This week, with a nod to the onrushing holiday, and various freight trains of dread barreling down the track at us, I want to take a break from the usual concerns and talk about something else: why Hollywood exemplifies our worst collective blunder of the historical moment: our techno-narcissism.
I went to the cineplex at the mall late yesterday afternoon - also a break, after a month of moving and shlepping to another house - to see the new Martin Scorcese movie, Hugo. The story told is a sort of frame for an homage to one of the pioneers of movie-making, Georges Méliès, a French "illusionist" (magician) who made over 500 films at the turn of the 20th century, most of them now lost. He was an innovator, also, of what we now call FX, special effects, employing stop-motion, puppetry, and many optical tricks borrowed from his stage magic act in order to portray wild, dream-like fantasies on the screen. His best-known surviving movie is the Jules Verne-inspired A Trip To the Moon, in which several Edwardian Age explorers make the journey in a giant artillery shell fired from a colossal cannon. The movies of Méliès possess great child-like charm, consistent with a new art-form in its infancy: exuberant, surprising, and often self-consciously silly.
Scorcese conveys Méliès's story through the frame of another story about a boy, the orphaned son of a watchmaker, who lives in the attic of one of the great Parisian train stations in the 1920s. Hugo goes about his daily business winding the great clocks of the station, pinching croissants and bottles of milk from vendors, and evading the sadistic Station Inspector (Sacha Baron-Cohen, a.k.a. Borat). Hugo's doings also come to involve the owner of a toy shop in the station, who turns out to be the movie-maker Méliès (Ben Kingsley), now completely disillusioned and forgotten. The boy, of course, becomes the agent of Méliès's resurrection to glory and public honor for his pioneering work.
Scorcese, a leading film historian in his own right, chose to tell this story using the latest movie technology of our day: 3-D and CGI, computer-generated imagery, to wow a contemporary audience. Here, things get dodgy. It turns out that there is a curious relationship between movie technology and the art of cinema story-telling, and it can be expressed in terms of diminishing returns. The more clever we get at applying computer magic to the movies, the worse our story-telling abilities. It has gotten to the point where Hollywood is just about incapable now of telling a story because so many technological tricks are cluttering up the screen that the nuances of human behavior are sacrificed to them.
In the case of Hugo, Scorcese's use of 3-D violates one of the cardinal rules of staged dramatic action in its insistence on dragging the viewer through what is called "the fourth wall" in a relentless attempt to induce the illusions of speed and vertigo. The fourth wall refers to an old convention of the proscenium stage, in which the audience is presumed to be viewing the action through an open wall of a sort of magic box. This boundary between "real life" and the life depicted on stage, or on-screen in our time, allows another convention to happen: the willing suspension of disbelief, so that we become emotionally involved in the action beyond the wall. The fourth wall was respected through the glory days of Hollywood and all of the movie classics that Scorcese has paid homage to over the years. Breaking it has impoverished movie-making, a result that was obvious in James Cameron's ponderous hit, Avatar, which reduced human emotion to a level below the average cartoon of the 1930s while it piled on the dazzling computer-generated images. In Hugo, Scorcese's camera, or "camera" in the case of all the whopping 3-D CGI shoves the audience through the fourth wall and into the magic box in order to stimulate (or simulate) a sense of wonder about the proceedings inside it. But it only has the effect of wearing you down psychologically, and making you constantly aware of being manipulated.
One of the ironies of Hugo is that a major sub-plot in the story involves a mechanical automaton - sort of an early robot, animated like a clock with gears and escapements - which Hugo's dead father had been working on before his tragic death in a fire. Automatons were popular devices in the magicians' parlors of the early industrial age. They were wondrous machines for their time, but they really couldn't do much more than deal out a few cards or wave their arms about. The automaton in the movie doesn't really do much, either, but the story of Hugo hinges on the emotional attachments that the automaton inspires in him and the other characters. And it does illustrate, inadvertently I believe, one of the crucial primary relations of the human project to technology in our time: that the virtual is just not an adequate substitute for the authentic. This will be a hard lesson for us to learn.
Hugo worships at the altar of his father's broken automaton, just as the American public at all levels worships at the alter of technology, and it is sure to disappoint us. So great are the comforts and conveniences of our time that we are terrified by the prospect of losing them and, as the hyper-complexities around us unravel, we Americans are willing to believe any preposterous story that promises to keep the cars moving and the lights on. I call this state of affairs technological narcissism. The leading current expression of it can be seen in the incessant propaganda from politicians and the corporations telling the nation that we have "hundreds of years worth of oil and gas" available in North America and that we can easily become "energy independent" if we only drill-drill-drill. The public will at first be disappointed by these lies, and then they will become murderously enraged. Just watch. How it unfolds will be a story really worth telling generations from now.
For the moment, though, Hollywood has forgotten how to do the one thing that made the American movie industry great: to tell a story. Another irony of the day is that the biggest critical hit of the holiday release season is a silent movie, The Artist, made in France by director Michel Hazanavicius, another homage to Hollywood history, made by outsiders and going back to the basics - just as American life will have to go back to the basics when reality drags us kicking and screaming out of the box we've crawled into.