Wednesday, January 18, 2012

“Hugo”: Broken Machines and Broken People

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Asa Butterfield, left, and Chloe Moretz in a scene from "Hugo."
 (Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)

Hugo is one of Hollywood’s best offerings this Christmas season.

It’s Martin Scorsese’s homage to motion picture pioneer Georges Méliès, inventor of special effects, born 150 years ago on December 8, in Paris; and like Scorsese, a Catholic.  It’s a magical film, not just because, ironically, of its own deft utilization of 3-D special effects, but because of its uplifting message.

Based on the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, far from cheapening human love, Hugo enriches it—love of one’s art, of husband and wife, father and son, and of friends—in this case, the protagonist, an orphan named Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, and Isabelle, living with Méliès and his wife, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who helps Hugo solve a mystery that unlocks not only the film’s mystery—why Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is so crabby; but the mystery of life.

Through the persistence and bravery of Hugo, Méliès finally, after much resistance, realizes “the story’s not over yet.” 

Known for such masterpieces as A Trip to the Moon (1902), Méliès built the first movie studio and produced some 500 short films, but was forced into bankruptcy in 1913.  With the outbreak of World War I, the French Army melted down most of his films to make boot heels for the Army, ending his filmmaking career.

While it is true audiences gradually tired of Méliès’ special effects, given how they overshadowed a story; another factor in his demise was Thomas A. Edison, Inc.’s distribution of A Trip to the Moon without paying Méliès royalties—ironic, given Edison’s own aggressive campaign of enforcement against copyright infringement vis-à-vis his properties.

“He [Méliès] lost basically most of his financing,” Scorsese explained to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “when the bigger companies came in… What happened (is)…  [Thomas Edison and his associates] were just taking the films and making dupes of them. So that was one of the reasons why he [Méliès] was finished financially, ultimately.”

But, then God always brings good out of evil.

With the help of other filmmakers, Méliès became a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse station, made famous by Claude Monet, which is where the film imaginatively brings his story to life.

His nemesis, Hugo, lives behind the walls and above the station, where he ensures the station’s many clocks run on time. It’s a family enterprise; or, at least, was. His father, played by Jude Law, recently deceased, appears in flashbacks; and his Uncle Claude, an inebriate, is soon out of the picture, leaving Hugo to fend for himself.

Hugo comes to Méliès’ shop to steal items for his work and in his quest to repair the automaton his father found at the museum where he worked.  As his father showed him, it’s the missing key that will bring it back to life. Méliès is a stern taskmaster and has little patience for the ruffian who comes to his shop.

Hugo nimbly survives—stealing food; fending off the rigid, buffoonish station inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen; observing the lives of visitors to the station; slipping into the nearby theater to watch silent film classics; and maneuvering the station’s labyrinthine passageways.

One day, Méliès gives him the chance to show his skill at repairing toys and, duly impressed, gives him a job.  That’s how Hugo meets the beguiling Isabelle who “lives” at the station—in the book store, whereupon the mysteries begin to unfold.

The story is particularly poignant for the way it mirrors Scorsese’s own early life, trapped in a world apart from other children in New York’s Little Italy when he suffered from asthma, finding solace in film. He was fascinated by 1950s 3-D films and later helped rescue filmmakers, who like Méliès, had seen better days.

While the 3-D artistry in highlighting mechanical and architectural wonders is enchanting, the real artistry lies in how Scorsese touches hearts.

As Professor Ian Christie of London’s Birkbeck College said, “To look at (Scorsese’s) films without an awareness of their spiritual dimension is to miss an important part of what makes Scorsese one of today’s great artists.”

Ultimately, the film is not about broken machines but broken people, who, with the help of others, can come back to life; and how, in life, as with a clock’s intricate parts, each of us has a unique role to play.

That Hugo is delighting audiences of all ages is testament to its cinematic workmanship, unfolding mystery, and uplifting message.  Not only that, it is delighting critics— winning both Best Picture and Best Director from the National Board of Review, and Best Director from the Washington and Boston film critics associations—and promises more not only at the Oscars but in how it shapes the landscape of filmmaking for years to come.

Published in The Wanderer, January 5, 2012.

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