Saturday, December 31, 2011


Things you may not know about me: One of my all-time favorite movies is Disney's Pollyanna. I LOVE that movie (and you should too...I also love the black-cast musical version, Polly, that Debbie Allen made in the 1989 that seems to have vanished into the Disney vault). Anyway, Hugo really reminds me of a gender-swapped Pollyanna. In that movie, Pollyanna is an orphan who moves to town to live with her aunt and ends up bringing life and wonder and magic to the whole town, particular the elderly. But that takes time. Initially she's isolated and lonely...until she befriends a boy named Jimmy Bean (note: in Hollywood in 1960 a boy and a girl could actually be friends). His friendship helps propels her forward into the situations that help her help everybody else.
In Hugo, the titular boy is an orphan who goes to live with his uncle in a train station, where he meets Isabelle (a positively irrepressible Chloe Grace-Moretz, not unlike Pollyanna herself) who pulls him out of his isolated existence and into the greater world where he can bring magic and life and romance (it is Paris after all), especially to the aging Papa Georges. So, yeah, watch Pollyanna. And Hugo.

Hugo's doggged determination to reassemble the automaton is heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting because he feels its his life's work. Whatever you think of its usefulness as an endeavor, it is his animating passion, and seeing it work out for him is heartwarming, perhaps even life-affirming, in a world where so few people get to work at anything that means anything to them, trudging through one rote day after another. Here's Alyssa Rosenberg on the subject:
We may not face the same dire circumstances as orphans in the pause between the World Wars — or filmmakers who have fallen out of vogue and been reduced to clever tinkering. But that doesn’t mean that the desire for work that is spiritually as well as materially sustaining is the stuff of fairy tales...Not everyone is going to work in a creative industry, or fight for the disadvantaged in court, or run a thriving small business that operates like a genuine family rather than a corporate facsimile of one. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to do work that feels in some way meaningful, and that they believe themselves not just qualified for but suited to. And even if economic reality is harsh, you’re not a flake to want those things and to strive for that sense of meaning.
In the movie, Hugo and once-popular filmmaker Georges Melies are flip sides of the same abandoned coin. Melies retreats into the role as tinkerer, feeling forgotten when people turned (briefly) away from movies in the aftermath of WW1. Hugo keeps winding the clocks after his uncle leaves him but he does so discreetly hoping no one knows and lives all alone. When Hugo is locked up by the station master and the clocks aren't wound, it's clear that he has a purpose, just as the discovery that Melies is still alive allows him to return to the life of the cinema as an icon and instructor. As Self-Styled Siren writes:
Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all...Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.

Toward the end of this picture, we see a montage of the early years when Melies and his wife and their collaborators were at the top of their game working on their movies. It's ideal that it's Martin Scorsese filming these scenes, as the most prominent advocate for film preservation to be able to make his own version of filmmaking in the first decade of the 20th century had to be the joy of a lifetime. If we see those films today, the "special effects" look crude, but without the aid of computers or big-studio budgets, they had to be both incredibly clever and incredibly disciplined, so it was fitting that Melies had a background as a magician/illusionist. What must it have been like to be there, essentially creating the medium that we know today as the cinema? It's maybe my favorite sequence in anything I saw this year. Glenn Kenny expresses the effect well:
And when the film flashes back to Melies' glory days as a filmmaker, his glass-house studio and the magnificent and magnificently eccentric costumes and sets for his films (which were often adaptations of the man's stage magic act), the sense of wonder becomes practically intoxicating. Cinema, Scorsese is saying explicitly here, is the re-creation of dreams into moving images to be wallowed in and cherished, and the resolutions of the film's varied story lines represent a very humane recognition of the way our dreams mirror our hearts.

For me, this was, easily, the best movie I saw this year.

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