Friday, March 09, 2012

The Invention of Dreams - The Themes of Martin Scorsese's Hugo - Part I

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I love poetry, just not in the station.- the Station Inspector
As I've written before, Martin Scorsese's film Hugo has captured my imagination more than any film I've seen in a very long time.  Although it had more Academy Award nominations - 11 - than any other film this year, and won 5 in technical categories, it's been written off as a visually sumptuous, charming fairy tale.  And that it is.  But I think Hugo is much more.  I think it will eventually be seen in the same category as such films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Bringing up Baby, perceived as little more than well-crafted entertainments at the time of their release, but now recognized as work of arts with exceptional thematic depth.

I find Hugo to be an astonishing film, far richer and far more complex than the press coverage would indicate.  To me, Hugo is an incredible meditation, asking more questions than it answers, on the relationship between time and art, imagination and the everyday, and the manufactures of man and how they redefine and reshape our humanity.

Judge for yourself.  Hugo has just been released on video, but this week - perhaps for the last time - you can still see Hugo as it's meant to be seen, in 3D and on a big screen - at the AMC River East and a handful of other multiplexes throughout Chicago.  Try to catch it while you still can, and feel free to write an abusive comment if you're disappointed.  In any event, I'd recommend that if you intend to see the film, you hold off reading the following discussion until afterward.  You have been warned!, as says the Lorax.

I've been wrestling with the meaning of Hugo since I first saw it last November.  It's time to lay out my cards.  It's almost midnight, so I won't finish tonight, but let's at least start . . .

"Time . . .," mutters the shambling drunkard Uncle Claude, as he contemplates his stopwatch, ". . .  my time is . . . 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour.  Time is everything . . . everything",  he says as he stands with Hugo beside the grave of his father.

You can't mistake time as the overriding theme of Hugo.  Young Hugo Cabret's face is first seen from behind the great clock of the Gare Montparnasse, watching the goings-on of the great railroad station through the empty space where he has removed the numeral "four".  We first see the old man at the toy booth as Hugo observes him from behind another clock.  When the old man - we'll eventually learn he's actually the famed French film pioneer Georges Méliès - looks up, the reflection of the round clock face briefly replaces the iris of his eye.   Time is everywhere.  Even during the climatic scene at the old man's apartment, if you listen closely, you'll hear a clock quietly ticking throughout.

Time as we know it today is largely a creation of the railroads so central to Hugo.   Setting departures and arrivals down to the very minute, and the creation of standard time zones, were essential to publishing dependable train schedules, the literature of a new age.  It brought a new level of precision to a conception of time that, down to our own time, has become a pervasive bedrock to experiencing our lives.

Time is Hugo's job.  He lives behind the walls of the great station, in a forgotten apartment and steampunkt maze of passageways, ladders that includes  a corkscrew chute straight out of Lady from Shanghai.

In flashback, we see a scrubbed-clean Hugo living a modest middle class life with his widowed clockmaker father, Jude Law, who one day brings home an incredible automaton, a mechanical figure shaped in human form, such as the "Draughtsman-Writer" built by Henri Mailardet in 1800.  In the 19th century such mechanisms were a mainstay of many of the best magician's acts.  The special trick of the automaton in Hugo, with its metallic, humanoid head reminiscent of the robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, is the ability to write, but its incredibly complex internal clockworks is in shambles.  Hugo's father promises that together they can fix it, solve it.  He contemplates a heart-shaped keyhole at the base of the automaton's neck.  "Another complication," he says, ". . . another mystery."  "That makes you happy," observes Hugo.
Hugo is polishing the automaton when Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) bursts into the apartment. "There's been a fire.  Your father's dead," he announces unceremoniously, sweeping Hugo away so quickly that the only thing he takes with him is the automaton, the last link to his father.  After training Hugo to help him wind the station's many clocks, Uncle Claude disappears, and that job becomes Hugo's alone.  Hugo is completely alone.  He steals food from the cafe, and clockwork parts from the old man in the toy booth to help bring the automaton back to life.
Waiting room, Union Station, Chicago
Railroad stations - like airports - are best known as places of anonymity, but out of the anonymous, cattle-like stream of commuters, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives vicariously, an orphan flaneur, by observing his impromptu "family" of the station's permanent residents: the faithful doberman Maximillian, sidekick to the menacing Station Inspector (Sascha Baron Cohen), who papers his office walls with mug shots of the orphans he's captured in the station, who pines from afar for the flower seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the cafe keeper Madame Emillie (Frances de la Tour), the News agent Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) who pines for Madame Emillie, the stern but kindly bookseller Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), the old man at the toy booth, and his young godniece Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who soon becomes Hugo's comrade in arms.

Inevitably, time marries to motion.  Orson Welles once famously described making a motion picture as "the biggest electric train set a boy ever had."  Nowhere has this been more dramatically demonstrated than in Hugo's spectacular opening shot, created by Industrial Light and Magic.  The first sound we hear, over the Paramount logo, is the chugging of a locomotive, followed by the faint sound of ticking clockwork.  The first thing we see is the movement of that clockwork, a massive and intricate interlocking collection of giant gears around a central drive shaft.  The drive shaft morphs into the Arc de Triomphe, and the clockwork into Paris itself, the headlights of traffic on the boulevards radiating out from the sun -  Place de l'Étoile,-  soon abstracting into sheer pulses of light streaming through the city like corpuscles of blood through the arteries of the human body.  Motion is the measure of life.

A blogger unimpressed with Hugo cited the fact that, despite the story being set in Paris, the major players almost all speak with British accents, and that in Hugo the art form is referred to as "movies" - an American term - rather than "film", the appropriate European counterpart.

Really, though, which is most appropriate?  "Film" refers to the physical medium.  "Movies" refers to the most central characteristic of the form - it moves.   It moves continuously.  For the first time in history, the seamlessness of human consciousness is replicated in art.  Suitably, the book from which Hugo and Isabelle first learn the origin of the drawing made by the repaired automaton has as its title The Invention of Dreams, by René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg).  "If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from," Méliès , in a flashback, tells Stuhlberg as a child transfixed as he watches the production of a film set beneath the sea, "you look around.  This is where they're made."
Might the way we dream today actually be different from the way we dreamed before the movies?  Could our prolonged exposure to cinematic montage affected how our unconscious parses out the experience of life during our sleeping hours?

Midnight strikes. Time, Time . . .  More later . . .


Andrew Patner said...

Wow! I skipped the body of this, Lynn, until I see the film which I am going to do now thanks to your post!

All best,


marcellus powell said...

An awesome movie! More than just about dreams, it's about finding your purpose. Everyone should see this movie!