Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

The Great Train Robbery’s parting shot

Jean-Luc Godard felt film-makers should be free to rearrange the beginning, middle and end of their scenarios. In 1903, Edwin S Porter left it to the projectionist. Scene 14 of his The Great Train Robbery, according to the sales catalogue, “can be used either to begin the subject or to end it, as the operator may choose”.

The Great Train Robbery is one of cinema’s earliest westerns, and something of a breakthrough in the development of narrative film editing. Porter’s ten-minute movie cuts between simultaneous action in different locations, more economically than in his previous work The Life of an American Fireman (1902), and the drama gains urgency from its use of location shooting, camera movement and frequent eruptions of violence. It is based loosely on Scott Marble’s 1896 play of the same name, and also, it has been suggested, a true story from 1900, when Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang hijacked a train on the Union Pacific Railroad. The outlaws steal the mail and rob the passengers, exploding a safe and killing three men in the process. In real life, the Hole in the Wall Gang evaded capture that day, but in Porter’s film a posse of locals pursue the bandits on horseback, track them to a hideout in the woods and kill them in a shootout.

In scene 14, actor Justus D Barnes, who plays a member of the film’s bandit crew, faces the camera square-on, draws his revolver and fires six times in the direction of audience. With the gun’s chamber empty, he continues to squeeze the trigger, suggesting carelessness, desperation or an overzealous kill impulse. His impassive face suggests the last option is correct. The intended effect, according to the catalogue, which is what we have in lieu of a screenplay, is that Barnes is firing “point-blank at each individual in the audience”. It’s an especially violent act, both in real terms, and cinematic ones. The narrative momentum of the film is cast aside, then the fourth wall of the screen is broken by his gaze, only to be further ruptured by his bullets. Placed at the opening of the film, it might act as a trailer for the shoot-’em-up action to come. As a coda, it’s a warning to the audience that it’s a wild world out there, and the violence continues even after the case in the film’s title has been closed.

Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990)

That’s perhaps why the version of the film that has been handed down to us places Barnes at the end, a jolt of terror as disconcerting as a hand bursting from a grave. Martin Scorsese borrowed the shot for the ending of Goodfellas (1990), submerging a trigger-happy Joe Pesci into Ray Liotta’s farewell to “the life”. In that film, the bullets can be read as an assassination threat (Liotta’s Henry Hill has ratted out his fellow wise guys to the FBI) or a guilty conscience, troubling the protagonist with memories of past bloody deeds. But just as in Porter’s film, Scorsese is addressing the audience, not the internal logic of the film. With these gunshots, Goodfellas acknowledges its place in the history of the cinema’s glamorisation of violence, a process that comes full circle when Hill’s closing monologue states that gangsters were “treated like movie-stars with muscle”.

But what does Scene 14 do for The Great Train Robbery? Porter is serving his audience the thrill of screen violence two ways. The portrait of Barnes in character (perhaps a reference to a Wanted poster) is a remnant of the Cinema of Attractions, but within a narrative film. In order to contain all the action in the frame of a mostly fixed camera, The Great Train Robbery relies on long shots, often with the outlaws’ backs to the camera, so we can see their crimes as they commit them. Scene 14 adds spectacle to the storytelling, and character too. That sales catalogue bills it as a ”life-size picture”, but on even the scantiest Nickelodeon screen, it would be far bigger than that. It gives us a long cool look at one of the outlaws before he fires, and then reveals his face again and again as the smoke from each gunshot disperses.

great-train-robbery-broncho-billy

There’s another moment of spectacle in the film, a saloon scene in which the Wyoming locals perform a conventional group dance, and then a flashy “tenderfoot” routine, with “Broncho Billy” Anderson picking up his toes to avoid gunfire (there’s a nod to this Western turn in Goodfellas also, when Pesci’s character yells “I’m the Oklahoma Kid!” and shoots at Spider’s feet). The dance sequence serves as an introduction to the good guys who will chase the robbers down; a messenger interrupts the jig to share the news of the robbery.

If you compare these two pauses in the narrative pace of The Great Train Robbery, logic would dictate that Scene 14 should open the film, by way of announcing the gang. But in this early film, the trailblazer for so many movie westerns to come, narrative sense comes second to the thrill of action. The posse may have defeated the bandits, but as Barnes keeps firing the myth of the outlaw endures.

2016-02-14-endings

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The Artist and Hugo clean up at the “silent Oscars”

An-Oscar-statue
It's Oscar!

Well, I think we can allow ourselves to enjoy the moment. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has become the first silent film to win the best picture Oscar since Wings. It also carried away best actor (for Jean Dujardin), best director, best score and best costumes. Martin Scorsese’s not-quite biopic of Georges Méliès, Hugo, was the other big story of the night, winning the same number of awards, including heavyweight gongs for cinematography and art direction as well as three technical awards: best sound mixing, best sound editing, visual effects. I’d like to think it doesn’t take anything away from Scorsese to suggest that his awards were also a tribute to Méliès himself, in recognition of his beautiful, magic films.

We all know that Hollywood loves films about the movies, and there are those who love silent film who don’t necessarily love these two films – but there is no doubt that last night was a triumphant one for fans of the silent era. Let’s not forget that the Buster Keaton-inspired The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore triumphed in the best animated short category too. And the 2012 Academy Awards capped a joyous year in which early cinema was talked about more than it had been for years.

Here’s a quick look back at how it was reported on Silent London:

The Artist is announced for Cannes

The Cannes critics fall for The Artist

The Hugo trailer lands

The Artist: London film festival review

Hugo: review

I meet Uggie, star of The Artist

The Artist triumphs at the Baftas

What to watch when you have watched The Artist

Hugo (2011): review

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)

We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.

There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)

Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.

So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.

Hugo (2011)
Hugo (2011)

That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.

Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon

First it was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a charming children’s book by Brian Selznick. Then Martin Scorsese got hold of it and now it’s Hugo (2011), a 3D movie starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen,  Jude Law, and Asa Butterfield in the title role. Now the trailer has arrived, we can really see what it’s going to look like – and how it pays tribute to a hero of early cinema.

It looks very much like  the film is going to stick very closely to the book’s story, which is simple, but rather sweet. Hugo is a Parisian urchin who lives in a railway station, and befriends a grumpy toymaker – who just happens to be George Méliès. Hugo starts to learn more about silent cinema and the magical films made by his new friend, and tries to persuade him out of retirement. There’s a blossoming friendship between the boy and Méliès’s grand-daughter and a magical element in the form of an exquisite clockwork automaton that appears to be passing messages to Hugo from his dead father. Perhaps, judging by the trailer, Scorsese has built up Baron Cohen’s role as the station policeman a little – adding some broad slapstick that will probably appeal more to the kiddies than to the silent film buffs who will make up a minority of the audience.

George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret
George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Continue reading Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon

Silent film in 2011 – a new vintage trend?

Battleship Potemkin
Battleship Potemkin

If we have our way, silent film is only going to get bigger in 2011. There are lots of great screenings coming up in London and elsewhere and it feels like there is a lot of enthusiasm out there for this fantastic art form.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that Battleship Potemkin, in its new restored 35mm print, courtesy of Kino International, will be the big silent film hit of the year. I have watched this great film more times than I care to remember but I will inevitably be back in the cinema to watch it this year. If I’m honest, I prefer to go to one-off events with live music rather than to listen to a recorded soundtrack, but if this re-release gets more people watching Battleship Potemkin, and stimulates their interest in silent cinema, it’s all good with me. Continue reading Silent film in 2011 – a new vintage trend?