Friday, February 24, 2012
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths
Frances de la Tour, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz
Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee
During a not so seemingly special moment in Hugo, the eponymous protagonist (Butterfield) and his friend Isabelle (Moretz) sit in a movie theater as they proceed to watch a film. That familiar clickety-clack sounds fill the air and then the camera focuses not on the movie being displayed but on the projector's light from which the images emanate. For a second or so, particularly because of the film being in 3D, audience members will undoubtedly feel as if they are the figures being projected. If cinema is life and god is but the projectionist changing the reels, then no other movie has captured this spiritual connection like Hugo.
Directed by the one and only Martin Scorsese (a god among filmmakers to continue with the metaphysical argot) the film is an adaptation of Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and centers its attention on the title character, an orphan living clandestinely in the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. After the death of his father, the little boy moved to the station where he's accidentally in charge of maintaining the clocks while trying to repair a mysterious automaton left behind by his father.
Convinced that the curious contraption will reveal a message from his late father, he spends night and day trying to make it work, in the meantime stealing food and supplies from the station's various inhabitants. Scorsese (along with the majestic work of production designer Dante Ferretti) creates a microcosms in which the little boy moves around like a Dickensian hero, trying to stay away from the cartoonish Inspector Gustave (Cohen) and thoroughly fascinated by an enigmatic toy store owner who simply goes by the name of Papa Georges (Kingsley).
To reveal more plot points would be sinful but it's more than enough to say that Hugo along with Georges' goddaughter Isabelle, embark on an adventure to unlock the secrets of the automaton which leads them to a remarkable discovery.
Less obsessed with the telling of the story than with the universe that it tries to recreate, Scorsese too sets out on an adventure that's equally moving, didactic and thoroughly enchanting. Eventually the plot involves the creation of cinema and particularly the pioneer works of Georges Méliès who we are told was one of the first artists who realized films were the essence of dreams.
On the surface Hugo seems to be a simple story about finding your place in life - its protagonist thinks that a life without purpose is the equivalent of being a broken machine - and Marty isn't one to deny the little boy his dream. Lovingly he approaches the youngest characters and makes us question exactly how much responsibility does the world put on children?
As an essay on infancy, Hugo makes harsh questions regarding children's roles in a society that seems to ask so little and yet so much of them. Aren't children supposed to be the future? If so, then Hugo's own fate seems marred by the harshness of his past experiences and in order to survive he has obviated his creative nature for more mechanical duties.
Scorsese too wonders if in a way we aren't all machines trying to find our own purpose, waiting perhaps to be fixed. This is best expressed through the inspector who due to a war injury has to wear a mechanical brace on his leg. Other filmmakers would've simply turned the inspector into a Tin Man-like character trying to find the heart among the metal parts, but Marty knows best and lets us see that even if Gustave is the only one wearing a metal device, almost every character in the movie seems to be running on some sort of invisible clockwork, duly repeating their daily tasks perhaps unaware that there is magic out there.
This pessimistic look on life might seem to harsh for a family film which is why Marty joyfully lets us know that magic is still accessible to us and merely requires for us to buy a movie ticket.
In a way then, Hugo isn't exactly about the little child but about Marty himself, a notorious historian and film preservationist, whose mantra seems to be something along the lines of "movies are the gift that never stops giving".
The director takes us back to the early days of cinema which went from being a fad to turning into the most cohesive of the arts. The film meticulously constructs key moments in cinema history mostly involving Méliès work. We see the early master at work in his fish tank-like studio where mermaids coexisted with dancing skeletons and annoyed moon men. If you've often wanted to reach out and touch what was projected on a movie screen, this film literally gives you the power to do it, using an impressive work of 3D cinematography in which every layer seems to be thriving with life.
Towards the end of the film, we are treated to what can only be called a miraculous achievement as moments from ancient movies become nothing less than tangible dreams. Yet in order for us to appreciate cinema more Marty reminds us that because of its all-encompassing powers, movies require that we become familiar with the other arts. His film isn't merely a poem about cinema, but an ode to the power of creation and the power to achieve sublimity through arts. Hugo has countless literary, theatrical and graphic art references; if not just see the way in which the clockwork in the station resemble cubist masterpieces that force us to take a second look in order to determine their structures.
Few movies dare to find the soul in the machine with such effortless proficiency and undeniable love. During one of the film's most breathtaking moments, Hugo has a nightmare within a nightmare and when he wakes up we realize that this is Marty's way of reaching out to us and asking us to never let go of the dream of cinema. Like a Tinkerbell armed with a camera and unbridled passion for his craft we have no other choice but to applaud him and kindle the fire of his devotion.