Tuesday, May 29, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) poor
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) comedy
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *sociological, psychological,* (2) *psychological*


In some ways Martin Scorcese’s HUGO—based on Brian Selznick’s novel THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET—is the perfect naturalistic exemplar of the trope I call “enthralling hypnotism and illusionism.”  Hypnotism, the art of seeming to make people surrender their wills, is not on display here.  However, whereas in previous entries I’ve usually spoken of “illusionism” in terms of stage-magic, here it refers to “movie-magic,” the ability of filmmakers to create a “dream-screen” to which filmgoers surrender their “reality principle.”

I won’t go into the details of HUGO’s plot, which concerns, in brief, the fortuitous way in which the unsupervised orphan boy Hugo stumbles across an old man who proves to be (remember the spoilers) the once-heralded silent fantasy-filmmaker Georges Melies.  Scorcese brings every ounce of his formidable directing-talent to the fore in this valentine to early cinema-history.  And though Scorcese is best known for realistic crime drama, HUGO is predicated on the notion that cinema’s greatest achievement is its ability to capture magical fantasies—even though the film HUGO itself does not properly belong in the annals of metaphenomenal film.

 The irony of HUGO is that the only way cinema can manifest dreams is through the medium of technology—and not the futuristic technology of science fiction, but the vaguely “steampunk” technology of the late 19th century, from which filmmaking technology was born.  Presumably following Cabret’s book, Scorcese’s story makes clear that the re-invention of man’s culture through his technology also implies the reinvention of man himself— essentially a benevolent rewriting of the Frankenstein myth. 

The story dovetails two developments in the 19th century, for the birth of film technology was also the period in which humans began their first fumbling steps with automatons.  One such automaton provides a link between Hugo and Melies.  At no time does this primitive version of a robot do any of the things associated with science-fiction robots, whether railing at its creators or serving as an obedient “Ariel” to a masterful “Prospero.”  First and last, it, like all other forms of technology in HUGO, is just a machine that does nothing more than what it’s been made to do.  And yet, whenever Scorcese’s camera lingers on the automaton, the viewer cannot help but expect to see it come alive. It only does so once, in Hugo’s dream, as he imagines himself being overwhelmed and consumed by machines.  But that nightmare is never more than another dream, and the upbeat tone of HUGO makes clear that in this world all dreams are grist for the “dream screen.”

Interestingly, some film-critics have spoken of cinema’s beginnings as divided between two polarized attitudes: that of Melies, who embraced fantasy and dreamlike illusion, and of the Lumiere Brothers, who reputedly emphasized documentarian examinations of reality.  As HUGO depicts history, the Lumieres are the first out of the gate, for the film depicts Melies as attending one of their early cinematic efforts.  When these pioneers decline to share their secrets with Melies, he steals those secrets and puts them to his diametrically opposed use.  Yet though Scorcese recognizes the Lumieres’ primacy, it’s Melies the fantasist whom he chooses to celebrate.  

To be sure, those who are familiar with Scorcese’s frequent tub-thumping efforts for film preservation-- often seen on the TCM movie channel—may feel toward the end that the whole film has been a big commercial for Scorcese’s idée fixee.  Nevertheless, HUGO, though not a fantasy-film in either the uncanny or marvelous categories, shows supreme respect for the art of fantasy itself.

THE MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C is one of the films whose history is more interesting than the film itself.  The movie was first launched in 1968 as an adaptation of the 1870 comic ballet "Coppelia," which itself was largely based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story, “The Sandman.” Not being a ballet enthusiast I have no knowledge of the original work, but since I view (through my  Fryean literary lens) "Sandman" as an extremely depressing ironic horror-tale.  it seems like the a strange choice on which to base a frothy musical comedy.

Further, though the initial release of the Spanish film "Fantástico mundo del doctor Coppelius" was in 1968, it met with little attention, so its producers rearranged the original film and added new material for an equally unsuccessful release in 1976.  As that version was the one to debut on TCM in 2011, I'm reviewing that one only here.

Whereas HUGO was written as a 21st century take on the 19th century’s fascination with automata, Hoffman’s story was a roughly contemporaneous take upon the marvelous machines, such as the famous chess-playing automaton "the Turk," which was exhibited from the late 18th through the early 19th centuries.  Hoffman's 1816 tale concerns a semi-hysterical narrator—possibly the ancestor to most of Poe’s storytellers—who has encountered a mysterious Doctor Coppelius.  The narrator compares the weird doctor to the “Sandman” of folktales.  The narrator falls in love with the young female protégé of Coppelius, only to be driven to distraction when he discovers that she is nothing more than a mechanical creature.  In 1919 Sigmund Freud famously interpreted the story in terms of the Oedipus Complex, and labeled the story “uncanny” in that one was never sure whether or not the events were real or the product of a demented imagination.  This reading surely affected the view of Todorov in his study THE FANTASTIC, where he views all fantasy through this same Freudian lens.

While it might be hard for some to say whether or not Hoffman’s story is “uncanny” or “marvelous,” MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C solves the quandary by abolishing it and hewing to a naturalistic interpretation of the universe.  In this inversion of Hoffman, Doctor Coppelius is not a sinister mad scientist or even a nasty father-figure, but a harmless crank who tries to make automata.  Through an assortment of  contrivances, the girl Swanhilda pretends to be one of his automata and goes through a series of comic mishaps posing as a robot girl and trying to win her beloved.

Judged as a musical, HOUSE is mainly a curio, not very memorable in terms of song, dance, or performance.  The film's crazy doctor doesn't even make a functioning automaton, which apparently does happen in the ballet. Thus MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DOCTOR C is really all about dispelling any sense of "mystery" in favor of a cheery comic "reality."

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