This was supposed to be a weekend when ground zero for Southern California movie lovers was Hollywood, site of the AFI Fest.
But Martin Scorsese exerts a gravitational pull all his own. So on Saturday afternoon, the action shifted to downtown Los Angeles for a couple of hours, where the Regal multiplex drew nearly 1,000 fans and industryites eager for a look at Scorsese's 3D adventure "Hugo," which had previously screened only in a work-in-progress version at the New York Film Festival.
Throw in a post-screening Q&A with Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Robert Richardson, composer Howard Shore and visual effects superviser Robert Legato, moderated by director Paul Thomas Anderson, and you had a three-hour slice of movie nirvana (plus 39 Oscar nominations and a dozen wins on one stage).
And in a way, movie nirvana is what "Hugo" aims to be. An adaptation of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," a children's book by Brian Selznick, in Scorsese's hands it is less a children's story than a knowing and glorious tribute to early cinema from a master moviemaker who also happens to be a master movie-lover.
If Michel Hazanavicius's "The Artist" is a charming salute to and return to the days of silent film, "Hugo" looks at the same era in a way that is fresh and joyous and, for much of its running time, the most magical moviegoing experience I've had in a very long time.
The film has its slow stretches and clunky moments, and it'll be an odd duck to market: It's partly an adventure tale about a kid who lives in a huge Paris train station, and partly a (fictionalized) story about the silent film pioneer Georges Melies (played by a marvelous Ben Kingsley).
Not a kids' movie, not an art film, not a typical Scorsese effort and not necessarily an Academy movie (more on that in a minute), "Hugo" is instead a big shiny ball of imagination, invention and cinematic wonder. From my vantage point, it's simple: Anybody who loves movies needs to see it.
And a few hours after the downtown screening, a big room full of folks who presumably love the movies gave "Hugo" their own stamp of approval. The film had its official Academy screening at AMPAS' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Saturday night — and according to a couple of members in attendance, the response was extremely positive, with sustained applause and a strong buzz in the room afterwards.
(Attendance, though, was not as big as it had been for some other recent Academy screenings, including "The Help" and "Moneyball." One possible reason for the lower turnout: the audience at Saturday afternoon's all-guild screening and Q&A included close to 100 Academy members.)
Back at that downtown screening earlier in the day, Scorsese was introduced by Anderson as "the heavyweight champ." The director used some of the 40-minute Q&A to detail the intricacies of filming in 3D, which he said was "arduous but most of the time a good deal of fun." (Wim Wenders' "Pina" might be a more vital use of the process, but "Hugo" is the most brilliantly playful use of 3D I've seen.)
Shooting in 3D slowed down his usual workflow, Scorsese said, though he and Schoonmaker ended up editing the film switching between 3D and 2D monitors, despite the pain of taking those glasses on and off while working. But he dismissed worries about the move toward 3D, and said that the technology is "just another element to tell a story."
And, he added, it'll likely be followed by more and newer elements.
"We’re all headed, if everything moves along and there's no major catastrophies, we're basically headed toward holograms," Scorsese said. "Why can't you have [a] 3D [movie where] Hamlet comes out into the middle of the audience and does 'to be or not to be?' They do in the theater. Why can't you have it in a movie theater, or at home?"
In the meantime, he said, he's simply using the tools that are now available to deliver what moviegoers always wanted to see.
"The first time images started to move, immediately people wanted color, sound, big screen, and depth," he said. "And that's just what we're doing now."