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.
Significantly, the opening shot of Hugo focuses upon the multiple gears, cogs, levers, and rods that keep the railway station clocks running: they make up the medium that delivers the message of time. Hugo's life is defined by this medium behind the station walls, where his goal is to fix the automaton: a medium whose gears, cogs, levers and rods mimic those behind the station clocks. At the beginning of the movie, however, Hugo is far from discovering that the medium is the message.
Even farther away from this discovery is the grouchy proprietor of the toy booth. The first time Scorsese gives us a close-up of the old man, we see reflected on his eyeball the face of a station clock, as though to say the toy-seller sees merely the message of time and not the medium behind the clock. Only later do we realize the symbolism of this shot. For we discover that the man behind the toy counter is Georges Méliès, an actual historical figure who lived in Paris from 1861 to 1938.
As any movie buff can tell you, Méliès is the David Copperfield of film. Originally a stage magician, Méliès recognized that the medium of film had potential to create magic on screen. Before Méliès, projected movies were mostly documentary shorts of actual life. Called "actualités" in France, several famous shorts were produced in 1895 by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who filmed workers leaving their factory and the arrival of a train at a station. Having seen these actualités, Méliès became fascinated with the medium itself, inventing some of the earliest film techniques: the dissolve of one image on top of another, multiple exposures to create ghost-like images on screen, time-lapse photography, fade-in and fade-out. As Scorsese shows us through flashbacks, Méliès assembled his own camera, using extra parts from automatons he had constructed for his magic acts. He also constructed a glass studio, maximizing the light in order to make fanciful films: Arabian knights fighting fire-breathing dragons and mermaids dodging giant lobsters, to name a few. Most famous of all, and mentioned in every film history book ever written, Méliès produced A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by Jules Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. One image from that film has become iconic in film studies: a space capsule, looking like a giant bullet, penetrates an eye of the "man in the moon," causing cheese to ooze down into the moon's mouth.
At the start of Hugo, however, we do not know that the bitter old man in the toy booth is Méliès: a narrative detail based on historical fact. Méliès did, indeed, end up selling toys in the Montparnasse train station after his studio went bankrupt. Hence, at the moment we see a clock face reflected in his eye, Scorsese's Méliès has renounced the medium of film for a message that his art is no longer timely. Even though the bankruptcy actually occurred in 1913, Scorsese's film suggests that the Great War (1914-1918) was responsible for Méliès's loss: his fanciful films seemed like a waste of time in comparison to actualités depicting the horrors of World War I. Explaining in a flashback that he could no longer attract audiences, Méliès burns his studio and props in despair, including the huge round moon used to make A Trip to the Moon. Showing us how Méliès's film footage was melted down to create boot heels for the French Army, Scorsese does not comment on the historical irony: because Méliès was born into a family that operated a boot factory, his earliest childhood memories were shaped by shoes. His celluloid medium, melted into boot heels, returns Méliès to the powerlessness of a child, symbolized by the fact he sits all day among toys.
How appropriate, then, that the picture-book novel and its film adaptation create a fictional scenario in which the medium of salvation for Méliès is a child: a child who, like Méliès, is a mechanical wizard fascinated by automata. Hugo is aided in his redemptive mission by another fictional child: an orphan named Isabelle, who lives with her godparents. When Hugo discovers a heart-shaped key hanging from Isabelle's neck, he believes it is the key that will get his automaton working. Sure enough, the key works and the automaton begins to write. Breathlessly waiting for a message from his father, Hugo despairs when the robot stops after making only a few random lines and squiggles on paper. After a long melancholy moment, however, the gears start turning again and the automaton's pen, instead of writing a message, draws a picture. It is a sketch of the man-on-the-moon made famous by A Trip to the Moon. As the children stare in bafflement, the automaton signs the picture "Georges Méliès." Astounded, Isabelle reveals that "Méliès" is her godfather's name. Though Hugo knew the cranky toy shop keeper was Isabelle's godfather, up until that moment she had only called him "Papa Georges." But even she did not know her godfather once made movies. Hugo's anticipated message from his father, then, is about the medium of film.
This makes sense, because Hugo's father often took him to the movies and told him about watching A Trip to the Moon as a child. Isabelle, in contrast, has never been to a movie, her Papa Georges refusing to let her go. Hugo therefore sneaks Isabelle into a theater, and the silent film they watch is Safety Last! (1923), which contains one of the most famous scenes in film history: Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a tower clock high above the ground, until the face pulls away from its stone frame and we see the mechanisms behind the clock. As Isabelle and Hugo relish this scene, we are reminded of Hugo's life maintaining the mechanisms of tower clocks, and later we will see Hugo hanging from the hands of one of his clocks high above the ground as a way to escape from a hard-hearted policeman who wants to put him in an orphanage. The medium of film, then, provides a form of escape from the dreary actualities of existence—on several different levels.
The hard-hearted (if comic) policeman, Inspector Gustav, elicits sympathy along with our anger. Like Méliès, he has experienced loss due to the Great War. Injured in battle, he lost mobility in his left leg, which is encased in a metal brace. Occasionally, the brace hinge sticks, stopping him in his tracks. We first feel sorry for him when he tries to approach a lovely flower-seller; after his brace locks with a loud metallic squeak, he turns away in shame. Significantly, the metal leg brace looks strikingly similar to the metal legs of Hugo's automaton. Scorsese gives us close-ups on both to make clear the visual pun: the dastardly inspector, who wants to put every parentless child into an orphanage, is an emotional automaton who will not move toward the good until someone finds the key to his heart.
Meanwhile, after the heart-shaped key causes Hugo's automaton to move, the children go to the Méliès house, seeking to discover the secret behind the automaton's drawing. There, in an armoire, they find a box of images drawn by Méliès for his films. When he finds Hugo and Isabelle surrounded by his drawings, Méliès laments, saying of the images, "Back from the dead," and of himself "I'm a penniless man, a broken wind-up toy." Significantly, earlier in the film Méliès had yelled "Fix it!" when Hugo broke one of his wind-up toys. We now see that Méliès needs fixing as much as Hugo's automaton. Indeed, when the automaton stops drawing for that melancholy moment, Hugo bemoans to Isabelle, "I thought if I could fix it I wouldn't be so alone." The automaton proves it is fixed, of course, by alluding to the medium of film: the medium is the message, resurrecting memories of Hugo's dead father. Similarly, Méliès can be fixed only by bringing "back from the dead" the medium of his films.
To "fix" him, the children go to the Film Academy Library. While they peruse a book about early film history, we see clips from what they are reading about: the Lumières' Leaving the Lumière Factory and Arrival of a Train at a Station; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920); works by Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, and, of course, Méliès. When the author of the book, René Tabard, sees the children reading his history, he approaches them, only to be told of an error in his book, which reports that Méliès was killed in the Great War. Méliès is thus brought "back from the dead" for Tabard, who learns that the war had killed the filmmaker's spirit rather than his body. Tabard therefore agrees to bring a copy of A Trip to the Moon to the Méliès home, surreptitiously showing it to the children and Méliès's wife. Drawn by the sound of the projector, Méliès enters the room. Rather than getting angry, however, he starts to recount his life story, telling Hugo, "Just like you, I loved to fix things."
At this point, the actor playing Méliès (the amazing Ben Kingsley) looks into the camera, as though speaking to us, the viewers, about his life. Having Kingsley "break the fourth wall," as they call it in theater, Scorsese thus calls attention to the medium of film itself, reminding us that we are watching a movie. And he proceeds to deliver a 3D-light-ful history of Méliès, including dramatizations of his magic acts and actual clips from his films. At one point in this biographical flashback, a much younger Méliès breaks the fourth wall again, looking out at us to say "I am ready." We then discover that the camera he looks into is at his studio, for we next see him turn his back on it in order to direct a scene. By connecting the old Méliès with his younger self through "breaking the fourth wall," Scorsese reinforces that the medium of film is the message.
As part of the biographical flashback, Méliès also narrates that, during his days as a magician, he put his "heart and soul" into building an automaton, donating it to a museum after he burned his studio and props. Believing that the automaton was destroyed by fire—just as Tabard believed Méliès was killed by the war—he sadly sighs, "Happy endings only happen in the movies." Hugo, of course, suddenly realizes that Méliès's automaton must be the one that his father appropriated before the museum burned, and he runs out of the house to retrieve it.
In the station, however, Inspector Gustav chases him, causing the automaton to fly out of Hugo's arms and land on the train track. Hugo jumps onto the tracks as a train barrels toward him. Scorsese shoots the scene so that we see the train from Hugo's point of view, the huge engine racing toward us. Seeing it in 3D, we feel something of the sensation that Lumière audiences must have felt when they saw Arrival of a Train at a Station in 1895. Indeed, historians report that people screamed when they saw the train coming toward them, as though it would burst through the screen and kill them. (In addition to visualizing this historical incident while Hugo and Isabelle are reading Tabard's film history, Scorsese later has Hugo dream of a train breaking through the railway station walls.)
Just as the train closes in on the defenseless boy and his automaton, Inspector Gustav plucks Hugo from the track and expresses concern for his safety. This, then, is the redemptive moment for the inspector: the moment when he indicates he may have a heart. And as he lapses into acrimonious accusations toward Hugo, he softens his tone when he notices the lovely flower-seller watching him. She, then, becomes the heart-shaped key to the flesh-and-blood automaton—at a moment when Hugo is holding his robotic automaton.
The automaton is thus the medium of reconciliation in the film. Indeed, as Hugo pleads with the inspector to not place him in an orphanage, Méliès runs into the station yelling "He belongs to me." Assuming that Méliès refers to his automaton, Hugo shows him the battered machine, apologizing, "I'm sorry he's broken." But Méliès responds "No, he's not. He worked perfectly." The implication is that the automaton, with its dead mechanisms revived, drew attention to the medium of film. And by exploring this medium, Hugo and Isabelle energized new life in Méliès, through resurrection of a medium he had once renounced.
Hugo therefore ends with a staged tribute to Méliès, organized by Tabard. Applauded onto the stage, Méliès looks out into the audience in order to thank Hugo, describing him as a boy "who saw a broken machine and fixed it." Méliès refers not only to the automaton but also to himself. And we later discover that Hugo has also fixed Inspector Gustav, replacing his clunky brace with gears, cogs, levers, and rods that make him walk like new, with the flower-seller on his arm. Hugo knew how to fix the brace because he lived inside a medium filled with gears, cogs, levers, and rods, where he turned cranks just like the cranks we see turned on the cameras in Méliès's studio. The medium—the mechanisms of clocks, cameras, and automatons—is the message.
Christians should take note, for each of us is called to be the medium of God's love rather than merely the deliverer of a salvation message. To those who believe there is one Mediator between God and humanity, the medium is always already the message.
Crystal Downing is professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Her most recent book, coming out this spring, is titled Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic).
Also of interest: David Roark reviewed Hugo for Christianity Today.
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