“Wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers ... come and dream with me.”
- Papa Georges
Part One - Go Ahead
The very first thing about this film that I'm obliged to demand of you is to ignore, ignore, ignore all the advertisements and trailers for it. Erase them from your mind. There are some terribly incompetent forces in advertising out there, and every once in a while, they get their hands on a good work and market it out of all recognition. Combine that with the fact that all film advertising is, understandably, supposed to try and cater to that which is popular (and during the holidays it is assumed we like the tawdry Robert Zemeckis styled garishness we've supported at the box office in the past). The end result is that a lovingly crafted, genuinely moving film (like this one) will be advertised as the cheap, cliche-ridden, kitschy irritating eyewash that often does so well at the box office.
(1) A particularly stupid cartoon mutilation of Romeo and Juliet (Gnomeo and Juliet), which is not, by the way, how you introduce your children to Shakespeare. (2) The story of the emotional travails of an overworked larynx belonging to a screeching prepubescent child (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never). (3) A reptilian cartoon western (narrated by an annoying mariachi band of owls by the way) with dialogue written by a 10-year-old (Rango). (4) The tale of a creepy walking corpse (motion-captured) kid who has to rescue his dead-eyed soulless mom from some fairly normal looking cartoon aliens (Mars Needs Moms). (5) Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 - the title says it all. (6) A travesty about (a) an extremely irritating jelly-bean pooping bunny, and (b) a loser whose life dream is to learn how to hop and be a bunny too (Hop). (7) A sequel which replaces the clever humor of the original with fart jokes and gags about getting hit in the crotch (Hoodwinked Too!). (8) An
"Everything has a purpose, even machines. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad: They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people ... I'd imagine the whole world was a machine. Machines don’t come with extra parts, you know."
Hugo is essentially a film about the power of the imagination. My saying this might sound nice, but good luck getting far with a phrase like that. The “power of the imagination” could be an easy cliche, but while it’s easy to like, in a few minutes let’s take what the idea means a little farther. Scorsese takes us here into an eye-catching train station in a cold and snowy Paris. The film’s protagonist, Hugo, is a parentless child who lives inside the walls of the train station, caring for, fixing and winding the station's large collection of clocks. Thus we are taken into a world of secret passages, tunnels, small twisting hallways, hidden rooms, winding staircases, little windows, mazes of drain pipes, steam pipes, fog, mist and snow. This is why watching the film in 3D is worth it - once Hugo climbs into the gears, shafts, swinging pendulums, wheels, parts, hanging ladders and intricate clockwork, it’s enough alone to keep you spellbound.
Another part of the magic of this story consists entirely with the well-built characters. Rarely does a film develop its entire cast of characters to something other than cardboard cutout stereotypes, but Hugo makes every character important. Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) plays Hugo, and it’s his best role to date - he gives the character a passionate energy that other child actors struggle even to hint at. With Scorsese’s penchant for using the same actors through a whole series of films, you can’t help but look forward to what he could find for Butterfield next. And I'm not the most sympathetic of film goers when it comes to child characters. I have a bad habit of finding them annoying enough to wreck a film. But Butterfield's intensity makes his philosophic lines later in the film entirely believable. He makes you end up wanting to believe what he believes.
Isabelle: “How about letting me see your covert lair.”
Hugo: “My what?”
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Sweeney Todd) is the station inspector, who, if not the villain of the story, is still the foil for Hugo's self-surviving thieving ways. Cohen brings his comedic talents for delivering most of Inspector Gustav's lines ("His hand was trespassing in a paper bag with the intent of removing its contents" ... "Are they, are they ... are they smelly? Are they smelly flowers?" ..."He is disturbed by your physio-cology.
Jude Law has a cameo appearance as Hugo's clockmaker father. Helen McCrory (Harry Potter) has a small but well nuanced and sweet turn as the toymaker's wife. Ray Winstone (The Departed, King Arthur) is Hugo's cigar-smoking, drunk uncle. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) relishes an enthusiastic turn as a historian. The rest of the cast makes up the colorful and enjoyable characters that inhabit the train station.
Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island, Dear Frankie) is the flower stand girl. Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter) is the owner of the newspaper stand. Frances de la Tour (Harry Potter) is the owner of the French cafe/bakery/pastry shop. Scorsese allows us to watch all these characters as Hugo watches them. They are the life of the train station and you enjoy watching them interact as much as Hugo does. There are even two ongoing potential romances in the station, but one of them is thwarted by the inopportune squeaking of a leg brace while the other is obstructed (as many a romance often is) by the bad-temper of a highly suspicious little dog.
And then, we have what is probably the best performance of the entire film, but more on him later ...
First, let's take another look at the possible cliche of this being a story about the power of the imagination. Genuine imagination, as I hinted at in the first three paragraphs, is fairly rare in our modern day culture. The greatest story tellers, either from today or back in history, are always those story tellers with the largest and most compelling imaginations. This idea reminded me of an essay that one of them wrote "On Stories."
It's an idea that has to do with the exercise of the imagination or the lack thereof. The idea is this - there is something about a good story that is far more important than merely how exciting the dangers are, or how erotic the sensuality is, or how quantitative the violence, death or destruction is. When a story awakens our imaginations, it isn't because of how many gags or how much slapstick, violence, sex, death or danger that the storyteller can manages to cram all into one film or book.
Lewis writes that, when thinking about good stories -
"... nearly everyone makes the assumption that ‘excitement’ is the only pleasure they ever give or are intended to give. Excitement, in this sense, may be defined as the alternate tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety. This is what I think untrue. In some such books [or stories], and for some readers [or film goers], another factor comes in." (pg. 6)
Well, alright, but that is a little difficult for me to understand. I tend to judge a film or book by how well it appeals to my emotions. Films that excite me or tug at my heartstrings seem superior to me than the ones which don't.
C.S. Lewis continues -
"No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks ([for instance] that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than [oh say] the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement ..." (pg. 5)
You can, for example, have two authors or filmmakers tell the exact same story, with the exact same dangers and villains, and one will affect your imagination and the other will not. The degree of excitement that a film gives you is distinct from the imaginative power of the same film. Lewis even wonders "whether the ‘excitement’ may not be an element actually hostile to the deeper imagination." (pg. 10) This is because the kind of pleasure that a good story can give you is misunderstood ... by most of us.
The antagonist in the film, in fact, really turns out to be nothing more than life itself, with all the pain, loss, suffering, disappointments, problems and unsatisfied longings that it brings us. The real danger Hugo faces is that of being lost, alone and disillusioned with the fate that life has given him (like another different person in the film).
"There are things you are too young to understand. You should not know such sadness."
- Mama Jeanne
But Scorsese doesn't need to add arbitrary dangers or villains in order to make Hugo into a good and imaginative story, "stuck on," as Lewis complains, often "to make the narrative more sensational." (pg. 12) Another common storytelling distinction that critics like to make is the difference between reality and fiction. But if this film is really exploring the power of the imagination, then we need to distinguish between the imagination and something else. Imaginative storytelling can make use of both reality and fiction together or separately. So how do we distinguish that which is Non-imaginative storytelling?
Beauty, Scruton writes:
"True art appeals to the imagination, whereas effects elicit fantasy. Imaginary things are pondered, fantasies are acted out. Both fantasy and imagination concern unrealities; but while the unrealities of fantasy penetrate and pollute our world, thsoe of the imagination exist in a world of their own, in which we wander freely and in a condition of sympathetic detachment.
Modern society abounds in fantasy objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfilment to our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them. A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, nor a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum - an image from which all veils of hesitation have been torn away ... The ideal fantasy is perfectly realized, and perfectly unreal - an imaginary object that leaves nothing to the imagination ... Imagined scenes, by contrast, are not realized but represented; they come to us soaked in thought, and in no sense are they surrogates, standing in place of the unobtainable. On the contrary, they are deliberately placed at a distance ..." (pgs. 104-105)
"Through the work of art, by contrast, we encounter a world of real, vulnerable and living people, which we can enter only by an effort of the imagination, and where we, like they, are on trial ... The matter of imagination is not realized but represented; it comes to us, as a rule heavily masked by thought ...
The Greeks knew what our cineastes have since discovered - that the portrayal of sex and violence is the natural object of fantasy, and slides of its own accord from realism to realisation. Hence it disrupts the work of the imagination ... [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge described the posture of the reader (and therefore the spectator in the theatre) as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He should have written a ‘willing suspension of belief’: all pleasure and emotion depend on knowing that the action on stage is unreal. And the spectators enter this unreality by an act of will, not in search of surrogates for their own desires, but in order to explore a world that is not their own."
- Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 56-57
But our personal tastes do not determine how imaginative a storyteller or filmmaker is. Neither do the they determine if any given film is actually only offering us cheap visceral thrills (like Jackass or Saw) which essentially consists of fantasy offered for the every so transient stimulation of our appetites by filmmakers who ramp up the degrees of danger to infinite excess in order to merely offer the greatest quantitative amount of excitement possible. The result? A bad story that will not appeal to your imagination. Look, if the general public is willing to pay for trite cliches, then trite cliches is exactly what the market will give them. But there is a danger here. And the danger is that the market forces which we create by our own demands will eliminate those who offer us imaginative work instead.
Part Two - If You Haven’t Seen the Film Yet, Stop Reading, and Go See It (Spoilers Ahead)
"And in some way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure for the actual.
It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books.’ I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty - except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for creme de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey." (C.S. Lewis, pg. 14)
This brings us to the best actor cast in Hugo, and of course, it’s Ben Kingsley, who hasn’t been given a role this good for years. As the historical character, Georges Melies, Kingsley fully encompasses the character of a disillusioned old man oppressed by an overwhelming sadness. It's not until the last third of the film that the reason for his sadness is slowly revealed. It turns out that Isabelle's Papa Georges is one of the first pioneer filmmakers of history. He used to be happy as an artist who was constantly inspired by mythological and magical worlds, creatures and monsters. His past as a magician led him to be absolutely enchanted by his first encounter with the Lumiere Brothers and their use of the new invention called film (a meeting that really happened, btw).
automatons. He really made over 500 films (the majority of which were fairy tales). He created a studio made entirely out of glass. He would add color to his films by hand-painting every single frame. He starred in most of his own films, cast his wife in them, and did all his own stunts. The increasingly modernized culture after the war rejected his films. He went bankrupt. Almost all of his carefully and lovingly crafted 500+ films were sold and melted down into boot heels. With the little he had left, he ended up working a little toyshop in a train station. (See io9's What Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Taught Us About the Grandfather of Science Fiction Film, Georges Méliès.)
"... The filmmaker, George Melies, was one of the first to realize that films had the power to capture dreams ..."
- book from the library
Like the machines Hugo is used to fixing, Melies really is broken. And, against all odds, Hugo decides that he is interested in fixing a broken person. It is hard to come up with a better adventure than that - figuring out how to fix broken people. In the imaginative world that this story gives us, we are presented with this idea. And it's an idea that no amount of fantasy to satisfy our appetites or higher degrees of danger could offer us. It's a simple idea, but it's one powerful enough to stir our own imaginations regarding the possibilities that lie in our own real lives.
"Happy endings only happen in the movies."
- Georges Melies
If you look at the majority of films Hollywood currently gives us to meet our own demand, the modern society that rejects Georges Melies in Hugo is not too far removed from our own. While it's getting mostly good reviews, during Thanksgiving Weekend, more Americans still went to see Twilight, Happy Feet Two and Arthur Christmas than Hugo.
Melies taste for the fairy tale is not a taste shared by the majority of consumers (in his day or in our day). The imaginative world that Scorsese crafts for this film, while like a fairy tale, doesn't even have any actual magic in it. But it still is a direct appeal to your imagination. Imaginative stories affect us differently that mere exercises into self-pleasing fantasy. When Scruton writes, in his book Modern Culture, that -
"Although the passions suffered in the theatre are imaginary, they are guided by a sense of reality. The passions of the imagination do not precede their object; they are responses to imagined situations and evolve and develop as our understanding grows ... Since imaginative emotions are responses, they are determined by their imaginary objects. They arise out of, and are controlled by, an understanding of the world. And to exercise this understanding is to take an interest in truth. The questions arise: are things really like that? Is it plausible? Is my response exaggerated? Am I being invited to feel what I should not feel? Such questions are the life of imagination, and also the death of fantasy, which withers as soon as its object is granted independent life or subjected to interrogation." (pg. 58)
Melies' work arose from his imagination, and the result was admittedly a large collection of completely unrealistic films. But, as C.S. Lewis constantly reminded us, unrealistic imaginative fairy tale worlds can approach truths and ideas in ways that other works and stories cannot. Scorsese lovingly shows us bits from Melies' most famous surviving film, Le Voyage dans la lune, the world he has imagined is veritably magical. This does something for us.
"If some fatal progress of applied science ever enables us in fact to reach the Moon, that real journey will not at all satisfy the impulse we now seek to gratify by writing such stories. The real Moon, if you could reach it and survive, would in a deep and deadly sense be just like anywhere else. You would find cold, hunger, hardship, and danger; and after the first few hours they would be simply cold, hunger, hardship, and danger as you might have met them on Earth. And death would be simply death among those bleached craters as it is simply death in a nursing home at Sheffield. No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden." (pg. 12)
Being capable of enjoying one of Melies' fairy tales gives one the ability to look on the real world as just a bit enchanted as well. This is a valuable ability. The world after World War I lost this ability and this is why Melies life work was destroyed. Hugo and Isabelle, in spite of their lives and having lost their parents, still, like most unspoiled children, believe in the goodness of this ability. This is why they are delighted when their investigation uncovers the pictures and illustrations from Melies' imagination hidden and locked away from everyone. This is why the historian, Rene Tabard, has made his life work studying and preserving the history of film. His imagination was woken, never to slumber again, when he was exposed to Melies' glass palace of a movie studio as a child.
"It is, of course, a good test for every reader of every kind of book. An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks this settles the matter? Yet I think the test has a special application to the matter in hand. For excitement, in the sense defined above, is just what must disappear from a second reading. You cannot, except at the first reading, be really curious about what happened. If you find that the reader of popular romance - however uneducated a reader, however bad the romances - goes back to his old favourites again and again, then you have pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.
The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood ... In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ‘surprise’ of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia." (pgs. 17-18)
peripeteia: a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative. (Oxford English Online Dictionary)
"But although imagination is, in this way, informed by a sense of reality, it need not represent the world as it is. On the contrary - the imagination idealises, ennobles, embellishes, and re-presents the world. And it does so in a believable way, since (paradoxically) we can suspend belief only in the presence of the believable. Aristotle made the point in the Poetics. Poetry, he argued, does not tolerate the improbable, but it can tolerate the impossible, provided the impossible is also believable (as Ovid’s impossible metamorphoses are believable). The ennobling power of the imagination lies in this: that it re-orders the world, and re-orders our feelings in response to it.
Fantasy, by contrast, is frequently degrading. For it begins from the premise of a given emotion, which it can neither improve nor criticize but only feed. It is a slave of the actual, and deals in forbidden goods. Where imagination offers glimpses of the sacred, fantasy offers sacrilege and profanation." (Scruton, pgs. 59-60.)
Tastes and fashions are always changing. But imaginative art can always appeal to that part of us that is lasting. There are different ways of looking at the world. The young Melies looked at the world in one way. The old disillusioned Melies looked at the world in another way. Hugo, Isabelle, and hopefully the rest of us, prefer the one to the other. It follows that it is worth making an effort to cultivate and preserve that which is of lasting and of meaningful value, that which has the potential to ennoble and inspire - a lesson not too often found in a modern film for children.
"It was the kindest magic trick that ever I’d seen."
- Papa Georges
Other relevant links:
senses of cinema - Georges Melies
Ransom Fellowship - Insight into Film: Lumière v. Méliès, A Cinematic Dichotomy
Crosswalk - Review by Christian Hamaker
Christianity Today - Review by David Roark