Hugo- open love letter to film
Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo is a seemingly simple Dickensian tale suited to the feel-good Christmas Season. Reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Hugo lives a marginal existence in a Parisian train-station Clock Tower, rejected by the travelling community as a petty thief. Initially driving the narrative is a mysterious clockwork automaton, concealing, perhaps, a message from Hugo’s deceased father. And yes, we have our Mr. Bumbles, our festive Scrooges: Ben Kingsley’s cantankerous shop-keeper and Sacha Baron-Cohen’s floundering Station Inspector, both of whom show unreasonable cruelty towards the helpless boy.
From the opening sequence it’s not difficult to foresee Hugo finding his place (cog) in this metaphorical movie machine. After all, this is a “kid’s film”. My two initial doubts related to its main conceit: the automaton. Firstly, having initially read nothing on the film, I was afraid the automaton might literally come to life as a personified Jude Law. My second more sensible fear was that the automaton would ultimately reveal it’s secrets (probably at the end) with a sentimentalised message from beyond the grave helping Hugo find his place (COG!) in society. Neither came into fruition. Instead, the automaton’s revelation came surprisingly early in the first act. Its secrets, however, invite more wonder: what is the meaning behind a sketch of a moon with a missile in his eye?
At this point, it becomes apparent that this is not a kid’s film, but a film made by an elderly cinephile that children ought to find interesting (but sadly may not). The mysterious picture leads Hugo and Isabelle not just to the films of Georges Méliès, but to cinema itself, and by extension, the imagination. This is Hugo’s ultimate revelation. The sentiment relates to the medium too. With the hype surrounding 3D’s future, it seems all too easy to place directors on either side of the proverbial fence. The 3D, impressive at times, isn’t perfect: blurring still occurs with rapid panning and lighting continues to look more appealing without the glasses (just two of many tired criticisms). Scorsese, however, doesn’t offer a polemic supporting the inevitable march from film to a perfected digital 3D. Instead, the picture implies a scenario where old and new techniques are not in conflict: where modern-day “gimmicks” don’t necessitate a disregard for their cinematic origins.
Just take the inclusion of the Lumiere brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1897), where on first screening, as the legend goes, the fair-ground audience flinched at the approaching locomotive. Many have interpreted this as a reminder that the roots of film lie in gimmick. Scorsese doesn’t shy away from using similar basic techniques, best demonstrated in a reverse-shot of the Station Inspector’s dog that reveals him sharing a bath with Baron-Cohen. The effect of the dog’s muzzle pointing out of the screen, staring dumbfounded into the audience, is simply funny.
But cheap gimmick isn’t all the film has to offer. Merger between old and new is just as integral to the plot as it is to the medium. Primarily, as a children’s film, the ending avoids “good guys” triumphing over “bad guys” that prevails in most children narratives. For instance, Méliès’, initially a malicious shop-keeper obstructing Hugo’s adventure becomes the magician whose automaton ultimately inspires it. Take also, the Station Inspector, a character who could have easily been the moral scapegoat, ends up (perhaps less subtly) as Hugo’s saviour. Both characters begin as stereotypes, but become something more humane and rounded. Moreover, they are not inexplicably mean-spirited, but a product of fierce social change (World War I) and a shift in time that altered their own places in society. What they share with Hugo is a sense of alienation.
Like the characters in the film, Scorsese doesn’t throw any punches at the medium he is working with. It is a very liberal love letter not only to the cinema of the past but also to its future prospects. The film’s only tragedy is that stories such as “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) or figures such as Méliès are forgotten, an evident feature of Scorsese’s own Film Foundation and concern with film preservation. For example, the final scene embraces a communication between the film’s constituent parts, where no character is excluded or reprehensible. Despite my initial doubt over the automaton, it remains the key, even within the final shot. Like a camera, it now becomes a passive voyeur observing the celebratory scene. Its clockwork mechanism is predetermined, devoid of imagination or consciousness. However, it seems important that the communal ending and the entire film was derivative of people reacting to the cinematic picture that the automaton was designed to record: a reminder perhaps, that such images have a role to play in the creation of new narratives and cinema’s future development. The only thing reprehensible is if such pictures fade out of memory.