“‘If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.’ Maybe the value of Scorsese’s film lies exactly in this sentence and the context in which it is delivered.”
Before seeing Scorsese’s Hugo, and as I was reading about it, the word that seemed to keep coming up was “homage”; this movie is an homage to cinema! While that may be true, Scorsese’s film is more a love poem to George Méliès specifically, and not necessarily to cinema in general. Unless one thinks that it is to Méliès and not Louis Lumière that we owe the development of the medium. The latter advocated recording daily events, in a natural setting; the former began to manipulate the “reality” of film by inventing special effects, and consequently expanding the possibilities of the film medium. Scorsese builds his film from this century-long debate.
The plot revolves around a young orphan boy, Hugo, who maintains and winds up the clocks in a railway station. At the same time, he attempts obsessively to fix an automaton his father had left him. Interestingly, Scorsese himself appears obsessive in the attempt to “fix” cinema, or at least the legacy that his forefather Méliès had left behind. Scorsese is quite mindful and respectful of the work his predecessors did, particularly when it comes to Fellini and de Sica. In this instance, the director employs the current pinnacle technology of the medium, 3D, to tell a story about the beginnings of cinema. We witness (albeit via flashbacks) a crucial moment in the history of the form — when cinema become a dream factory — and while the transition to 3D cinema may not go down in history as an equally important moment, Scorsese’s choice is not random. Furthermore, when we also consider the recent release of The Artist, there seems to be an increasing interest in revisiting the origins of movies, a time when maybe the art was at it purest, as Hitchcock would contend (Hitchcock famously asserted that real cinema died with the advent of the talkies).
It is also intriguing to think about the transition from silents to talkies in the late twenties and early thirties, which represents another critical moment in the history of cinema. Scorsese definitely references that moment, and then takes advantages of the innovations and advancements of sound and sound editing, to show (off?) the new technological heights of contemporary cinema. This being a film in which trains and clocks abound, we were sure to hear those rhythmic noises throughout. Of course, these noises closely match that of the (Lumière) cinematograph, the hand-wound machine that projected films. Méliès (Ben Kingsley) actually exclaims that he would recognize that noise anywhere. However, I wanted to point out another moment in which sound exhibits tremendous narrative power. The officer who chases Hugo throughout the film has a physical handicap acquired during the war. His leg is supported by a metal mechanism that every now and then locks, and when that happens, the mechanism squeaks loudly. The noise it must make in “real” life is minimal, but given the insecurity of the character concerning his leg, the sound becomes greatly exaggerated; to such extent that in one scene, the loud, chaotic life in the train station goes completely silent, and all we hear (all the officer hears) is just that one squeak, reigning supreme over the soundtrack and over the entire diegesis for a few seconds. Thus, the film becomes silent for a brief moment.
One of the main reasons I believe Scorsese’s intention was to focus on Méliès is the suspect lack of references to the Lumière Brothers. It is not until toward the end that the audience hears the Lumière name. It happens only when we shift narrative perspective and we listen to Méliès’ story as told by him. This choice may be the ultimate sign of respect from the director; almost as if it were Méliès’ prerogative to decide when that name should be uttered. Another important prerogative is to have him declare that “If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.” Maybe the value of Scorsese’s film lies exactly in this sentence and the context in which it is delivered. The ultimate homage comes to life in the re-creation of several films made by Méliès, in seeing him (well, Kingsley) at work, and in seeing him edit as he searched to invent and perfect special effects. It is a wonderful, nostalgic return to the actual cutting of film with scissors, and to splicing frames together in order to create magic by hand. Paradoxically, Scorsese chooses to employ several very long, uninterrupted tracking shots. In fact, the very first shot of the film is a long, descending, cut-free shot that picks up speed as it pulls into the train station. I believe the trajectory of the shot closely follows the rapid movement of an actual moving train, and with this unlikely parallel, Scorsese foreshadows the importance of trains in the film. The insistence on avoiding cuts is made evident on several other occasions, as the camera tracks Hugo through the mechanical catacombs of the railway station. The boy finds himself often in the belly of the system, in the belly of the beast, and it is a world made of moving parts. These scenes echo Hugo’s words that he likes imagining the world as one big machine, and that he is an extra part in it: “I had to be here for some reason.” That reason might be that he has to be dreaming.
The pinnacle of this beautiful film (because ultimately that is the only word that does it justice) is the dream sequence, which is really a two-part dream. In the first part, Hugo finds himself at the train station, and he sees the key he needs for the automaton on the train tracks. As he goes down to retrieve it, the train begins to pull into the station, but it cannot stop. It rumbles through the station, devastating everything in its path. It is such a powerful scene, not because of the stellar special effects, but rather because Scorsese brings together the two fathers of cinema in one violent crash. Lumière’s first film is referred to a couple of times in Hugo, and we see the actual footage from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, coupled with the famous overreaction from the audience who thought the train would run them over. So, in this instance, the train does run everyone over, and it does create havoc. In order to shoot such an extravagant scene, though, Scorsese obviously refers to Méliès’ imagination and penchant for magic. Movies are magic, movies are dreams; so naturally, Hugo wakes up from the nightmare. But Scorsese goes a step further than Méliès might have gone. Hugo is still dreaming, and the second part of his nightmare is that he imagines himself as an automaton himself. In the dream, he sees his insides and the moving wheels, so once again, Hugo is an actual part of the system. It is a fascinating dream, one that coalesces Lumière and Méliès, but also one that brings together dream, cinema, and the human body. We, as humans, are part of cinema, a physical part of it: the metal hinges of the officer need oil, the clocks that Hugo winds up need to be oiled too, the original filming camera needs winding, and now, we see that Hugo himself, the little boy who wanted to be “real,” is also made up of the same elements. And he is magic, too.