Hugo (2011)

Happy Endings Only Happen in the Movies

I’d like to consider two intertextual reworkings of the films of Georges Melies in American culture in order to position Martin Scorsese’s massive undertaking, Hugo, both an adaptation of a stunning graphic novel, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a startling biopic of the early French filmmaker. The two pieces are: Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Todd, 1956) and the HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon (1998). I choose these two not only because they are variously interested in Melies, but because they reveals different facets of Melies that are crucial for understanding the complexity of what might turn out to be Scorsese’s most important film.

At the beginning of Around the World of 80 Days, the massive Cinemascope widescreen image is boxed to play the entirety of George Melies’ A Voyage to the Moon. As an adaptational concern, the linkage is that both films are based on books by Jules Verne, the French 19th century adventure novelist. Thus, the purpose of the intertextual usage of film history is to forward the cinema’s ability to continue the project of 19th century fantasy fiction.

For its part, From the Earth to the Moon, a remarkable 13 episode docufiction about the Apollo missions, withholds the Melies for the last episode. In the prior twelve, Tom Hanks and the creative team behind the show have told the story of each of the Apollo missions, but in such a way as to focus on a different portion of American culture each time. The most innovative episode is about the doomed Apollo 13, which turns out to be about the difference between old school journalism (of the Walter Cronkite sort) and the new journalism of edutainment represented by such monstrosities as Entertainment Tonight and its ilk. In the final episode, which tells the story of the scientific mission of Apollo 17, searching for rocks and whatnot, set against the story of Melies making A Trip to the Moon. In the episode, executive producer and segment introducer Tom Hanks himself plays Melies, working behind the scenes to get his revolutionary vision of Verne’s science-fiction story onto celluloid.

What both Around the World in 80 Days and From the Earth to the Moon share, beyond Verne’s source material, is an allegorical impulse to link the adventurousness of the plot content to the artistic experimentation of the cinema. It is this impulse that Hugo exploits to a most astounding effect. At first, it seems preposterous that Martin Scorsese, he of the 1970s ultra-violent Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, would make a children’s film. However, Scorsese is able to mold his interest in film history with his artistic temperament by tweaking the ending of the graphic novel in the direction of an historical critique of the impact of World War I on film culture.

Scorsese in fact distorts film history a bit in order to end his film with an allegory for how the cinema heals the traumatic impact of violence, essentially providing a blueprint for understanding his cinema more generally. The film is built around a young boy whose father has died in a fire, left to fend for himself in the bowels of the Paris train station. His only friend there is an automaton that he and his father were trying to fix before his father’s death.

The plot of the film concerns a girl Isabella, who befriends Hugo. It turns out Isabella is the adopted child of Georges Melies, who in the 1930s, decades after having lost his filmmaking business to bankruptcy, is improbably running a small toy shop inside the train station. Hugo and Isabella make this discovery when her heart-shaped key allows the automaton to work for the first time: the machine draws a famous image from A Trip to the Moon of the rocket ship poking the man in the moon in the eye, signing the drawing, “Melies” whom the girl knows only as her papa, not one of the great innovators of early cinema.

Hugo involves a series of plotlines in which the mechanical threatens to destroy the humanity of the characters, but for which cinema serves as the cure. For example, Hugo and Melies both are positioned as machine-lovers who, like the automaton, are broken, except emotionally instead of physically. Late in the film, Hugo has a dream in which he turns into a machine run by gears and metal spars. For his part, the destruction of World War I produces a ruined Melies, both monetarily and emotionally, a broken man whose artistry is replaced by bitter stasis at the train station.

Both of these characters are mirrored by the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a man with a metallic leg, having lost his flesh and bone one in the Great War. These three plot lines collide at the end of the film. As Hugo runs through the train station carrying the automaton to show Melies, to prove to him that his life’s work has not been in vain, the Station Inspector finally catches Hugo, a vagabond the rigid inspector wants to send to an orphanage. In the middle of the chase, Hugo accidentally drops the automaton. In despair, he jumps down onto the tracks to retrieve Melies’ creation, which has magically flown through the air in slow motion. The Station Inspector grabs Hugo in the nick of time, saving the boy’s life, but equally importantly, his own humanity. This is the first time in the film that we see the inspector fulfill an act of kindness toward another person. As the Inspector is about to take Hugo to the orphanage, Melies himself arrives at the train station to declare, “This child belongs to me.” It is a terrific moment in which Melies’ declaration of paternity extends far beyond the biological.

Distraught for having damaged the automaton, Hugo laments, “I’m sorry he’s broken.” Melies touchingly declares, “No he’s not; he worked perfectly,” indicating that the machine’s purpose is ultimately redemptive, having saved the souls of Hugo, Melies himself, and the Station Inspector. Furthermore, this redemption is accomplished specifically under the sign of the cinema. Immediately before being caught by the Station Inspector, Hugo hides out from being caught by climbing out onto the tower clock above the train station. Having taken Isabella to her first movie, to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, Hugo successfully replicates that movie’s classic stunt in which the comedian hangs off of the clock arm, high above the city.

The entire sequence is set into motion when Melies declares to Hugo earlier that, “Happy endings only happen in the movies.” Hugo knows this not to be true, so he rushes off to get Melies the proof–the automaton–that he is incorrect. However, at a higher level of authorial control, Melies is caught within Scorsese’s redemptive project, and is in fact in a movie which will engineer a happy ending. It is cinema which saved Scorsese from the mean streets of New York City as a child, turning him into the master craftsman he as become. He uses his cinema to locate Melies within a world of violence. As Melies tells the story of his company’s decline, Scorsese cuts to footage of cannons and marching soldiers from World War I. It is true that the era of World War I deeply damaged the French film industry, but not in as direct a way as the film claims. Instead, the closing off of French markets during World War I allowed the Hollywood cinema to establish an international dominance it has never relinquished, but the importance of Melies to that declining French cinema had long since faded by 1914.

In short, Scorsese distorts history in order to achieve something far greater than accuracy. He invents a fantasmatic biopic, in which the “pic” takes precedence over the “bio,” that is, the redemptive power of the cinema (happy endings) drive our understanding of history far more than do the facts of the past. By casting Ben Kingsley as Melies, Scorsese achieves his greatest triumph: the stale political historical biopic tradition of Ghandi is replaced by something transcendent, an artwork in which the filmmaker becomes the motor force of history. Melies thus becomes the projector which images Michael Todd, Tom Hanks, and Martin Scorsese within our historical imagination. It is a trick that only the cinema in the hands of great masters can achieve. Hugo, the film and the boy, demonstrate to Kingsley’s Melies that he has it backwards: it’s not that happy endings only happen in the movies, it’s that the movies only happen in a happy, vibrant cinephilic culture, one created by Martin Scorsese in the penumbra of the great French pioneer.

– Walter Metz