Hugo (2011) - Essay


"Passing as Human"


Hugo (2011)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

The opening shot of Hugo shows us that Paris is like a clock. A clock is like an automaton: every mechanized piece fitting perfectly in place without a single spare part, once wound moving along without the aid of human hand. A clock is also like cinema: ticking along at an inexorable pace. So, the automaton is also cinema: a beautiful constructed mechanization of life. The construction is, in its own way, a facade, but Hugo's father understands this facade in a positive light. According to him, cinema is not where life is made false, but rather where dreams are invented. A movie, then, is a collective dream. And since the automaton is cinema, and it appears in this movie, it must be a dream within a dream. Hugo himself has a dream in the middle of the movie, and in it he becomes an automaton. And if Hugo is an automaton, then Hugo is cinema. A dream within a dream within a dream.

Can you imagine what dreams must have been like before movies were born? We go to the movies, and their visual grammar becomes the language with which our minds translate themselves. This is certainly true for me. My good dreams are those that have no battles. The battles, however, are full of moving images straight out of Fellini, with all the suspense of an action or war movie, and often even structured like one (albeit free-flowing and intuitive). My nightmares are like broken mechanizations of life, repeating the same attack on my brain every night: run, fight, run, fight, and on and on. I think Scorsese's dreams must play like movies, too, because while Hugo is, yes, ostensibly about his love of cinema, it's also a full attempt to explore the inner lives of mechanical men with fragmented minds, facades of their own and dreams that, in their way, need cinema to become whole again. There is Sacha Baron Cohen's character, named simply Station Inspector, and his hatred for orphans despite being raised as one himself. There's Georges Melies, who abandoned his art only to become, what else, a peddler of toy automations -- sad cinematic doppelgangers of his films, his inventions like nightmares within a nightmare. And, of course, there's Hugo, in search of the one thing that might bring him some understanding about his father's death: a resurrected automaton, a mechanization of life that says, yes, there is light to be seen here, and yes, you are whole again. And this, as a movie, is what Hugo does for me.

Hugo is a walking mesh of storybook fragments -- orphan, urchin, explorer, the list goes on -- and for the bulk of the movie he merely passes as a character of any depth, like a ghost wearing a mask. The peripheral cast of Montparnasse Station all feel somewhat cardboard as well. Lisette, the flower girl, has no apparent character depth beside the fact that her brother was killed in the World War. The fat man and his love interest are even more flimsy, with very little dialogue and only a cute angry dog between them. Isabelle, for example, is simply a reflection of Hugo. Her love of literature mirrors his love of cinema. Scorsese shows their connection quite distinctly in the scene when the automaton finally comes to life: the shots of each character mimic one another, with their faces shown opposite the automaton's, just as you would see yourself in a mirror. But just like the automaton he builds piece by piece, I see Hugo's story as a transformation from archetype to human, from a flat two dimensional pastiche of traits to a whole person. While each character may not have a convincing internal life when inspected individually, taken together they act as cogs in a greater machine, filling one another out and existing as a whole.

The moment when Hugo wakes into humanity is the emotional climax of the film: he tells the Station Agent that he needs the automaton to understand his father's death. But, as each character exists together in this larger dream, I can't explain the significance of this moment without speaking of the other wheels and springs. It is important to note that in this moment all the primary characters are present: Isabelle, Melies, Hugo and the Station Agent. It is not a moment for Hugo, but a moment for all of them and all of their reflecting themes. It is even more important to note that I did not cry when Hugo tells the Station Agent what he needs to understand, but rather when the camera cuts to the Station Agent and we see Hugo through his eyes. The Station Agent is like a little emotional trojan horse, and in my mind his understanding is what lets Hugo become whole.