Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's in a Name?

Movie titles are important as they are generally among the first things an audience knows about a film that gives some kind of clue about what to expect at the cinema. What a film is called can have a profound impact on audience expectations and when those expectations are not met it frequently leads to disappointment, as we are witnessing at the moment with the particularly daft case of the woman in America who has brought a lawsuit against the makers of the new Ryan Gosling movie, Drive, because it does not contain enough driving.

The meaning of a movie's title is also quite often lost in translation. The first James Bond movie Dr No was reportedly released in China under the slightly confusing moniker of We Don't Need a Doctor, John Travolta's high school musical Grease was released in Argentina under the title Vaseline and in Germany the Zucker Brother's farce Airplane! was sold to audiences as The Unbelievable Trip on a Wacky Airplane, which is surely conclusive proof that the Germans do have a sense of humour after all!

So, having established that titles are important and that a different title can radically alter people's expectations, we come to the case of Martin Scorsese's latest, family film The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, or should that be Hugo Cabaret, or maybe just plain Hugo.

When I heard that Martin Scorsese was making a kids film I was intrigued. Watching someone with that kind of creativity, artistry and vision turn their talents to something new is always interesting. Even though he has been simmering somewhere below his experimental boiling point for some time now, who knows, maybe a nice new model railway is exactly what little Marty needs to get his imagination firing on all cylinders once again.

The film's premise, again, sounds promising. Based on a novel about an orphan boy living in the walls of Gare du Nord station in 1930s Paris, the boy meets one time filmmaker and magician George Melies, the director of such silent film classics as A Trip to the Moon and Conquest of the Pole, who is in possession of a wind-up boy. Scorsese is a well known cineaste and the perfect man to expound the pleasures and delights of the films of one of the early pioneers of fantasy film making. Add to that what sounds like the most surreal set-up he has had to work with since After Hours, which is a very good thing indeed, and this is staring to sound pretty exciting. What fun might Scorsese have playing in the same sandbox as Caro and Jeunet – Delicatessen crossed with Taxi Driver, but for kids (is that possible? You get the idea), who wouldn't want that?

However, when the trailer was released, what we got was not The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, it was not even the less quirky but still slightly strange Hugo Cabaret, no, somewhere in the midst of the production and marketing maelstrom the film had undergone a personality transplant. The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, an offbeat, febrile fantasy, had metamorphosed into a heart-warming comedy-adventure for children of all ages called Hugo, in 3D.

Hugo, unlike The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, is a title that does not inspire or imply anything, it is asinine, dull, timid, and nondescript. It is a blank slate onto which an audience can ascribe whatever attributes they desire. Or none at all. Hugo is hiding a personality very well or hasn't even got one, whereas Hugo Cabaret is clearly an oddball. That is why the name was changed, I am quite sure, and that betrays a dogmatic, slavishly establishment view of what audiences want (nothing with any sort of character!), which I find very disappointing.

The trailer itself is little better. Beautiful crane shots and Steadicam work guide us through a majestic 1930s train station that will look lovely in 3D, but the main action seems to consist of Sacha Baron Cohen falling over, avec the usual trailer cliché of 'inspiring' verbs and adjectives. The same barf-inducing quality is shared with the film's poster, which depicts a large key, sprinkled with fairy dust, inviting audiences to 'open a doorway onto a world' or 'step inside a magical kingdom', or whatever. Because, ultimately, the campaign tells us, Hugo is a window onto whatever wonderful world/forgotten childhood you want it to be.

We will find out what the film is like in - What's in a Name? - Keyword description


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