Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hugo & Worlds Within Worlds

Hugo is director Martin Scorsese's first 3-D film about an orphaned boy, mechanically inclined, who lives within the infrastructure of the 1930s Paris Montparnasse train station. His father (Jude Law) was a clock maker and worked for a museum, where he found an automaton he and Hugo were attempting to repair before a fire at the museum killed the father. Hugo was then taken in by Uncle Claude who wound and repaired all the clocks in the station and taught Hugo how to do it and then abandoned him. Hugo took the automaton with him to the station after his father's death and continued working on it; he's caught one day, stealing parts from Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy store in the station, but before World War I, he had been the film maker who created such cinematic treasures as A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. Hugo discovers that Georges was the one who had built the automaton and is adopted by him.
Original theatrical poster. Hugo, hanging from the hands of the clock, invokes the great Buster Keaton which is a film watched by Hugo and Isabelle earlier in the film. If you enjoy finding references to films within films, this might be a good one for you.
After consideration, I have to tell you the truth: I just didn't think this was a good film. On Rotten Tomatoes 93% of critics and 87% of viewers enjoyed the film so I am obviously in the vast minority here, but because I didn't think it was a good film, that makes it difficult to write about it. There is a basic rule in film making: show the story, don't tell it. The reason this is a good rule to adhere to is that telling the audience something slips into a documentary (documentaries tell us what it is we should know about something) but when there is a story, we should be shown what it is the story wants to tell us; it breaks the style of story-telling (and reveals a bad story-teller) when you abandon the story format and instead tell instead of show. This is what Scorsese does in Hugo (to me, at least). There is nothing dogmatically or metaphysically objectionable to the film or anything poisonous, I just wish I hadn't wasted my money seeing it.
Hugo, the automaton and Isabelle.
The most fruitful position to take to the story, perhaps, is that of what Chaos Theory teaches us: there are worlds within worlds and there is an equilibrium, a zero point, at which everything is in a perfect state of harmony. The world of gears and a "dream within a dream" points to the mechanical workings of our own world, with, as St. Thomas Aquinas would describe, the Divine Clockmaker being the intelligent designer of not only the earth, but our individual purposes and destinies as well. It's an interesting way for Scorsese to reluctantly concede that God exists and we can know he exists because "there aren't any unnecessary parts" in a clock, so there aren't any unnecessary people in the world, we all have a purpose.
One of the visual examples of a world within a world, Hugo, the watch-keeper within the mechanical workings of the clock (the maker is greater than the created even though he didn't make the clock he keeps it wound and working). Next he's out, grabbing to the hands of the clock like Buster Keaton, so that invokes a film within a film.
Scorsese employs the "world within worlds" even further.
There is a dream sequence of Hugo being caught within the train tracks and a train coming straight at him, derailing and destroying the station. Where else have we seen a trail derail? Christopher Nolan's thriller Inception; but the similarities go even further. After the train de-rails, Hugo wakes up and looks at the automaton, opens his nightshirt and sees that he himself is starting to become mechanical, then he wakes up again. It was Inception which taught us about "dreams within dreams," and the old filmmaker seems to be saluting the younger filmmaker.
Photograph of the actual train wreck from October 1895.
Yet the derailment also invokes history.
In October, 1895, a train in the Montparnasse station actually derailed (photograph above) and Scorsese replicates this image perfectly in Hugo. Why is knowing about all this important? It's part of the showing of a story and not just the telling; this is why symbols speak a language, they help filmmakers to show instead of tell. The train derailment shows us how our own lives derail and go out of control, destroying everything, but even that is within the Designs of the Clockmaker.
In this scene, Hugo and Isabelle watch Buster Keaton hanging onto the clock, which Hugo will do himself. Hugo references Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood, all the works of Georges Melies, Inception and the works of Buster Keaton, just to name a few. Appearances by the great Christopher Lee also sites his vast body of work and Scorsese himself makes a cameo as a photographer taking the picture of Melies in front of his glass studio.
There are several orphans in the film: Hugo himself, Isabelle (whose godparents are Papa Georges and his wife) and the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Why are orphans so prevalent? I think it's meant to draw attention to the parents we do have: Georges Milies and other filmmakers. The film seems to be mostly about what Martin Scorsese likes, and Hugo seems to a double for Scorsese, finding his parents in film making, which would include Georges Milies. Another way to look at it, is we are all orphans because God the Father is dead and Holy Mother Church is dead. Although there are no overt references to God in the film, I don't think Scorsese has that agenda in Hugo.
Station Inspector and his dog, Maximilian.
The Station Inspector has a mechanical leg (a wound from World War I that won't heal) and, to me, that invokes the original Burgomeister in Frankenstein and Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein. The mechanical leg symbolizes that it is a "will other than his own" prompting him to act as he does (policies of the station and the post-war attitude of cold-heartedness).
Hugo with Georges in the toy store learning magic tricks
In summary, if you want to go and see the film, please do, most people like it and I won't hesitate to confess that I just don't like Scorsese; he's been in the film making industry for so long that he should be respectful of the difference between stories and documentaries, and instead, he seems to be mocking it because he's the "great Scorsese." There are plenty of magic tricks in the film, but the film isn't magic to me.