Editor's note: This commentary includes many spoilers. If you're planning to watch "Hugo" over the holidays, you might want to wait to read this piece until AFTER seeing the film.
At age nineteen I made a stunning discovery: in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a 700-line poem entitled "The Parliament of Fowls." Suddenly "The Parliament of Owls," a chapter in one of C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, took on special resonance for me. My childhood pleasure in Narnia's talking birds was intensified through Lewis' sly literary allusion. What a hoot!
I therefore anticipated a similar pleasure for my nine-year-old godson, Jude, as we sat side by side in a darkened theater watching Hugo, Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the first novel to win a Caldecott Medal. Traditionally granted to children's picture books, the Caldecott went to Brian Selznick's 2007 novel because its 533 pages are filled with 284 stunning pictures.
Obviously impressed with the picture-book novel, Scorsese, famous for beautifully crafted but violent films like Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990), did something he had never done before—rather, two things he had never done before: he made his first children's movie (albeit an intellectually sophisticated one) and his first 3D film. Already nominated for multiple awards, Hugo is a tour de force, and I look forward to the day when Jude's pleasure in the film will be intensified through his discovery of its numerous artistic and historical allusions: to Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Christina Rossetti, and, quite slyly, Victor Hugo.
Only slightly older than Jude, the eponymous protagonist of Hugo lives in the walls of a Parisian railway station in the early 1930s. Placed there by a dissolute uncle who inherits the newly orphaned boy, Hugo takes over the uncle's job: winding up and maintaining the huge station clocks. From his lonely position behind the walls, Hugo watches people who work in the railway station as though he were watching a serialized movie. Indeed, the camera repeatedly focuses on Hugo's eyes as he stares out on a colorful world that contrasts markedly with the dull grays and blues of the mechanized realm sustaining the clocks.
He is especially attentive to a grouchy old man who maintains a toy booth in the station, from whom he steals tools and wind-up toys that he can use for his own project: a robot-like automaton that his father found in a museum before he died. Believing that his father designed the automaton to write a special message, Hugo scavenges for mechanisms that might enable it to fulfill its mission. By the end of the film, however, Hugo learns that the medium is the message.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message" in a book so influential that it was republished in 1994 and again in 2003. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man argues that human psychology is shaped more by the way media (like books, radio, television, and film) communicate than by their content. McLuhan gives the example of a light bulb: a medium that transmits light but has no message. Nevertheless, by altering human environments, a light bulb affects not only human behavior but also perception: we see a room differently, and our relationship to it, when a light shines in the darkness. McLuhan went so far as to argue that television functions similarly: children's behavior is affected more thoroughly by the placement of televisions in their homes than by any of the broadcast content that children see on television—whether sacred or sexual.
Not surprisingly, McLuhan's claim generated controversy, and reputable scholars consider his emphasis on medium alone as limited. Any theory, of course, that attributes all of human behavior to one cause is reductive, as when Marxists foreground economic inequities and Freudians emphasize sexual trauma. Nevertheless, like Freud and Marx, McLuhan brought to light a powerful influence on human perception and behavior. He, in fact, predicted the development of a world-wide medium—what we now call the internet—thirty years before it was invented.
Like McLuhan, then, Scorsese emphasizes the power of media to shape both perception and behavior. For example, in a brief pan of the train-station café early in the film, Scorsese alludes to three kinds of artistic media—poetry, painting, and music—through quick images of what appear to be the writer James Joyce (1882-1941) and the painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), followed by a longer take of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1963). Scorsese directs much more attention to the book as medium, however, creating a bookstore for the railway station that is lined floor to ceiling with gorgeous leather-bound, gold-embossed volumes. Though conversation in the bookshop touches on names like David Copperfield, Jules Verne, and Robin Hood, the real enchantment of the place lies in the physicality of the old books themselves: the tangible medium entrances viewers (at least book-lovers like me) as much as any message the books may contain. And by the end of Hugo, we realize that Scorsese considers film to synthesize the best of all these media: literature, painting, and music presented not on a page but on the screen. This may explain why Scorsese chose to film Hugo in 3D: the technology gives the illusion of physicality as images pop off the screen, seeming as touchable as the medium of a book.