copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

Specters of film: new nostalgia movies and Hollywood’s digital transition

by Jason Sperb

“Each of these [2011 Oscar-nominated] movies [The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris] deal with the conflict of reconciling past and present, and offers its own solution and resolutions that while not always practical, satisfy us emotionally. In each we find the pain of nostalgia, the problem of transition, and the power of, and need for, the past.”
—Andrew Gilbert, “The Death of Film and the Hollywood Response”[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

Except [these films] don’t speak, and that is the point.”
—Joshua Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola”[2]

Nostalgia can be less about reclaiming a vanishing past as resisting a threatening future: how to pull back against the endless rush to change, or against the inevitable end of mortality itself? In 2011, a series of nostalgic love letters—The Artist, Hugo and Midnight in Paris—dominated end-of-the year accolades among film critic circles and industry award shows. In their idiosyncratic, ambivalent ways all three cinephiliac works celebrated the imagined simplicity of film production and exhibition in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At the same time, though less celebrated, the year 2011 also marked two key shifts in cinema’s decades-long digital transition—the wide-scale industrial push to end celluloid projection in theatrical exhibition and to cease production of 35mm cameras (Panavision, ARRI). At the technological dawn of a most fully realized “digital cinema” yet—where every aspect of traditional movie-going (production, distribution and exhibition) was now quite often digital—we instead saw an emphatic celebration of Hollywood’s celluloid past by several famous filmmakers intensely invested in the preservation of film history.

If the stark juxtaposition of film’s past with cinema’s future seemed ironic then, it shouldn’t have. Nostalgia, among other impulses such as decadence and decay, is always most intense during periods of dramatic cultural and technological upheaval. At those points the perceived reassurances of a simpler past anchor perceptions of an uncertain present (and future).[3] In this sense, nostalgia is really about the lingering specter of death. The awareness that everything must one day end plants the idea that moments and memories lost will never come again. Paradoxically, personal and collective (cinematic) fantasies of a past that often never existed in the first place become the only way to relive it. Thus, it’s easy to see how the dying medium of film—imagining its own mortality in sight—would symbolically resist the inevitability of its own digital mummification by retreating back to a joyous youth. There is certainly something sad, even pathetic, about nostalgia. But, if we assume that nostalgia’s function here is partly to ease the transition to the age of a digital cinema that contains no necessary relationship to the medium of film, if we see such melancholic impulses as only an attempt to hold onto an idealized past, we also risk further de-rooting other, more pressing, histories at work here beyond the most narratively transparent—i.e., the history of early cinema (Hugo) or the history of the transition to sound (The Artist).

Looking at many of these 2011 “nostalgia films,” Andrew Gilbert has taken an ambivalent approach to the larger industrial impact of Hollywood’s digital transition. Acknowledging the importance of film nostalgia today, Gilbert also insists that “the change is good; digital is cheaper and quicker.”[4] This democratic logic is in some ways sound. If a flood of low budget digital movies becomes more economically feasible, opening up more avenues (in both production and distribution) for more filmmakers, the hope is that more interesting, maybe even more original, movies will emerge without the pressure of appealing to a mass audience in order to recoup escalating production and promotional expenses. Nostalgia, Gilbert argues, becomes merely a way for the studios to alleviate the tensions inherent in an uncertain, but perhaps profound, moment of industrial change—Hollywood’s “answer to the crisis of this [digital] evolution.”[5]

Yet power relations as described here pose the problem inaccurately. Rather than simply reacting to a transition over which it otherwise has no control, Hollywood is as much to blame for the crisis in question. Meanwhile, the point is not that studios are trying to find a solution so much as they are trying to naturalize the shock of an arbitrary technological change they themselves have forced in the name of economic opportunism. “Harsh economic times and the affordability of digital media” are definitely central factors in pushing the film medium out.[6] Yet the bigger mistake is in failing to foreground the extent to which “harsh economic times and the affordability of digital media” are not two separate phenomena but have instead maintained a mutually-destructive relation over the last several years.

Scholarly discourses on the innovations of digital cinema have still not come to grips with disturbing questions regarding the negative impact on labor forces and economic conditions as a result of the digital transition—what does it mean to be a post-industrial, information-based economy? Film is (was) a labor-intensive medium. Yet while it is fair to celebrate some of the money saved as a result of the cheap economics of digital video cinematography, digital Internet distribution, and even perhaps digital theatrical exhibition (for some), it seems fair to ask at what cost? Many aspects of making movies with the medium of film cost more than with digital, yet that’s also because more people were previously employed—from film developers to union projectionists. The transition in the United States from a manufacturing to an information-based economy necessitates more specialized jobs, but for fewer people.

At the same time, even those highly skilled jobs suffer from the decreasing value of labor in the late capitalist marketplace, as demonstrated by the 2013 Oscar protest (since repeated in 2014) around the treatment of effects artists and animators working on Life of Pi (2012). Studios saved money by moving to digital production and distribution, but this has not translated to lower ticket prices, for instance—indeed, quite the opposite in an age of IMAX and 3D ticket inflation. And what of the audience’s own labor in an age of participatory culture and crowdsourcing, when studios increasingly rely on uncompensated fan production (blogs, videos), the free hype of social media, and other digital avenues to promote high-profile movies at minimal cost?[7] As I’ve discussed previously,[8] there are disturbing long-term economic questions in the age of digital cinema—how the digital transition affects the economic viability of film archives, celluloid manufacturers, and independent movie theatres, all of whom risk extinction under the crushing financial burdens which only rise as film itself becomes increasingly rare and thus more expensive.

In reading Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Joshua Clover sees a nostalgically reassuring allegory for labor in the age of digital cinema, wherein increasingly we have a workforce whose jobs are replaced through technological innovation. In Hugo, he notes, everybody is trying to find their place, their function within a larger mechanism (i.e., their job). The emphasis on machines in the movie such as the clocks and the toy automaton is ironic, since

“automation is what replaces living labor, increasing productivity but undermining the very source of surplus value until every process is nearly perfected, nearly everybody is out of work, and the economy is in crisis.”[9]

In short, the persistent utopic notion that digital’s short-term cost-cutting benefits are somehow a solution to harsh economic situations, rather than one key cause of it, may be precisely the root of the larger problem. Yet Hollywood’s solution so far has not been to idealize a better future still to come as much as to romanticize the industrial changes of the past, to pin hopes on the idea that economic problems will work themselves out because, such nostalgic logic goes, “they always have.”

In trying to understand popular culture’s peculiar relation to the past, history is thoroughly intertwined with nostalgia. This is not to say they offer the same perspective at all, but that it is practically impossible to separate one from the other in understanding how popular culture mediates our relationship to the past. In this sense, I argue that some iteration of postmodernism remains a viable mode of analysis in discussions of our present cinematic historical consciousness. For Fredric Jameson, the “nostalgia” mode of films has referred to the ways in which cinematic depictions of the past relied more on pop culture clichés than with understanding the contradictions and ambiguities of history. He was interested at the time he wrote in movies such as Chinatown (1974), with its noir-ish cinematic vision of the 1930s, and American Graffiti (1973)—a cliché of 1950s Baby Boomer teen culture. Both films relied on stylistic conventions of the past.

Equally important to Jameson, however, is how the films offered an aesthetic and cultural reflection of economic changes in late capitalism, where the idea of “historical consciousness” is defined in part as an (in)attention to questions of market changes and labor practices which create a context for images too often de-rooted from their historical origins in the postmodern age. Such cinematic visions of history—both old films still circulating, as well as contemporary depictions of the past—are undoubtedly affectively rich (meaning, they possess the potential to provoke any number of possible responses from the viewer). But these same images are inherently meaningless as representations of the past—simulacra, pastiche—without the various contexts that might create historical consciousness.

On their own, Hugo and The Artist fail to maintain a coherent critique beyond the passive Hollywood endorsement of capitalism typical of most mass-marketed films—an ideological muddle directly extending from their reactive sense of history as pastiche (here, Jameson’s distinction from the older form of parody is important, which possessed a political urgency he sees lacking in the neutrality of pastiche).

At the risk of misunderstanding, it’s also important to acknowledge how we still have access to “history”—in spite of the nostalgia mode—through enough time, research and labor. As a film historian myself, I certainly believe in this ideal. But it’s equally true that such intensive work is very rarely done in a moment of popular culture when personal interpretations of old films become equated with studying film history. This is something, for example, that my previous work on such de-rooted fan defenses of Song of the South sought to demonstrate.[10] Criticisms of Jameson’s notion of pastiche have all argued that individual agency still allows for an engagement with history in spite of the de-historicizing pastiche of the nostalgia image.[11]

Richard Dyer, for instance, insists that “pastiche allows us to feel the historicity of our feelings,” through acknowledging the felt presence of the past, through the juxtaposition of the knowing imitation (the pastiche) alongside the original text being imitated.[12] In this regard, Dyer might argue that The Artist still creates an opening to understand film history by recognizing the difference between its own present pastiche and the original era of late silent film techniques it perfectly imitates. This reading indicates a perfectly legitimate possibility, and yet it privileges an ideal, active spectator in a consumer culture that too often thrives on passivity and inattention. And going forward, such nostalgic mythologies as in The Artist and Hugo can over time too easily take on a life of their own. In understanding how history is thus (not) “represented” in commercial cinema, this use of the word “nostalgia” (as opposed to more reflexive works, such as Sunset Boulevard [1951] that both highlight and criticize nostalgic impulses) seems appropriate to articulating a past that often is shaped, distorted, ignored and even replaced, by the prejudices and arrogance of present ideologies.

I argue that both stylistic iterations of postmodern pastiche in Hugo and The Artist nostalgically re-imagine an era before the sound transition as a metaphor for the shift from analog to digital technologies. Nostalgia for film in the age of digital cinema must be considered, at least in part, as an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to hide those destructive capitalistic tendencies underlining the digital transition within reassuring narratives of individual perseverance, industry tradition and technological inevitability. As a means to easing the transition from one period to the next, they look back to the last instance of truly profound economic and aesthetic change in the movie industry as the result of technological innovation. The transition in the 1920s was about more than just adding “talking” to otherwise silent images. The painstaking incorporation of dialogue, music and sound effects had a profound impact on what kind of cinematic stories could be told, how they could be told, by whom, and to whom. Sound radically changed filmmaking far more than subsequent experiments in color, widescreen, 3D and so forth.

And, yet, so what? What does that historical parallel between silent and digital cinema ultimately mean, ideologically? “Beyond their meta-cinematic nostalgia,” Clover writes, both Hugo and The Artist “speak to something larger. Except they don’t speak, and that is the point.”[13] While it’s seductive to imagine the present fascination with nostalgia for film history as one last rallying cry for the dying medium of celluloid, such a melancholic haze conceals far more than it illuminates. For example, Hugo was part of the prominent wave of Digital 3D movies released between 2009-2011 (including box-office champ, Avatar) which existed in large measure to simply force the market-wide conversion from 35mm projectors to Digital Cinema Packages (DCP), since none of these often highly lucrative titles could be screened on film. This was an extremely expensive undertaking for movie theatres, whose longer-term financial costs are cloudy at best—especially for independent and art cinemas. In addition, questions remain regarding maintenance, obsolescence, and the larger labor force.[14] In short, we should be mindful of how deeper economic problems are ignored, or worse, naturalized, in the present through these de-rooted fantasies. Such films envision a past where technological change is always inevitable, always incorporated irrespective of market forces, and always overcome through the power of individual perseverance.

Archaeologies of the future

“It was like a new kind of magic. I asked the Lumière brothers to sell me a camera, but they refused. You see they were convinced that movies were only a passing fad and they saw no future in it, or so they said.”
—Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), Hugo (2011)

In Hugo, looking back on the early days of his filmmaking career, Méliès (played by Kingsley), humorously noted during a particularly nostalgic flashback, that the Lumière Brothers, essentially the inventors of cinema, “were convinced that movies were only a passing fad and they saw no future in it.” It’s a not-so-subtle reference to one of early cinema’s great historical ironies, referred to by cinephiles throughout the decades. “The cinema is an invention without a future,” Louis Lumière supposedly declared at the dawn of movie history. The historical parallel in Hugo, meanwhile, is no doubt partially a wink to the future of movies in the digital age. It implies that if film survived, and even thrived, in the 20th Century, then certainly digital cinema (in whatever form) will thrive in the 21st. The anachronism, though, is readily apparent in this film’s own unapologetic nostalgia. In many ways, Hugo is much more about understanding the present developments (digital cinematography and 3D exhibition) in the film industry through past future(s)—the then-unimaginable potential of early cinema which even Lumière couldn’t see—than about actually imagining the still unrealized futures of digital cinema. Indeed, for all the utopic industrial rhetoric about the imagined promises of technological innovation, discourses about digital cinema are rarely really about the future, just as retro impulses of postmodernism are partially about shutting off future alternatives to capitalism.

Jameson’s discussion of these temporal contradictions and anachronisms in postmodern depictions of the past were focused in particular on the “nostalgia film,” which was less about personal usages of the term and more about a particularly stylized view of the past with little interest in historical documentation. In this scenario, the word “nostalgia” is perhaps misleading but nonetheless apt, since it is above all else more about the present’s romanticized fantasy of the past than about its unresolvable uncertainties. If this idea of postmodern pastiche seems itself dated, one needn’t look any further than The Artist. The film concerns the initial failure of a major movie star from the silent era, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), to survive the transition to sound, finding himself quickly left behind by both an industry and a love interest, rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who have made the adjustment to a fundamentally new type of cinematic storytelling. A textbook instance of Hollywood pastiche in its representation of the silent era, the film reproduces the style of a black and white movie as a substitute for history. Hazanavicius wanted to make a silent film in part because of its inherent focus on the image as the primary means of storytelling.[15]

As a particularly acute instance of postmodern nostalgia, The Artist makes no distinction between silent black and white movies from the late 1920s and the decade itself—in other words, the image was the decade, and vice versa. Moreover, the use of actual Hollywood soundstages from the 1920s during production gave the film an added “realism,” noted cast member John Goodman in a making-of video—an ironic choice of words (as in, sites of cinematically-staged authenticity are equated with historical authenticity). In both cases, there’s no (historical) space outside that cinematic surface. Yet simply defining The Artist as pastiche in the digital age is perhaps the easiest, and certainly less urgent, half of the question. The film thoroughly de-historicizes the very same moment in time that it so lovingly mimics. Its deeper mythology involves a fantasy of triumphant individualism in the face of uncontrollable economic hardships—while Valentin reinvents himself and survives the transition, many real-life Valentins in the movie industry (on and off-screen) did not. Clover notes the irony of The Artist’s depiction of the end of the 1920s:

“Valentin, fictional star of the late silent age, is left behind by the advent of talkies—which in a fudged timeline falls on the day of the market collapse inaugurating the Great Depression. He is doubly displaced: by industrial advances, and by the collapse of the labor market. [ . . .] Technology and the market have left him behind.”[16]

The absence of history, meanwhile, is directly tied to its representation of labor. The Artist fails to say anything on the matter—in more ways than one—other than to offer the easy solution in the end. Then Valentin magically finds a new talent, dancing, and a thus a new job to pull himself out of his own great depression. Certainly, there are potentially sly historical jokes. At the end, Valentin finally speaks with a heavy French accent, humorously highlighting how spoken words in movies weren’t relevant yet—that more importantly, silent cinema in that regard was a truly global language. The irony is profoundly and unintentionally sad, reiterating how English became the dominant language of the 20th Century in part due to Hollywood’s post-world war domination of the marketplace, while also at times marginalizing non-English audiences and filmmakers.

Accumulatively, technological innovation—the long march from a manufacturing to information-based economy—has not created more jobs than it’s eliminated. It has not aided workers in production as much as it has made their physical labor increasingly obsolete. In this regard, many economic aspects of digital cinema are no different. “Newer technologies, newer automatons, promise some sort of restoration that doesn’t come,” Clover writes, “how could it, when these very same developments are the instruments of destruction?”[17] And the negative impact of the sound transition as depicted in The Artist wasn’t simply confined to a few high-profile movie stars. “In the 1920s,” Bruce Goldstein notes,

“the smallest theatres couldn’t afford the cost of wiring for sound, and many of them went under—particularly after the market crashed in 1929.”[18]

Goldstein’s larger point here is to use the early sound transition to highlight the impact of the digital age on the economics of theatrical exhibition today, a lurking historical parallel worth investigating further.

DCP and the digital divide

There are any number of areas where digital innovation raises long-term economic questions—if not for the studios necessarily. With the exception of online distribution (which involves minimal costs), the savings in going digital generally have not “trickled down” to paying moviegoers, film archives, animation/VFX workers, the free labor of participatory culture, and so on. Upstart filmmakers benefit in the short-term, but also find themselves in an increasingly crowded late capitalist marketplace that inversely puts a decreasing economic value on their labor. Narratives of inevitability, such as in The Artist, seek to naturalize the shock of a sudden change which is quietly driven by determined but arbitrary market forces. Writing on the “onrush to digital conversion” over the last few years, James Quandt has pointed out that

“late capitalism has taught us that inevitability is often a disguise or excuse for commercial coercion, and there is a whiff of intimidation in the accompanying terminology (e.g., ‘digital complaint’).”[19]

This coercion, moreover, had led to a deepening digital divide between those with the resources to profit from the transition and those who many not even have the resources to survive.

On that note, I’d like to explore the recent conversion to digital theatrical exhibition which has swept through movie theatres in just the last few years at a time of both digital distribution and, with it, often more solitary viewings. It’s an all the more appropriate site for analysis, given that both The Artist and Hugo’s respective nostalgia for film history also implicitly promotes nostalgia for the imagined good old days of theatrical movie-going. In 2002, six major Hollywood studios collaborated to standardize the technology underlining the future of digital projection. The result was the “Digital Cinema Initiatives” (DCI), intended

“to ensure the quality, compatibility, and security of the digital exhibition of their films.”[20]

This eventually appeared in the form of the Digital Cinema Package (DCP)—where several bulky film canisters are now replaced with large disks containing all the information needed to screen the movie, saved as encrypted files, inserted directly to the digital projector. Going forward, movie theatres would need the compatible hardware in place to screen the latest digital titles. There’s certainly a historical echo here from the early days of cinema. The move to make 35mm film production and exhibition technology the industry standard co-existed with the patent wars that grew out of this standardization. Creating one universal technology allowed the powers that be to control the market going forward. Moreover, it is this industrial history that directly intertwines with the nostalgic mythologies in Hugo.

The industry-wide push by the studios for digital projection was far more economic in intention than aesthetic. While popular discourses around this new innovation visibly promoted the idea of a flawless digital image with no tears, scratches or other forms of degradation over time, the real reasons involved combatting piracy and saving money on distribution costs that did not translate to savings for anyone else—neither for paying customers nor for the low-end movie theatres without the resources of the major multiplexes. “The shift to digital promised a tremendous savings for the studios,” writes Lisa Dombrowski,

IHS Screen Digest estimates digital will produce an 80 per cent savings on direct releasing costs [. . .] (a digital print costs between $100 and $300, while a 35mm print averages $1200 to $2000 more).”[21]

The novelty of Digital 3D exhibition, so central to Hugo’s promotion and critical reception, was largely a means to force the issue of DCP conversion. Criticisms of 3D, especially post-conversion jobs, eventually crept in as increasingly bad movies (2010’s Clash of the Titans) further exploited the gimmick. It seemed a cheap excuse to charge higher ticket prices, and a strain on the eyes to watch. Yet these valid critiques were a distraction from the real issue. In retrospect, as Thomas Elsaesser notes,  

“once the technology has been installed and amortized via a season of successful 3D films, it does not matter whether 3D is a big screen mainstay, or a niche product.”[22]

In just a couple of years, digital projection for both 2D and 3D movies became the industry standard—thanks in part to but certainly not dependent upon either the passing novelty or future sustainability of the latter.

That conversion has come at a great cost—especially for independent theatres, art cinemas and drive-ins that could not afford the transition (this was also, of course, part of the point, as both studios and major theatre chains benefit from driving out competition). “Virtual Print Fee” (VPF) financing, where third party loans were used to offset some of the costs for digital upgrading,

“was designed by the major studios to assist their primary exhibition partners—first-run commercial multiplexes that debut studio features in rapid succession.”[23]

Even then, the VPF loan system does not take into account the long-term maintenance and upgrade costs of digital projectors:

“the ultimate pricetag of digital equipment is hidden to exhibitors right now. Little expenses add up. [. . .] And digital is notoriously temperamental.”[24]

Chain multiplexes could afford upgrades since they could disperse costs through financing plans and the income of thousands of screens. In contrast, first-run-dependent commercial single or dual screen cinemas often faced an impossible burden which led to many shutting down, especially as access to 35mm prints became increasingly rare on their own, even as some art cinemas found creative ways to survive.[25]

What the age of digital cinema has brought to theatrical exhibition is further economic disparity—and rising costs for consumers and disadvantaged competitors despite supposed financial savings such innovations brought. As Dombrowski writes,

“Non-DCI-compliant forms of digital cinema—known as ‘e-cinema’—are much more common in art houses than [the compliant] d-cinema, creating a digital divide between those theatres that are DCI-complaint and able to screen films from all distributors, and those that are not.”[26]

In discussing the economic impact of DCP on independent and art cinemas, Dombrowski is understandably ambivalent, given that some have managed to survive on low cost alternatives, such as screening Blu-Ray discs, while also allowing indie filmmakers to screen movies born digital without the financial burdens of converting them to 35mm prints or compliant DC packages. Still, her closing question is worth repeating:

“If d-cinema [DCI-complaint] does become uniform across the entire motion picture industry, will it lower costs after the end of VPFs place the major studios and independents, the multiplexes and the art houses on more equal footing, or will the majors’ oligopolistic control continue to dictate terms of the marketplace?”[27]

The long-term uncertainty of this profound inequality, of a “digital divide” that exists beyond just theatre economics, is troubling. While a benefit of DCP might be “freeing staff to spend more time with customers and less time in the projection booth,” it seems more likely to leave that staff unemployed, perceived as a wasteful redundancy in a steadily shrinking labor force. They will end up just like the union projectionist whose job once upon a time was to splice together the feature film celluloid print with the trailers shipped separately (all the material that now comes pre-loaded on a DCP drive). As Clover’s insightful reading of The Artist and Hugo implied, the hidden truth behind the euphemism of “saving money” is that we are really talking about cutting people’s jobs—but bottom lines don’t have a face. Studios and other powerful businesses in the film industry are not looking to hire more workers in the wake of digital innovations that might save money. Even in filmmaking communities inside and outside Hollywood, a conservative myth is frustratingly persistent that lowering costs will somehow improve our collective financial future, rather than continue to put a strain on our overall economic well-being.

Hugo and the all-fantasy genre

“Other filmmakers rely less upon special effects and fantasy; there are scores of directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Stephen Frears, John Sayles, Paul Schrader, and Mike Leigh, who make films about more or less realistically conceived characters in more or less realistic settings. There is no reason for the digital fantasies of sci-fi to drive an industry that, since the sci-fi blockbusters of the late 1970s and early '80s, has become increasingly diverse in terms of narrative content. Indeed, the danger is that an all-digital cinema might very well lead to an all-fantasy cinema—to essentially one genre.”
—John Belton, “Digital Cinema: A False Revolution?”[28]

Over a decade ago, responding to George Lucas’ proclamations of an all-digital future, Belton wrote a teachable article on the long-term implications of the transition from celluloid to digital cinema. Belton focused on the long-term industrial realities and limitations regarding the new medium’s ambitions, as well as on the fundamental ways in which digital cinema often aspires to do little more creatively than simply emulate film’s existing theatrical experience—hence, as he coined, “a false revolution.” For Belton, the creative temptation existed for some filmmakers to explore more fantastical plots and settings. In this regard, Scorsese’s subsequent Hugo emerges as the most perfectly realized dream or nightmare to arise from Belton’s observation about the move to an “all-fantasy genre.” In ways both more obvious but also more subtle than The Artist, Hugo is a postmodern nostalgia film which conflates history with cinematic mediations of that past. The movie’s cinephiliac references to Lumière and Jean Renoir, as Elsaesser wrote, balances

“the director’s homage to (French) film culture and cinephilia with a somewhat more ambiguous appropriation of Méliès’ genius as the ‘precursor’ of Hollywood’s 3D revival. [. . . ] [I]t also hints at a paradigm shift in the way we might come to look at 3D itself [. . .] fitting for an age when cinema (and television) history is likely to become the only history our culture has an affective memory of.”[29]

Like its auteurist overseer, Hugo is a champion both of shooting on digital video and of the literal and symbolic preservation of old films (with slightly less attention to film history). It is also an all-out digital 3D spectacle that, as Belton feared, exists in large measure to show off the legendary auteur’s skills with a new array of digital tools. Scorsese’s status as canonical filmmaker, in return, adds greater artistic credibility to the all-pervasive but much critically maligned fantasy film genre, as well as to the highlighted novelty of 3D filmmaking. Employing the latest innovations in high-definition cinematography (ARRI Alexa), visual/sound effects work, and 3D exhibition, Hugo presents viewers with an impossibly perfect vision of 1930s Paris—a digital landscape more akin to an idealized painting than its faithful (and mechanical) reproduction as a photograph.

Within that digital vision is a larger romance with the legacy of the machine age—for a pre-digital era of materiality when we could physically see how things worked, for that glorious glimpse of modernity’s potential, which came and went somewhere between 1931 and 2011. Thus, what’s striking in Hugo are not simply the lush 3D visuals, but the consistent fetishization of machines and their moving parts—clocks, trains, wind-up toys, hand-cranked movie projectors, and of course the cherished automaton, which represents the last material link between a boy and his deceased father. This plot element refers to real automata from the 19th Century—elaborate robotic dolls that, with the precise timing of various weights, gears and other mechanisms, came to life by mimicking basic tasks such as writing words or playing music. The movement of the actual automaton in Hugo was really generated by both pro-filmic and post-production computer work, giving only the visual effect of pre-digital mechanization. It’s a sad irony worth pursuing. The robot in Hugo, a nostalgic throwback to the possibilities of the machine age, was a careful computer effect, and the elaborate artwork created by this particular automaton (a drawn “still” from Méliès’ Voyage to the Moon)far surpassed the actual capacities of those devices historically.

Hugo’s tenuous relationship to anything resembling historical accuracy is easy to overlook. After all, the brilliance of Hugo’s digital homage to Méliès is based partially on the magical idea that he was the first filmmaker to understand cinema’s capacity to deceive the eye (jump cuts). Appeals to historical fidelity seem even more irrelevant given the movie’s own narrative ambitions as little more than a fantastical kid’s fable. However, a key point of Hollywood’s embrace of fantasy ideologically in the digital age has been to close off space for criticism, a goal further intensified here with what could reasonably be deemed “only” a children’s movie.[30] In place of ideological critique, in place of history, is the story of undying love in Hugo that transcends space, time and technology—a generational nostalgia involving a father and son.

What anchors Hugo for its most ardent cinephiliac fans is its deeply nostalgic affection for early cinema, for the era of innocent wonder that the days of Méliès and Lumière suggest. Hugo makes literal an otherwise symbolic connection between the “cinema of attractions” at the end of the 19th Century and an “all-fantasy cinema” at the end of the 20th (though it’s easy to be skeptical of this historical parallel). Scholars commonly use this to add historical perspective on the larger technological shift in cinema at the dawn of the digital age.[31] It’s unsurprising that upon Hugo’s release many cinephiles, historians and other film buffs delighted[32] in a digital spectacle which embraced 3D technology as a way to recreate landmark cinematic images—both literally (using restored Méliès prints in the new format) and symbolically (such as the many references to the Lumières’ L’arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat [“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”]).

The reference to L’arrivée d’un Train, of course, also included the infamous historical anecdote of naïve spectators who supposedly fled in terror at the cinematic sight of an oncoming train). Yet before sliding too far into Hugo’s nostalgic fantasy of movie history, the continued deployment of that particular historical anecdote itself should give pause. One of Tom Gunning’s key insights into early cinema history was to debunk the persistent claim that continues in some circles to this day that the earliest movie spectators were too dumb to distinguish silent, black and white moving images of a train from the presence of a real one, and thus panicked.[33] Hugo, meanwhile, re-mystifies that history more so than challenges it—especially by

  • altering that movie so that—when shown in 3D exhibition—the image of the train really does seem to come out of the screen,
  • depicting easily frightened past audiences (both in 1895 and 1931), and
  • celebrating cinema’s general affective potential to excess through its embrace of 3D aesthetics.

The curious reimagining of early cinema history is not nearly as pressing as Hugo’s main structuring absence: the emergent economic histories around Méliès’ rise and fall. While Hugo is reasonably accurate in its presentation of the film pioneer’s life, it obscures at least one important detail—his downfall wasn’t WWI, which brought different collective moods and logistical demands. What wiped Méliès out even before the outbreak of war was continually losing distribution battles with more powerful “pioneers” like Pathe Co. and Thomas Edison[34] and even his own brother, Gaston.[35] Méliès battled the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), the sheer output of others’ mass production as a result of standardized film technology,[36] and unscrupulous competition who pirated copies of his films for U.S. distribution without compensation.[37] Hugo overlooks the fact that Méliès’ waning popularity was as much due to questionable market practices as to the fading interest in his product’s novelty.

In this regard, both The Artist and Hugo follow in a long line of films about technical innovation in Hollywood such as Stand In or Singing in the Rain. These films reduce complex industrial questions to the usual Hollywood whims of random fate and individualism. Their characters are mere victims of unfortunate circumstances beyond anyone’s control (war, depression, market shifts, evolving sensibilities, changing technology), instead of encountering the very real institutional and legal contexts that go unacknowledged. To be clear, my interest is not historical fidelity as much as how film histories are selectively re-told through pastiche, and what’s at stake in the nostalgic fantasy (in both senses of the word) presented in its place. The historical carelessness befits an industry that has no interest in criticizing ambitions for global market domination. For Hollywood to criticize Edison would mean criticizing itself, particularly today, as studios push for digital exhibition to squeeze out piracy and independent competitors, and embrace “transmedia storytelling” (books, records, games, etc.) to maximize the corporate imperative and market reach of horizontal integration. Certainly, complicated legal and industrial histories are not the ideal subject matter for a kid’s film, but the point is precisely that Hollywood hides ideologically behind the seeming “innocence” of such fantastical indulgences all the time. So, when looking at a kid’s movie like Hugo—enveloped in the ideological safety net of a particular market demographic, in cinephiliac nostalgia and in auteurist prestige—we aren’t meant to notice the dialectical history being erased.

This is the core of postmodern pastiche—which is not merely the constant re-appropriation of random cinematic styles for their own sake, but the deliberate de-politicizing of the economic histories they avoid. At best, as with The Artist’s reenactment of the 1929 market crash, technological and cultural change is presented as an inevitable and thus unopposable force, something that just “is,” which no one can do much about except to reject or embrace—like the recent push to digital projection in theatrical exhibition. These movies passively suggest that Valentin and Méliès’ respective careers are threatened due to forces beyond their control. This befits a Hollywood industry that resists creative and economic opposition and that wishes to imagine “no future”of opposition or alternatives. Hollywood’s “seamless” style and “natural” ideologies are designed to survive precisely by going unquestioned and even unnoticed. In the most cynical (though not only) conception of nostalgia’s value, it’s not the lack of historical accuracy—it’s the absence of a material opposition to the image necessary to defining “historical consciousness,” which a more sustained attention to industry and audience histories, as just two examples, might provide.


1. Gilbert, “The Death of Film and the Hollywood Response,” Senses of Cinema 62 (March 2012),
. [return to text]

2. My emphasis. Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola: Enjoy the Silents,” Film Quarterly (Summer 2012), p. 7.

3. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001). In The Virtual Life of Film, meanwhile, D.N. Rodowick speculated that “the idea of cinema persists in the term ‘digital cinema’ as a way of easing the transition to a different [technological] world” beyond celluloid— The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 177.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. This discussion of audience labor owes much to the neglected theories of Dallas Smythe on what he long ago called the “audience commodity”—Smythe, “On the audience commodity and its work,” Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981), pp. 22–51.

8. Sperb, “I’ll (Always) Be Back / Virtual Performance and Post-Human Labor in the Age of Digital Cinema,” Culture, Theory and Critique 53.3 (Fall 2012), pp. 383-397.

9. Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola: Enjoy the Silents,” p. 7.

10. Sperb, Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012).

11. See, for example, Christine Sprengler, Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film (New York: Berghahn, 2009); Linda Hutcheon, “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History,” Cultural Critique 5 (Winter 1986-1987), p. 179-207; and, Richard Dyer, Pastiche (New York: Routledge, 2006).

12. Dyer, p. 130.

13. My emphasis. Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola: Enjoy the Silents,” p. 7.

14. For more on the conversion to DCP, see: Dombrowski, “Not If, But When and How: Digital Comes to the American Art House,” Film History 24 (2012), pp. 235-248; Rapfogel, Jared, et. al. “From 35mm to DCP.” Cineaste (Spring 2012), pp. 32-42; Elsaesser, “The ‘Return’ of 3D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century,” Critical Inquiry 39 (Winter 2013), pp. 217-246; and, John Belton, “Digital 3D Cinema: Digital Cinema’s Missing Novelty Phase,” Film History 24 (2012), pp. 187-195.

15. This use of silent images to tell its story echoes what Christine Sprengler, drawing on Marc La Sueur, referred to as a “deliberate archaism,” which intentionally “strive[s] to recreate not only the look and feel of the period [mise-en-scene] in question but also the [formal] appearance of art from that distant time” (p. 86).

16. Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola: Enjoy the Silents,”p. 6.

17. Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola: Enjoy the Silents,” p. 7.

18. As qtd in: Rapfogel, p. 38.

19 As qtd in: Rapfogel, p. 40.

20. Dombrowski, p. 236.

21. Dombrowski, p. 236.

22. Elsaesser, p. 222.

23. Dombrowski, p. 238.

24. My emphasis. Gendy Alimurung, “Movie Studios are forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film, But the Consequences of Going Digital are Vast, and Troubling,”

25. See Dombrowski’s discussion of E-Cinema vs. D-Cinema.

26. Dombrowski, p. 237.

27. Dombrowski, p. 246.

28. My emphasis. Belton, “Digital Cinema: A False Revolution?” October 100 (Spring 2002), pp. 105-106.

29. My emphasis. Elsaesser, pp. 217-218.

30. This is a similar point to what Sean Cubitt has previously argued about digital cinema’s ideologies in The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

31. In particular, many scholars have (heavily) modified Tom Gunning’s work on early “attractions” for era of the CGI blockbuster. While some fear a descent into VFX spectacles with little interest in storytelling, others held out hope that such developments today would evoke cinema’s early pre-narrative fascination with spectacle for its own sake, as Gunning first argued.

32.   For example, in his five-star cinephiliac review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that

“Scorsese uses 3-D here as it should be used, not as a gimmick but as an enhancement of the total effect. Notice in particular his re-creation of the famous little film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897), by the Lumiere brothers. You've probably heard its legend: As a train rushes toward the camera, the audience panics and struggles to get out of its way. That is a shot which demonstrates the proper use of 3-D, which the Lumieres might have used had it been available.”

– “Hugo,” RobertEbert.com (21 Nov. 2011), accessed: 14 June 2014.

Slightly more level-headed, scholar Dan North wrote that Scorsese’s

“the maker of some astonishingly powerful, influential and innovative work, and his love of cinema history, which drives him to emulate his favourites rather than attempt to honour them with blandly imitative homages, is always infectious.”

—“Digesting Hugo,” Spectacular Attractions (13 April 2012), accessed: 14 June 2014.

33. Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Wide Angle 3 (1986), pp. 56-62.

34. Edison sued Melies, among others, over copyright infringement as early as 1904: see, Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Cinema to 1907 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990), p. 402.

35. Eileen Bower, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991), p. 30.

36. Bower, p. 26.

37. Musser, p. 364.

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