, and this is part of it. Hugo has that spirit. As does Scorsese - though he has not tended to be a particularly experimental filmmaker, most of his career, he has roots in the more adventurous parts of American film. And he is, as much as Assayas or Makhmalbaf or Maddin, a devoted cinephile, a historian of film. He brings all that to this film.
The story is this - Hugo is a boy living in a train station, living in the walls, minding the clocks and watching people. He also is a bit of a thief, especially from the old man who runs the toy shop in the station - but the old man catches him, confiscates his notebook, and sets the plot in motion. Truns out - Hugo has an automaton that his father found and was trying to fix, but his father is dead - but this is linked to the old man. The old man has a goddaughter who reads a lot, but (like Mohsen Makmalbaf or Paul Schrader, though for different reasons) is forbidden to go to the movies. She and Hugo soon are pals, and conspire - this might count as a spoiler, but the movie's been out long enough I don't feel any guilt about it - they soon discover that the old man is Georges Melies, filmmaking pioneer, and they set out to restore him to his art. Everything works out in the end - everyone is fixed, everything in its proper place - it's lovely and generous to all. The story itself is a bit disjointed at times, starting and stopping and switching directions and generally subordinated to the spectacle at every step - but that isn't much of a problem, really.
The spectacle, after all, is most of the point. It is wonderful to look at - I saw it in 2D first (since that was playing closest to home), later in 3D - it's the first real film I've seen in 3D, the first film I've cared about seeing in 3D. Even in 2D, it's lovely, with its eye popping colors and fine use of space. In 3D, it becomes more apparent that the primary subject of the film is smoke. Smoke in three dimensions, twisting in and out of spaces, filling the air. It's amazing, really. Scorsese is on his game here - he makes the 3D seem to matter - activating not just the whole screen, but the illusion of depth. There are some rather aggressive 3D images - things coming at you, dogs and people and the like - but the main use of 3D is to open out the space, away from you. Scorsese has always loved sending his camera into his spaces - all those tracks and steadicam shots people love - and here, he gets to indulge that to a fault, plunging into spaces - in a way that keeps opening out more spaces in front of you. You get the sense of behind things - it's very impressive. Though - to be sure - after a while - the showy way he sticks things in the front of the shot, to create those depth effects get a bit tiresome - and remind you, maybe, that that sort of thing works perfectly well in 2D, and is less distracting. But that's all right.
Meanwhile, Scorsese also gets to wallow in the magic of primitive cinema - reproducing the process of shooting those old films, working the films into his film. And that, I think, is the ultimate point of the film - it appropriates very old, primitive films as a way of championing another technical innovation, 3D. It's an apologia for special effects, and for the value of spectacle, and specifically, imaginative, imaginary spectacle, and technical trickery, over story, plot, etc. It makes that case - it is all those things - it makes a convincing case indeed.
Okay - that's Hugo. The Artist, meanwhile, is something different. As a film - it's enjoyable fluff about a silent film star who can't adjust to sound - he spends all his money making his own film, which bombs, and he sinks intio misery. All this is paralleled by the rise of an actress, who, in the end, saves him. That is, this is another variant on A Star is Born, this time with a happy ending (and the romance starting at the end.) It's charming enough, but it's a pretty thin storyline, and it sags a bit (a lot) in the middle - enough to make the Oscar talk all too understandable. The academy has a nose for mediocrity...
It's problems might not matter more if it had a bit more to say about the history, though. (Or vice versa - if the story were better, the lack of the kind of cinephilia Hugo has wouldn't be a problem.) Because it doesn't really do anything with the style - it's black and white, it's (sort of) silent - and so what? That isn't entirely fair - there are moments. There are the films in the film - most of them invented (though they do steal a bit of The Mark of Zorro at one point) - and, while nothing too spectacular, amusing, and, I have to admit, rather more interesting looking than the film we get to see. And there are a couple moments where the film actually uses sound - there is a dream sequence that is worth the price of admission, and indeed, works in precisely the way the best of those 90s neo-silents did. Exploring the effects of technology, playing with them, bringing the technology of film to the foreground. And - very welcome, because the truth is, the coming of sound was not a big feature in those 90s films - nor in Hugo - Maddin is the only one of the filmmakers I mentioned above who really dwells on that moment of change.... BUt unfortunately, that's about the end - Hazanavicius doesn't really pursue it.
And so - in the end, The Artist is just an imitation of an old style, without a strong critical element. That's part of it. You could also say, it's just less inventive, less surprising, not as good as Hugo. Never mind Tren de Sombras or Forgotten Silver or Heart of the World.