Tom Sutcliffe: Too much charm can be a bad thing

The week in culture

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The word that pretty much everyone has used about Martin Scorsese's latest film Hugo is "charming". It's also the word that exactly pins down my misgivings about the film – a word that summons the idea of an irresistible enchantment and simultaneously dismisses it. If a magic spell works, after all, you shouldn't have any choice about whether you succumb to it. But then who would really ever feel that they'd been bowled over by a "charming" film? It is another way – a respectful way – of saying that the emotions you felt were always held slightly at bay, always controllable. "Charming" is to "moving" as "pretty" is to "beautiful", a word so enervated that you have to put "completely" or "utterly" in front to get any force into it. It's the sort of word you use of clever miniatures, polite children and sentiments that have had their crusts cut off, so that they look dainty on the plate.

That Scorsese is aiming at entrancement and captivation seems obvious – and it would be churlish to say that he doesn't achieve it now and then. His imaginary Paris, a confection of loving clichés of the city, has a snow-globe prettiness when we first see it – and the 3D-enhanced flight into the bustling station is properly transporting. He's also fully conscious of the odd way in which a mechanical contrivance can suddenly be transformed into something more than the sum of its parts. There's a wonderful scene in the film – one of its best uses of 3D – when a cascade of George Méliès' drawings, thrown up into the air, flutter and twist and turn themselves into cinema in front of your eyes. Scorsese dismantles the moving image into its separate cogs and then shows you how you only have to mesh the cogs back together to make them disappear instantaneously.

That awareness is precisely one of the problems though. Scorsese knows exactly what he's doing here and it shows – in a film that, rather like the automaton at its heart, moves just a little too slowly and too jerkily to convincingly simulate life. The engineering is often wonderfully ingenious – as in the little wordless vignettes which play out on the station forecourt, tacitly reminding us that there are silent movies nested inside every talkie. But the very fact that you can see how every connecting rod and cam-shaft plays its part robs the film of vitality. It isn't that Scorsese's heart isn't in it either. Listening to him talk on the radio the other day about his own childhood trips to the cinema with his father, it was plain that this story of a fatherless child restored by cinema touched him deeply. He loves old film and he wants us to love it, too. But he's so anxious that his personal talismans should work on us that he virtually orders us how to respond.

The "charm" of the film – its determination to bewitch everyone – reaches a climax when the two children in the film sneak into a cinema and find themselves watching a Harold Lloyd comedy. Scorsese shows their faces, lit both by the flickering, reflected light of the screen and an inner light of childish wonder, and, fatally, he holds the frame just a little too long. This isn't a reaction shot anymore. It's a kind of devotional icon and it turns the two characters inside it into automata themselves. They aren't real children – with their restiveness and recalcitrance – they're puppets programmed to display the emotions of an adult, and offer us an exemplary diagram of the "correct" reaction. The activity of charming, this sequence reminds you, is often a carefully calculated one – a matter of saying just the right things and adding just the right ingredients to make the spell work. And you may remember, too, Keats' famous letter about how "we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us". Obviously, hate is far too strong a word here. How could anyone hate something so charming? But, just as Keats mocked the idea of flowers "crying out, 'Admire me I am a violet! Dote upon me I am a primrose!'" you might well feel that a little less ostentatious charm would have made for a much better film.

A captivating winner in the name game

I've never experienced Stendhal's Syndrome, a physiological response to great art which includes dizziness and palpitations, but occasionally even my dulled sensibility responds to a tremor in the aesthetic ether. It happened to me last week at an exhibition called United Enemies, at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, a historical survey of British sculpture in the Sixties and Seventies. It's a very engaging show, full of a sense of experiment and liveliness as young artists grapple with inherited ideas of sculpture, but – fittingly enough given that it argues this is one tap root for conceptual art – I found myself thinking a bit more than feeling. Then I encountered a work consisting of what looked like ploughshares and a long helical screw. I'd like to claim that the innate quality of this piece made a shiver run up my spine but in truth it was only when I saw the title, Whispering, that things started happening to the back of my neck. Bounced between that insinuating word and the sotto voce rustle of the piece itself, I found myself absolutely captivated. Discovering that it was by Anthony Caro didn't really alter or add to that reaction. The thing itself was beautiful and suggestive, but the title returned your attention to why. I doubt that it would have had anything like the same effect as "Piece No 6".

The power of a good reputation

I wrote a few weeks ago about an unsettling note in the National's sell-out Da Vinci exhibition to the effect that virtually every work there had at one time been attributed to someone else. This struck me as intriguing, given the almost reflexive admiration expressed for the works. Now we have hard evidence, courtesy of a study by the art historian Martin Kemp and an Oxford professor of physiology called Andrew Parker, for the fact that the attribution of a painting makes a difference to the way we look at them. He put 14 people in a brain scanner and showed them Rembrandt paintings, some authentic and some fake. And while there was no distinction between the reaction to echt and ersatz genius, there was a difference when people were told which was which. The fake set off the neural fireworks in a part of the brain associated with planning new strategies – partly, it's thought, because the knowledge that a painting was a copy made them scrutinise it more closely for signs of its second-rateness. Which means that they looked harder at the fake than they did at the real thing. A veil descends when a great master's name is attached to a painting, so that we gaze at a reputation rather than the marks on canvas. How would we see our great collections if no one knew who'd painted what?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Comments