Monday, November 28, 2011
The New York Times review called it a movie one might expect from the celebrated director. Well, it’s not what I expected.
When my friend Dave Darrow recommends a film, I generally take notice. Hugo jumped to the top of my list. He also included a spoiler alert. “The less you know about this one, the more you’ll enjoy it,” he said.
So, in that spirit, I will suggest here that you stop reading until you’ve seen it – except to add that you ought to buy a 3D ticket. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks. OK. Stop here.
Unless, like me, the more you know, the more you see. These days, serious movies pack significance into every frame. A casual run-through means you probably missed a lot. Another friend, Brandon Cesmat, professor of cinema at the State University in San Marcos, advises his students that any film worth watching at all is worth watching twice. He recommends that the first time you include sub-titles, then watch it again without. (Sadly, this can’t be done in the theater.)
The first surprise, that Martin Scorsese would make a film suitable for children (PG) is followed by the second – that it would have a happy ending (there’s the first spoiler – more to come). For me, great films are not about the surprises, the twists or the sudden shocks that trigger an adrenaline burst. Great films are not predictable either – but are, instead, soul food. They speak to human longing. They capture emotion. They articulate our questions. Our fears. Our hopes and dreams. Our tragedies. Our triumphs. They teach. They lead to discoveries; reveal secrets; bring insight. That silver screen transports us to worlds we would otherwise never know. Some imagined. Some real. Great movies are a process; from beginning to end. Keats said it in poetry: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Some films are just plain beautiful.
Hugo is Scorsese’s tribute to the birth of cinema. Both adults and kids will get it. As the director’s career has matured, he has devoted considerable time and resource to the restoration of otherwise lost film. No surprise, then, that he took special note of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 2007 book by Brian Selznick (cousin to David O., who directed Gone with the Wind in 1939). It is a sort of historical novel that traces the evolution of film making all the way back to one of the most notable cinematic pioneers, Georges Méliès. A Parisian magician, Méliès, fascinated by one of the first projectors invented in 1895, employed his own silent movie creations in his magic act. He developed some of the first “special effects.” You may recall the grainy, jerky, quirky space flight sequence. A missile (that resembles a man-sized bullet) containing a half dozen science wizards is launched from a giant cannon aimed directly at a full moon. As a stunned audience watches from earth, the spacecraft strikes the smiling man in the moon in the eye – a direct hit. It is a lunar landing imagined over a hundred years ago. Some call it the first sci-fi flick. That was Georges Méliès, 1902.
The Great War (WWI) decimated a good portion of Europe, but also Méliès’ entertainment business. Weary of the bloodshed and the devastating ruins, Parisian crowds had little interest in magicians or comedy, much less the shadowy, farcical images projected on a screen in a darkened room. George went bust. His back lot, which once was the scene of wild imagination and intrigue, costuming and outrageous adventure, demons and dragons, mermaids and Greek mythology all went the way of the rubble still smoldering in the battlefield. Demoralized and broke, Méliès set the place ablaze, all the props and costumes and sets lit the night sky in a bonfire that sent his life’s work up in smoke. In the searing heat of the flames, in a tragic moment of deep despair, with the dramatic flair he had once captured on film, he tossed in those old celluloid reels, too.
With what remaining resources he had left, he purchased a little toyshop at the fabled train station at Montparnasse in the heart of Paris. There, he repaired and sold little mechanical toys until, one fateful day, he encountered young Hugo Cabret, whom he recognized immediately as a no-good little thief – a street urchin who, if in London, would have been a main character in a Dickens novel. Hugo, a boy orphaned by his father’s accidental death, worked all the mechanical clocks in the huge turn-of-the-century station, where steam engines transported Parisians all over France and beyond.
Accusing him of theft, and at the same time recognizing his mechanical gift, he forces the boy to work in his shop in exchange for the value of the stolen goods. There, he meets George’s adopted daughter, young Isabelle. She is smart, too. Hugo, street wise, loves to fix things, complicated things. He has an eye for gears and wheels and springs and pulleys and weights and chains, large and small. He finds adventure in the tunnels and on catwalks and the secret hideaways of the train station, watching the world through slots in the clock faces. Isabelle, a couple of years older, is book smart. She finds her adventures in the library and the piled up books that line the shelves – Charles Dickens and John Burrows (The Adventures of Robin Hood). She employs unlikely words like “reprobate” and “clandestine” and “your covert lair.” Too charming.
Their adventure becomes ours. There are chases and train wrecks and nightmares and an ever-foreboding gendarme (the Inspector) who, in spite of his knee brace, must be avoided at every turn. But the centerpiece of the story is an automaton, a mechanical human with a metal face whose innards are a complex combination of music box and clockworks. The steel manikin plays a role, too. He writes with a fountain pen.
The heart-shaped key will be all the explanation you need.
Scorsese may well identify with Méliès who arrives at his latter years – when one reflects on a lifetime of work and wonders, what did it all mean? Who cares? What is really important, after all?
The answer is in Hugo’s eyes. And the brass key in the shape of a heart.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011