It is an oft-repeated refrain that the movie industry has settled into what many in the critical circles have deemed lazy practices and thinking, returning to proven ground with a flood of remakes from the (not always so distant) past. The thought process behind remakes is obvious and full of appeal because it is about embracing that feeling of nostalgia. Woody Allen toyed with this idea in Midnight in Paris, but he recognized the trap and even went so far as to define it for the audience, alerting us that before long, too much looking back prevents one from appreciating the modern joys of the present.
But before simply chastising the current crop of Hollywood executives too eager to steal and refashion past glory, it is worth noting that among the cavalcade of remakes and reboots released in 2011, a couple of directors have found a far more intriguing wrinkle to explore by delving into the history of moviemaking to the extent that they re-imagined on-set experiences and dramatized those experiences, especially in light of transforming the process, the earlier magic for a new generation with the full capabilities of current technology.
Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, is a marvel of a film, which showcases the legendary filmmaker’s love of classic cinema without slavishly apeing a style or genre. Instead Scorsese seeks to recapture the innocence and charm of moving pictures, as they likely appealed to those naive early audiences.
His focal point is not the young protagonist (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, hand-to-mouth since the death of his beloved father (Jude Law), but Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), the professional magician by trade who instinctively understood the illusionary power of moving pictures and began immediately producing and exhibiting his own films using stop-motion photography as well as a host of other film techniques (fade-ins, fade-outs and dissolves, to name a few) in the service of crafting cohesive film narratives. Melies made more than 500 short films including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907), The Mermaid (1904), and Faust in Hell (1903) with A Trip to the Moon (1902) being the most famous by far.
Hugo’s young protagonist and Melies have daily encounters in the train station, but the film takes its time cueing us into the fact that this is Melies years after his explosively creative period. The Melies we see has lost his drive and vision, but Scorsese takes us back to those days, the spirited hours on those lavish sets populated by red-faced devils and all manner of fish and lovely mermaids and rockets to the moon, and to heighten the sense of wonder Scorsese uses 3D effects to recreate the spell that enchanted earlier audiences.
Simon Curtis, the director of My Week With Marilyn, doesn’t have the sleight of hand of a Melies to drive his reanimation of his backwards glance at film sets past, but he is blessed with a story full of its own collisions of fantasy and drama. Colin Clark, a production assistant working with Sir Laurence Olivier during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, documented his relationship with Olivier’s co-star Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe was the sex symbol, the dream, recently married to playwright Arthur Miller, but she was eager to prove herself as an actress as well. Up to that point, Monroe filmography featured Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch, and after this collaboration with Olivier came Some Like It Hot, Let’s Make Love and The Misfits before her untimely death.
Olivier (played with smarmy political charm by Kenneth Branagh), the consummate actor’s actor, was already a serious mater of both stage and screen, but he desired to extend his directorial run [Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955)] beyond the Shakespearean classics.
My Week With Marilyn spends much of its time locked in feverish clinches with the troubled Monroe — and thanks to a raw performance from Michelle Williams, we see more of Norma Jean, the needy, wounded persona buried deep beneath the curvaceous blond sexpot that was Marilyn Monroe — but Curtis ingeniously sneaks a peek at Olivier’s set where, as the cameras rolled, fleeting moments of pure mythmaking took place. Although Monroe fretted and devoted possibly too much time to performance method, we also see recreations of what Olivier, the director, beheld — the high charisma quotient of a wild woman who was more than a star, both then and certainly even now.
In the case of each film, what matters more is not the rigorous adherence to biopic structures or even historical accuracy. Hugo and My Week With Marilyn highlight an almost meta-level examination and reflection on film and the process of making movies at a time when there is literally so much illusion generated from nothing we tend to forget that, once upon a time, movie magic made us believe in something.