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.