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Hugo (2011)

 

Through various accidents based on geography and the lack of an opportunity to see Hugo before the Oscar ceremony, I’m in a position to offer explanations of why it failed to win the Oscar for Best Film yet did manage five other Oscars. What was it that The Artist had that Hugo did not? We have to start with the amazing coincidence that two films should emerge in 2011 to bring us news of the silent era in film-making. When we talk about nostalgia in the cinema, we’re usually referring to some old star who’s been persuaded into returning to the screen one last time (even if only in a cameo) or some ghastly farrago of mawkish sentimentality about children and an animal set at some time in the past. It’s inconceivable a director would make a silent film (ignoring the music and the occasional sound effect) or would focus on George Méliès, a man whom many would consider a pioneer of special effects in the silent era. Yet that’s exactly what happened and both films ended up head-to-head on the red carpet. Sadly, the “French” dog was not CGI which explains why Hugo prevailed in the visual effects department. Hugo also had great sound (no contest then), fabulous cinematography and clever art direction. So the Academy got it right. At a technical level, Hugo is a masterpiece. As a film, it dies just after the halfway point and never recovers — Lazarus is reputed to have offered script-doctoring advice, but the feet of the venture were already encased in concrete with the project sinking fast into deep water.

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley do tricks

 

Let’s move on with a piece of philosophy (not). Some upstart playwright once offered the opinion that, “All the world’s a stage. . .” This halfwit scribbler casts the human race as mere actors who perform as the script dictates. That’s what the better informed call determinism, the philosophical notion that stuff happens because of the interdependency between people, things and events. We’ve got no choice because the world is nothing but a big machine. Every human is a widget that sprongs or a sprocket that makes a noise equivalent to cowabunga because the axel turns or a switch changes state from on to off. So Martin Scorsese offers us a world in which every member of the cast has a precisely fixed role and, when the automaton finally passes on the word from Hugo’s father (or, if that was not God Himself, the man who made the machine or, if there’s no God, John Logan who wrote the script) the machine that is the world will turn and remake the roles of the cast. So what was broken will be fixed, e.g. sadness will become joy, failing relationships will be restored, obstacles to relationships will be overcome, and leg joints will be repaired. All that’s needed for all this to happen is a key in the shape of a heart must be inserted into the back of the automaton and turned just so.

The automaton writes notes on acting for Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz

 

Now as a piece of fantasy, this is a superb prospect and, in more or less every other context you could devise, the aftermath of the automaton writing the message would have continued the magic. For, make no mistake, the set-up in the first half of this film is remarkable for its beauty and sensitivity. It’s completely captivating and more or less unsentimental (rare in a film by an American production team). It’s also good to see a first-class British acting crew. Ben Kingsley is entirely credible as George Méliès, Sacha Baron Cohen is just on the right side of camp French, and there are wonderful cameos from Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory and Ray Winston. The two children Asa Butterfield (it will be interesting to see him as Ender Wiggin) and Chloë Grace Moretz are sincere which is as much as you can ask of them in such roles. The three dogs beat the French film with their more dynamic barking and the Doberman Pinscher’s speed around the railway station. Except. . .

Sacha Baron Cohen looking vaguely threatening

 

Except all this is wasted because the film then stops being a delightful fantasy and becomes a rather plodding documentary about George Méliès. I blame Martin Scorsese who was obviously fixated by the idea of making a film about George Méliès and sacrificed pace and dramatic development to recreate the man, his stage performances, his studio, the shooting of some of the more famous film sequences, and so on. There’s even a chance to include some stock footage of fighting and despair in the Great War and the sight of some moulds as Méliès’ filmstock was melted down to make the heels for women’s shoes. It’s a tragic loss of momentum. Although there’s an effort to get us moving again with the chase through the station and the recreation of Harold Lloyd’s clock stunt from Safety Last!, the magic has gone. We were all waiting for a giant clockmaker’s hand to come down and wind up Paris using the Eifel Tower as the key and all we got was a sentimental feel-good ending with all the cast assembled in George Méliès’ apartment. The look-alike Django Reinhardt and his Hot Club quintet play as romance blossoms and Asa Butterfield does card tricks.

 

So Hugo is magnificent to look at and, for the first half, it lives, it breathes, it has a soul. Then it just gets mechanical and we all wish we could go home.

 

For the record, Hugo has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.

 

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang

Well, for once, I’m setting off to write a short review in honour of a short “book”. Subterranean Press have a wonderful habit of picking extraordinarily good stories and packaging them well. In this instance, I propose to say a few hopefully well-chosen words about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang. This won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette (2007) and was nominated for the Hugo.

As I have commented in two other reviews on this site about time travel, it’s very difficult to get the logic right and avoid boredom as the inevitable asserts itself. Joe Haldeman gets the plot working as it should but fails in the writing. Kage Baker just writes the book and rather ignores the paradox problems. Here we have a model author who gets everything absolutely right. This is quite simply one of the best written, most elegant time travel stories I’ve read for years.

It starts off with a delightful cheat in that, instead of hard science, we have a mediaeval alchemist in the Middle East develop a gate that allows people to pass through a predetermined amount of time in either direction. The partial telling of the history of this gate is therefore left to one of the travellers who, being stranded, comes to the attention of the local Caliph. Yet this is no One Thousand and One Nights with djinns and the usual trappings of Arabian, Persian, Jewish and Indian folklore. This is a work of modern sensibilities where love, loss and redemption resonate implacably through time. It is the kind of story you can reread with perfect satisfaction, simply admiring the mechanics of plot and writing in such perfect harmony. A real joy!

For a review of a new novella from Chiang, see The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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