To judge from the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s newest movie, you’d think that he’d just been paid a wagonload of cash to direct the latest moronic children’s film. When you see that it’s a 3D movie, you begin to wonder if there is a God in this lonely world. After building a distinguished career as America’s primer director of films definitely for adults – not adult films – we associate Scorsese with violence and grit; it is nearly impossible to imagine him making something suited for the entire family. Even The Age of Innocence, one of the rare Scorsese titles to be given a PG rating, is not something that anyone under the age of 18 would bother with. So here comes Hugo, a movie starring kids and a movie sold to kids in the previews. But despite its target audience, or maybe because of it, Hugo is a movie that any intelligent adult should be able to appreciate. It is about the young, who have so many dreams to dream; and it is also about the old, who have dreamt all their dreams away. It is a movie that only an old man could’ve made.
A word of advice before we go any further.. Don’t bother with the 3D glasses. Though Scorsese is subtle in his use of the technique, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from donning any idiotic eyewear. In fact, given the film’s distinctly cinematic subject matter, the movie is best viewed in 2D – the preferred number of dimensions throughout most of film history. Scorsese made this movie because he has a 12 year old daughter who isn’t prepared to see Taxi Driver or Casino. And at his daughters request, Hugo can be seen in the most unnecessary movie trend of the day. If you feel like forking over an extra 3 or 4 bucks for those glasses, then have at it; but know that you will see the same movie without them.
The setting of Hugo is a dream. Yes, it’s also Paris circa 1930, but it is a dream Paris, made almost entirely of the inside of clock. The gears and parts that enable these clocks to keep their time are never dirty in this movie; in fact they seem to glow and glisten as though they were part of the ether. Even the grease smudges that appear on Hugo’s face seem clean. Hugo, you see, is a keeper of clocks. The clocks in the Paris train station run because he performs routine daily maintenance on them while his uncle – the man who actually holds the job – drinks himself silly. When Hugo looks out over the Paris that is just outside his world of clocks, it is a computer generated painting; all light and beauty. It is as if Hugo watches over a magical kingdom. And as Hugo looks out on this dream Paris from inside his giant machine, he dreams.
His dreams, though, are mostly about a machine. While Hugo isn’t keeping the clocks running, he is a station urchin in search of mechanical parts to fit an automaton (robot that sits at a desk and writes stuff) that his father had found in a museum shortly before dying in said museum’s fire. The automaton, which happens to look a bit like a miniature version of Maria from Metropolis, is Hugo’s only link to his dead father. Hugo is a lonely boy. The automaton is broken. Hugo had been working on it with his father and now he works on it by himself. The mechanical parts that he thieves are for the robot. The boy believes that if he can get the robot to work, it will send him a message from his deceased father. Hugo steals food, too, but we get the sense that he would be willing to go hungry in exchange for all the right parts to his broken machine.
All of this is fiction. Where Hugo moves beyond its sentimental, orphan boy, Hallmark drivel is when it connects its fiction to something that really was happening in Paris circa 1930. Hugo manages, unaware, to steal some of his mechanical parts from Georges Melies, the owner of a toy/magic shop in the train station. We are given the name Georges Melies within the first few scenes of the film, and so an audience will be divided early on – there are those who already know who Melies was and those who don’t. Those who know will be fully aware of where Hugo‘s plot is moving, but they will be delighted enough in the direction that they should not lose interest; those who do not know Melies will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the big deal is about, but there is enough pleasure in that task to get one through to the revelation.
It is better to know ahead of time, but if you’d prefer to keep out of the know, skip this paragraph and the next. The big deal is that Georges Melies was one of the great pioneers of cinema. This magician-turned-director churned out over 500 movies during the early days of silent cinema, most of them fantastical adventures to places as wild as the moon or the depths of the ocean. Melies employed lavish sets and stuck almost exclusively to a straight on tableaux style. We might think of him as the Jules Verne of cinema. Melies achieved great success in his early years, but fell into financial ruin as silent film progressed in formal innovation but not in copyright laws. By the time silent cinema had turned into sound, Melies had only his toy shop, nearly destitute, unrecognized and unwanted. He was discovered, though, and promptly paraded around by the French cinephiles of the day. Today he is widely recognized as one of the most important early filmmakers and his films, the nearly 80 that still exist, can be seen on DVD with any simple Netflix account.
One has to imagine, as Hugo does, that by the time Melies had reached his lowest point, he had become embittered towards the medium that he had helped to create and that he would be willing to betray the cinema just as it had betrayed him. If Melies is to love movies again, it must be through Hugo, the automaton, and his goddaughter Isabelle.
Hugo, no surprise given its director, is a wild love poem to the silent cinema. Scorsese, one of our greatest cinephiles, takes grand pleasure in imagining those rapturous moments of discovery in those heady early years. Hugo’s father, before he died, took the young boy to the movies often. Hugo, in turn, introduces Isabelle to the world of film when he sneaks her into a screening of Safety Last! After being kicked out of the theatre for their trespasses, these young children make out for the library to learn about the movies and eventually to discover exactly who Georges Melies is. This sequence, as they flip through the library volume is one of the most incredible in all of Scorsese’s work. The pages flip through iconic image after iconic image, seeming burst out of the screen with orgasmic force. Overwhelmed by the sheer power of this sequence, you may begin to feel the rest of the movie become dim and foggy in your mind.
In that sequence were dreams, pasted up on to celluloid, projected on to screens. The earliest moviegoers were dumbfounded when the train coming toward them on the screen didn’t pop out and roll right over them. They imagined three dimensions when there were only two. They saw the unreal in the real. It was so close to reality that it gave them a freight. And when they realized that there was no danger or threat, they found themselves filled with pleasure. The dream was in the machinery of cinema and the machine was in the dream. The two things coexisted and fed off of each other. In Hugo there is no boundary between the real and the cinema, the machine and the dream.