It’s no surprise that two of the most nominated films this year for the 2012 Academy Awards are titles that pay a great deal of homage to the early days of narrative and silent cinema. Historically, the Oscars are known for rewarding films that display a longing for cinema’s past – Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard come to mind. This year, Martin Scorsese’s entry in the family film genre, Hugo leads the pack with 11 nominations, slightly surpassing Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist with 10. Both are exceptional pieces of filmmaking. They excel in most facets of what makes a film ‘great’ – beautiful cinematography, charming scores, character performances and much more. Beyond this, one can’t deny their glowing fondness for the early days of filmmaking.
To be honest, when my wife and I went to see Hugo, I had no idea that the 2nd and 3rd acts would be preoccupied with what turned out to be the ‘Life and Times of George Méliès’ – the great special effects illusionist of early cinema. Not that I was complaining. It brought me back to my mornings hunched over a tabletop in a darkened lecture hall, taking very detailed notes of course, watching a cardboard rocket crash-land on what appears to be a gooey slab of cottage cheese with eyes.
Scorsese is no stranger to cinematic homage. He is after all – a ‘moviebrat’! The list is long and can be as detailed as a doctorate dissertation (Cape Fear, New York, New York, Shutter Island…), but one of Scorsese’s most famous references to cinema’s early days is the conclusion of Goodfellas. See below to see what I mean…what more do you want, I even embedded it right here for ya (that was my Joe Pesci impression if you couldn’t tell).
The important shot to note here is when Pesci’s character interjects Ray Liotta’s penetrating gaze (and narration for that matter) through the fourth wall. This shot is a reference to The Great Train Robbery (1903) by noted narrative cinema innovator, Edwin S. Porter. For film historians, discourse around this film’s significance to the history of the art form tend to narrow in on Porter’s knack for shooting action and building excitement through cross-cutting, camera movement, on-location shooting and the list goes on. If you have 10 or so minutes to kill, by the mighty powers of the interwebs, you can watch this little picture right here, and I highly encourage you to do just that. And believe it or not, I found this on Google Video and not Youtube…huh.
Part II – The Artist, Silent Cinema and De Sica