Screening Log #53: Hugo (2011)

Written by John Logan based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, and Sacha Baron Cohen




It should be widely accepted by now that there is no objective sense of history, that history is actually a malleable and dynamic narrative articulated collectively by one, or more, dominant groups of society. History is the story of the past that we give to ourselves. As such all history is, to some extent, revisionist and is inextricably inflected by the medium through which it is being communicated. In their own ways, all mediums of storytelling are means by which we braid our personal histories into the collective thread; novels, comic strips, poetry, visual and performative art, all seek to somehow open a space in the collective narrative whereby the individual can gain access, they are all entry points into a historical collective narrative. This narrative line, being collective, extends necessarily into the past to accommodate its antecedent members, but must also allow room for potential, for speculation and the possible. Here is where the fantastic enters, the strange world of dreams and magic.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, seems to be determined to demonstrate the cinema’s ability to encapsulate all these antecedent mediums of historical expression and involvement. The film follows Hugo, Asa Butterfield, an orphaned child who tends the clocks in Paris’ Gare Montparnasse train station, living in its walls. His father was a clockmaker and passed away in a museum fire, leaving Hugo to live with his inveterate drunk of an uncle who taught him to mind the clocks of the station. Hugo’s only possession left to remind him of his father is an automaton that his father had rescued from the museum where he worked and that they had worked together to try to restore. This project of restoration is continued by Hugo as his only means to maintain connection with his father; the automaton’s purpose is to write and, when repaired, Hugo hopes that what it writes will function as a sort of message from his father.

Having been slowly repairing the automaton, Hugo procures parts from a toy shop in the train station, run by an old man, Ben Kingsley. This old man has a niece, Isabelle, Chloë Grace Moretz, who befriends Hugo after he is caught stealing. The pair exchange interests; Isabelle brings Hugo to a book repository in the station from which she loans books, Hugo sneaks Isabelle into a theatre where she sees her first movie, film being strangely forbidden to her by her uncle. Isabelle also possesses the heart-shaped key Hugo needs to complete his restoration of the automaton, which, upon its reawakening, draws a picture from the first image Hugo’s father had seen in film, the rocket landing in the eye of the moon in Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la lune. Coincidentally, this is also the name of Isabelle’s uncle who has forbidden her to watch films. The pair set about to investigate the history of cinema to uncover who, exactly, Isabelle’s uncle is.

If all of this seems a bit muddled in summary, it is because there is a wide breadth of plot covered by the film, before even mentioning the side plots and romances involving the Station Inspector, Sacha Baron Cohen, and other people who work in the train station. The film lays out much of the material and its connections – such as the narrative connection between books and the cinema, between the cinema and magic and dreams, its brief insistences that the world works like a machine, its barely-there efforts at humour, and too-large swaths of time dedicated to unsuccessfully establishing the station as its own social ecosystem – in a fairly cluttered and indecisive manner. Themes are raised and laid out on the table and then never connected to anything else in a meaningful or intentional manner. I am far from the last person to take issue with ambiguity, but it must be an ambiguity with a sense of purpose beyond covering certain bases established by a novel that is being adapted.

Scorsese employs many of his usual tricks, utilizing many long tracking shots to establish the station and introduce characters in single takes that are technically impressive, if predictable by now. His colour palette of blues is rich, but ultimately the film’s visual sensibilities underwhelm when considering who is behind the camera. Scorsese establishes early the theme of watching as intrinsic to narrative, having Hugo view the station’s population from behind the faces of clocks, however the decision to show the viewer Hugo laughing at a man being attacked by a dog first places him as an unsympathetic – and, perhaps, slightly sociopathically sadistic – voyeur, rather than as a sympathetic figure. Georges Méliès also receives an oddly uningratiating aspect when, while telling the story of his career in movie-making, opines that the first World War changed the desire of the viewing audience, rendering his films out of fashion without any gesture toward the abject horror of the war itself and its larger costs to humanity and the world at large. Surely dreamers such as those that Méliès is aligned with are self-involved, but narcissism to the point of locating the horror of the war around their own decline from the public eye seems solipsistically alienating.

For a film so intent on opening up the history of cinema before the eyes of children, Hugo‘s main faults lie with its predication on, and specious fidelity to, a literary tradition. A decision to excise narrative threads superfluous to its cinematic bent would have resulted in a stronger film. As it stands, Hugo exists as a work that undercuts its own strengths, in a manner verifying its statements about the ability of film through the manner that its uncinematic elements negate its strengths. Regardless of who is writing history, perhaps the lesson to take away from Hugo is that as necessary as dreams and narrative are, one must also retain the services of an efficient editor.

One Response to “Screening Log #53: Hugo (2011)”
  1. catherine says:

    I like what you have wrote about the film, good for those who do not watch or go out to movies.

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