I watched the first 30 minutes of Hugo again last night, sitting in the back seat of Shannon’s red Saturn Vue as the city of Houston sent us on a detoured journey because they couldn’t wait to work on 610 until a more convenient hour.
I will say this often, but Martin Scorsese is the greatest filmmaker ever. And I don’t think anyone else is even close. Hugo is another shining example of his master craftsmanship and brilliant eye. John Logan’s screenplay is tighter than I thought it was on first view, structuring a wonderful sequence of “…and then’s” throughout the narrative. Robert Richardson’s Oscar winning cinematography is once again just that… Oscar winning. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is precise and direct. Howard Shore’s score is mystical, yet elegant and delightful. But make no mistake, this is Marty’s film.
The world of the the story is set up dazzlingly in the first ten minutes, with the master shot of 1920s Paris, through the station with the magnificent “single take”* in the clockwork, the first encounter with Papa Georges, and the shot of Paris from inside the tower. But as soon as he has a chance, Scorsese gives us a taste of his ideology. Film and life aren’t that much different. A movie, like a memory, taps deep into our visceral cognition. We experience the world over and again, and in new ways through our memories, and in movies. We are given the opportunity to see our lives afresh in light of the way our new and old experiences interact with each other, and in the way films sympathetically wrap themselves around and make sense of these experiences.
That there is something magical and spiritual about human beings interacting with other human beings (whether onscreen or in person) is not lost on Scorsese. As well as anyone, he knows that human frailty connects to the heart of every man. In films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull this frailty is turned around to violence. In Hugo this frailty is turned to compassion and telos**, with the longing for a place to call home and people to call family. There is much sorrow in the irreplaceable love a son has for his departed father, and great tension in the pointlessness of life in the face of death. The automaton the boy Hugo works to restore while winding the clocks of the railroad station will not bring back what he most desires. But in the midst of a sundry of anonymous faces, people are able to find each other and make new connections. The station inspector woos the flower girl, the older couple allow themselves to be free again, and Hugo finds Papa Georges, who becomes family.
The film teaches us that there is something divine about hope, and finding one’s purpose. Especially in a world lacking hope and disregarding purpose. People are made to find each other. We are made to live in community. We are made to stand by one another as films and memories expose our vulnerabilities. There is something pointless to all of it, but there is a also a profound joy equal to, along side the vanity. Hugo reminds us of the virtue of life in both.
**Telos is a Greek term referring to something’s ultimate purpose. For instance, a pen is for writing, a baseball glove is for catching a baseball, and cars are for transportation. These may be used for other means, but they are not achieving their telos unless they are doing what they were designed to do.