Hugo and the History of the Movies (Part II)
Yesterday, I talked about the first 12-13 minutes (depending on whether or not you want to count the opening studio logos and such) of Hugo and how brilliant they are.
Today — well, I’m just gonna keep going and see where I end up. We start where we left off, just at the title card, which is just about 13 minutes into the film. In fact, this next screenshot I’m about to post happens exactly 13 minutes into the film. Talk about being concise:
Méliès closes his shop at the end of the day and finds Hugo standing behind him. He asks him his name, and here we get our first real introduction to the character of Hugo:
Then Hugo tells Méliès he wants his notebook back, and Méliès says he’s going home to burn it. And we get that great silent sequence where Méliès walks home and Hugo follows him. Again, no words are spoken, and yet — it’s just fantastic.
The great moment in this for me is when Méliès actually leaves the station. And Hugo has that pause, where he stands at the entrance. Right there, you know this boy has not been outside the walls of this station for a long time. It’s a great piece of characterization caught within a single image.
And then Hugo follows him out and follows him home. Which is pretty great. I wonder what Méliès is thinking during that moment. He has to be wondering why this kid is going to such lengths for this notebook.
And then we get these great shots of Méliès walking home through Paris, and Hugo following him:
And of course he goes through a church graveyard — a nice Marty touch. Throw a little religion in there.
And this culminates with Hugo standing outside Méliès’s house and getting the attention of Isabelle, and us meeting Isabelle for the first time.
And they meet and she says she’ll make sure Méliès doesn’t burn the notebook. Then Hugo goes back to his — I guess you can call it his room. The place where he sleeps — and we get our first look at the reason he’s been stealing things from Méliès — the automaton.
This is also our first overt movie connection — the automaton is so modeled after the robot in Metropolis. You know that had to be in Scorsese’s mind as he made this.
We then get the flashback explaining how the automaton (and Hugo) got here.
There’s a great moment right before the flashback — as we’re about to flashback, the sound of a film projector and the flickering of it appear behind Hugo and the automaton, visually and aurally signaling the oncoming of the flashback.
Then we get our flashback, and we meet Hugo’s father:
Another returning Scorsese cast member. If you remember, Jude Law had a cameo in The Aviator as Errol Flynn.
Also, strangely, the color design in this shot reminded me a bit of The Aviator – a lot of those reds and greens from that opening section of two-strip Technicolor:
Then we see how Hugo and his father came across the automaton and started to fix it together. We see how his father died in the museum fire, and then we meet his uncle. Uncle Claude.
I didn’t know Ray Winstone was in this, so when he showed up, I was like, “Oh shit!” It was also funny to think that the last role he played for Scorsese was Mr. French. I kept waiting for him to say, “This is America! If you can’t make money, then you’re a fuckin’ douchebag!”
So then we see how Hugo started winding the clocks at the station. We also, in the brief amount of time we see Claude (only two scenes), get a nice characterization of him. A brash, uncouth drunk, who also greatly respects time. He has that moment where he goes over, “Sixty seconds in a minute…” and says, “Time is everything.” They really get a lot out of him with a limited amount of screen time.
And then we go back to the station for a bit — keep developing those little story lines, like Monsieur Frick and Madame Emilie, and the dogs and stuff. (Classic children’s movie side plot.) We also see Hugo stealing food to eat for breakfast, and hiding from the Station Inspector — his daily life, basically.
Notice how that wasn’t essential before this. (This is me, subtly telling aspiring writers and directors and anyone wanting to get involved with filmmaking how to tell a story intelligently. Exposition is only what is essential, and you can build onto it later. Watch the masters do it, try to emulate, and you usually end up with something above average. Don’t just throw shit together. Watch any shitty movie next to this and you’ll see how bad most of them are. It’s like they’re not even trying. All it takes is a little effort and things can be tolerable. They don’t even have to be good. Just make them tolerable.)
Then we follow the Station Inspector’s subplot of his romance with Lisette. (I’m not quite sure, but they might have reused a shot when she’s seen again, of her pushing her flower cart and saying, “Good morning!” Either it’s the exact same shot, or they just used one part of it the first time, and a later part for this one, or it’s the same one. Just a curious thing I noticed, really.)
This moment, of course, humanizes the Station Inspector, which helps us to not despise him as a character, even though he’s doing mean things to Hugo and to orphans. This makes us feel sympathy for him, and rather than hate him, go, “Why can’t you just be nicer?” That’s important for a kids movie.
This also (though they’ll expand on this later, but I don’t want to get into it too much) helps create a bit of a John Ford atmosphere to the film. Ford was great at, outside of showing the plots of the films, showing these little side stories and subplots revolving around the community. This feels like that. We take a break from the main characters and see these other characters comically trying to find romance, and all that other stuff. I like that.
We then return to Hugo, who goes to Méliès for his notebook, and Méliès shows up the charred remains of something, and says he burned the book.
Kingsley’s reaction to giving him the handkerchief with the ashes inside it is amazing:
Here’s a guy who spent his life trying to make dreams come true and entertaining children, and here he is, deliberately hurting one. I love the way he delivers the line — “Go away. Please just go away.” The ‘please’ is what really makes it work. That — “I don’t want to do this, but I have to. It’s reminding me of stuff that’s too painful. Please let’s just end it here.”
And then of course we find out the book wasn’t burned. And Hugo and Isabelle go to the bookstore and meet Monsieur Labisse. Man, I love Christopher Lee.
As a side note — I love that Isabelle throws out these big words and then doesn’t explain them. This, to me, is one of those things that makes me very happy. I like when kids movies don’t explain everything and just drop these big words like that. Because there was nothing better for me as a child than hearing a word I didn’t understand, trying to figure it out in context, and then looking it up. That’s how I learned some words. I don’t get why more films don’t do that. If a kid doesn’t care what it means, they’ll ignore it. If not, they just learned a new word. And because they took the time to look it up and have a context with which to use it, they’re more likely to remember it. So good going, Hugo, you’re already a smarter kids movie than all of the other ones.
And then we get the kids going on an “adventure,” which also made me happy, since it feels like kids today don’t get enough adventure.
Then Hugo goes to work for Méliès in order to get his notebook back. This is a nice moment, because you can see Méliès starting to warm up to the boy. That’s nice.
And we see a montage of Hugo working for Méliès and fixing the automaton. Only, of course, he can’t start it without the key, which he later finds out Isabelle has.
Oh, and in between those moments, we get the nice interlude where Hugo takes Isabelle to the movies. (Nice hint at the film’s true story: when Hugo is amazed that Isabelle’s never seen a movie, she says, “Papa Georges won’t let me. He’s very strict about it.”)
So then Hugo and Isabelle go to the theater. Here are some images from the theater. They are littered with references to old movies:
In the first image you see three posters. (There’s a fourth to the right, but we’ll get to that in the second image.) The first is one of Max Linder, who was an actor from the silent era. He made a bunch of films with Méliès and even did the Chaplin thing of twirling his cane around before Chaplin did it. He also did not cross over well with American audiences and killed himself. But he was pretty famous in France in the 1910s.
The second poster in the first image is a poster for Douglas Fairbanks’s The Gaucho, from 1927. It’s a fairly typical Fairbanks plot (he wrote it, of course), about a city being overtaken by a general, and Fairbanks (as the Gaucho) coming to the rescue. He gets to climb and jump off of stuff. (If you’re young and/or unfamiliar with old, silent movies — think of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, swinging around and jumping off of stuff, and also think back to The Artist. You know that scene where George Valentin is in that swashbuckling movie (with the dude playing Napoleon and stuff)? That’s basically what Fairbanks would do. Long hair, sword fighting — that’s Fairbanks.
The third poster is for Safety Last, from 1923, which is the film playing in the theater. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The second image has two posters. The first, on the left, is for Man with a Movie Camera, from 1929, which is Dziga Vertov’s experiment in capturing Russian daily life, but also using just about every camera trick one could possibly use. If you want to learn about directing, watch that movie. It’s like opening up a toy box and dumping everything out onto a film. It’s wonderful.
The other poster is Under the Roofs of Paris, a René Clair film from 1930, which has a lot of great cityscape shots of Paris. It was clearly an influence on Scorsese for this movie. Also, René Clair is one of the great underrated filmmakers. That is to say, not too many people know him now (except hardcore film people, and even then, you’d be surprised), but he really made some great films in his time. Le Million, À Nous la Liberté, even And Then There Were None. If you’re serious about film, check out his stuff.
And the third image — well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
The first is a poster for a Charley Chase short — Why Men Work. Which was actually directed by Leo McCarey. You may have heard of him. (Hint: He directed Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow, An Affair to Remember (and Love Affair), and Duck Soup. Maybe now you recognize him.)
The other in the back is another Max Linder poster. And the one in the center is a Charlie Chaplin poster. It doesn’t look like it’s for a film, but I could be wrong. It just looks like one of Chaplin. I’m sure someone will let me know if I’m wrong. That’s what the internet seems to love doing nowadays.
Okay, so Hugo and Isabelle go to the movies:
What’s great about this scene is how it’s all about the joy of cinema. How it can make you excited and tense, want to grab onto the arm of the person sitting next to you. And while that may seem like an obvious sentiment, and one that’s been made lots of times, think about it this way — this is a children’s movie, targeted at children, showing other children having fun at the movie theater (a place people aren’t going to as much nowadays). And, what film are they watching? A silent comedy from 1923:
You are introducing children (and even people in general, because you know most people don’t even know about this movie) to Safety Last! The fact that he’s getting away with this is incredible. (And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.)
The film even creates a visual motif out of it! They use the image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock and recreate it at the end when Hugo is running from the Station Inspector.
So when Hugo is hanging from the clock, the kids are (because I’m assuming this is targeted at children and because children watching this film is where it will have the biggest impact, educationally-speaking) going to, whether they openly remember it or not, making a comparison to the earlier film. So right there, they are remembering a clip from a movie made in 1923. You’ve just educated a child about a movie from 1923, in a movie. Wow.
Anyway, back to the story.
Hugo and Isabelle get kicked out of the theater just as we see the clock part happen. And as they get kicked out, we get more movie posters to look at:
In the first one you get Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (from 1928), his first film with MGM, and probably his last good film (since they took creative control away from him and made him make his films under their “style,” and led to him becoming a complete alcoholic), and also Judex, which I actually said, “Yes, Judex!” out loud in the theater when I saw it.
Judex is a 1916 French serial from Louis Feuillade,which he made after Les Vampires (and after after Fantômas). In case you don’t know, Les Vampires is literally one of my favorite movies of all time. Technically it is a ten-part serial that’s almost seven hours long, but still cinema nonetheless. I love it so much. Judex is not as long, it’s only five-hours, but it does feature the return of Musidora (who was seriously (does that sort of count of as pun? What if I said serialously?) the best part of Les Vampires), Édouard Mathé, who played Philippe Guérande, and René Poyen, who played Mazamette. I know almost no one will be as excited about that as I am, but I don’t care — I’m excited. We all have our geek out moments.
Oh, and in the other image, we see Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life, which is one of his best shorts, as well as one of Rudolph Valentino’s Cobra (which we see in an earlier image is on the double bill with Safety Last! (I can’t tell what that poster with the duck is. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a Fatty Arbuckle short of some kind.)
Oh, and here’s other photo I missed. This one has a picture of Chaplin’s The Kid.
Then we get this shot, which I’m including because it’s just gorgeous:
Then you know what happens? I was amazed. I was so giddy at this point it was amazing to see them go this much into the movies.
Hugo explains to Isabelle the first movie his father ever saw — which is basically A Trip to the Moon, which will be covered in detail later. But still — they’re introducing that to children! And talking about it at length! To put it in terms my friends can understand — this movie makes me ejaculate for days. (Long story as to why that makes sense.)
Anyway, then Hugo explains to Isabelle that he lives in the train station and takes care of the clocks. And then we get that great encounter with the two of them and the Station Inspector, which features that one 3D shot everybody loves, with Sacha Baron Cohen leaning further and further into the camera:
And there’s another one of those ‘child’ moments, geared to entertain children, where she recites the poem and all that. It’s cute.
Then Isabelle asks Hugo to show her where he lives, and he rushes away. And as she follows, she trips and falls among the crowd, and we get this curious (yet amazing) outlier of a shot:
I don’t know why it’s there, but man, is that awesome camera placement.
Then we find out Isabelle has the missing key for the automaton, which really brings us to the main point of the film, in which our storylines all begin to converge.
Hugo brings Isabelle back to where he lives and shows her the automaton.
One thing I love about this moment is that it brings a nice respect for mechanics. Hugo has this great line about people don’t pay much mind to things when they’re working, and I liked that line a lot. Because people don’t really give much thought to things that work. And now we’re seeing the nuts and bolts of how something actually does work (the movies, too), and it’s quite extraordinary. It gives you a profound respect to the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into even the littlest thing.
The other great thing about this moment is that it tries completely to bring you in the opposite direction of what it’s really about. Hugo says he believes the automaton will bring a message from his father, and then we get the reveal of the rocket flying into the eye of the man in the moon.
Also great job by the film of teasing that the automaton wasn’t going to work. It actually had me going for a second. And then when it did work, I got excited. Then when I saw the drawing I got even more excited. I really had no idea what to expect the first time I saw this. It was so amazing.
What makes this moment so brilliant is that for everyone not familiar with where this is going (so mostly children), they’re now thinking — “Wait, that’s that image from that old movie Hugo’s father saw. Is it a message from him? What does it mean?”
And then we get the double kicker –
So now you get the kicker of — “Wait a minute… so this has to do with the movie Hugo’s father saw, and with Isabelle’s godfather who works at the toy booth? But those aren’t related!” And there’s the mystery of why her key fit the automaton. It’s so great. As a kid, you’re so invested in the mystery of all this, and the the payoff is all this great knowledge of film history — oh man, do I love this movie.
Then Hugo and Isabelle take the drawing home to Mama Jeanne (played by the lovely Helen McCrory, who most people will know as Narcissa Malfoy from the Harry Potter films):
Her response is so simple and so powerful — “Oh, children — what have you done?” I love that until now the real story has always been there, but has been waiting for someone to find it, just like Méliès’s films. All it took was a boy out to fix something, and then we end up with all of these films being saved, and the work of a great artist able to be displayed the way it should be. But, what I love about the scene specifically is how it tells it from the children’s perspective. The “What have you done?” It’s the idea of, “We didn’t do anything,” knowing the adults know more but won’t tell you. So you want to know what’s so wrong, and you know something terrible has happened — it’s quite wonderful. Because all along they’re getting the kids watching this to invest in this story. And when they finally tell the real story, they’re gonna be there with it. It’s incredible.
And then Méliès comes home and Hugo and Isabelle hide in the bedroom, and they find the box of all of Méliès’s sketches, which Mama Jeanne kept without him knowing. And there’s the great scene of them having to get it down without making a noise, and then the papers fly everywhere.
And then Méliès walks in and is confronted by all this stuff he thought was long since buried (“Ghosts”):
And he is reduced to tears, having to relive all of the pain from the past. This is a really powerful image, this next one:
Not to mention, at this point, we don’t even know who Méliès is, and why he’s so upset about this. So it’s even more powerful when he tells hugo, “You’re cruel,” because Hugo doesn’t even know what he did wrong. But even knowing what’s going on, this is still a powerful moment.
And then they go to Christopher Lee, who tells them where to go to find out about film:
I have to pause every time Christopher Lee comes up. I love this man so much.
So he sends them to the Film Academy library:
And he tells them to find the book “The Invention of Dreams,” by Rene Tabard, which tells the story of the first movies.
And that’s where I’ll leave you today, with a photo of Tabard’s book. Because once that book is opened, a whole new world is encountered. And that’s the part I’ve been waiting so patiently to talk about.