Shifting Aesthetic Sensibilities and the Resultant Discontinuity in “Historical” Representation: Nit-picking at one scene in “Hugo”


Ali G is in this movie. Just kidding, that’s not the spoiler. Okay, onto the rant:

Among other things, Hugo is a love letter to Georges Melies and his work, signed smugly by Martin Scorsese. Its subject is ostensibly historical, but it was made for a modern audience.  Some might say the mission of the film was to fill a gap in the imagined knowledge of the modern movie-goer: Hugo, in part, tries to educate the ignorant masses about the Fathers (and Mothers) of the movies.

Motion pictures are presented as a form of magical realism in Hugo–an art form whose beginnings have/had been tragically forgotten and in dire need of pedantic revival. Toward the middle of the film, we are treated to a history-lesson and picture show, featuring (surprise!) some of the older the actors in Hugo. This scene reveals a living Mother of Cinema: the woman in the scene watching the movie is in the movie! (Cue emotional music meant to evoke nostalgia.) See, she’s right there, in the close-up! Crazy! But wait…something’s missing. When you’re trying to educate the masses, authenticity only goes so far. Apparently you have to make concessions for their delicate aesthetic sensibilities.

The actress playing the old-timey actress is from the present day, playing for present-day eyes and modern (American) gendered aesthetic sensibilities. We flash back and forth to what is supposed to be the same woman, but the long-shots, when the archival footage is being shown, and the close-ups, when the present-day actress is inserted, a consistent image is not maintained. There is a glaring omission in the modern recreation of the early-day film: and that omission is underarm hair. It seems it wouldn’t do to go for full authenticity, however briefly. Body hair on a woman is a no-no these days, especially for those in the public eye. And even if authenticity is discounted as a value that this film was striving for, surely there’s something to be said for visual continuity!

To be fair, the style of the movie was on the fantastical side, and historical accuracy didn’t seem to be as high of a priority as effecting a certain aesthetic mood. But for a movie so drunk on its infatuation with the infancy of cinema, so eager to put the secrets of early cinematic magic on display, it sure dropped the ball on inserting its characters into this historical world. This flub, to my mind, rather undermines Hugo‘s reverent tone. And it would not have been difficult to fix: there are few things easier than not removing the hair from one’s body. So the blatant discontinuity in this one scene seems, well, unnecessary.

Upon seeing it, this scene almost made me laugh out loud in the theatre. Oh, come on! I thought with glee. This is too much–of course the actress doesn’t want to commit to the natural look that would have been the norm back when this old film was made; to the look of her real-life historical counterpart. No, she wants to look pretty to present-day eyes, or the director or other people in charge didn’t want the side-tracking public backlash that might come if the authenticity and continuity had been preserved. Who knows exactly why modern-day gendered aesthetics triumphed over the mission of Hugo to bring early day cinema out of the shadows and give it its due…again. (I won’t get into the how the story of the movie is mirrored by the movie itself, is a layer of the same mission: educating a new generation of movie-going masses on the origins of this entertainment form. Suffice it to say that it’s meta and fractal and kind of awesome in a self-congratulatory way.) But back to the erasure of female body hair: how hilariously amazing…and disappointingly expected.



Filed under Gender Trouble, Nostalgia, Television and Movies

2 responses to “Shifting Aesthetic Sensibilities and the Resultant Discontinuity in “Historical” Representation: Nit-picking at one scene in “Hugo”

  1. C–

    Aha! It’s the fraud of progress, the insidious erasure of ideology: beauty appears (must appear) a transparent truth (little t, lol) in the world. It either doesn’t change, and thus the present form (or Form) needn’t be interrogated, or it changes for the better, and anachronistic backward-projection is an aesthetic cleansing, a smoothing-of-the-edges, true to the (re-)imagined genre of the spectacle. But hark, o feminist critique! Beauty relative and protean? Well there goes our meta-Hollywood!
    Keep posting, ma’am! I love it!


  2. Ha! A literal “smoothing-of-the-edges,” indeed. But so obvious an erasure is surely folly: to lay it bare (see what I did there?) for all to see the inner-workings of this projection of progress.


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