‘Hugo,’ history and steampunk

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is one of those movie’s worth seeing in 3D. Based on an almost graphic novel, it’s a love poem to the history of cinema and has all the trappings of a steampunk classic in the making.

This adventure movie is based on Brian Selznick’s novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” which is about a Parisian orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) whose master clockmaker father (Jude Law) taught him how to tinker and together they were restoring an automaton boy when his father is killed during a fire at a museum. Hugo’s drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone) is also a clockmaker, repairer, but works  and lives at a train station. The uncle disappears, leaving Hugo to wind up and repair all the train station clocks, but as he is unpaid, he must steal for his food. He has also brought along the automaton boy which he steals parts from a toy shop within the station.

The station is patrolled by an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) with his Doberman. The inspector pines for the flower lady, Lisette (Emily Mortimer), however is too embarrassed to approach her romantically because of his gimpy leg–a result of his service during World War II. Instead, he focuses his attentions on the orphans who come to the station for shelter from the cold and a bit of shoplifting.

The toy shop owner, Papa Georges as he is called by his goddaughter and ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), is played by Ben Kingsley as a bitter man. He’s bearded but a decidedly unjolly type and likely frightens away all his little potential customers. He, his wife and his goddaughter are the key to Hugo’s past and future.

The best moments of the movie are when the two children are together on their great adventure and this doesn’t always fit so neatly with the drama of the past. Some might not be satisfied with how Hugo and even Isabella eventually fit into the story. The characterization of the inspector seems too much in the vain of Javert (the police officer who pursued Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 1862 “Les Miserables.”).

Selznick’s book was originally published in 2007 by Scholastic Press. Of the book’s 533 pages, 284 are illustrations, making it not a novel and not quite a picture book. The 45-year-old Selznick graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. He received a 2008 Caldecott Medal for this book. In 2002 he had received the Caldecott Honor for his “The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.” He is a cousin of David O. Selznick (producer of “Gone with the Wind” and “Rebecca”) and Myron Selznick.

Brian Selznick based his story on the life of George Méliès (8 December 1861-21 January 1938). Méliès was an early pioneer of cinema and discovered the stop trick (an object is filmed and then when the camera is turned off, moved out of sight and thus “disappears”), used multiple exposures, time-lapse, dissolves and brought in color by hand-tinting each frame.  After initial success, Méliès found the audiences were losing interest in his work in 1907 and when Thomas Edison created the Motion Pictures Patent Company that effectively controlled this new industry of film making in America and Europe, Méliès found himself under additional pressure to produce a certain amount of footage per week. This eventually led to alienation between Méliès and his brother Gaston upon whom the burden of production of footage fell upon. Gaston traveled to America, Asia and the South Pacific, but when he finally returned to Europe in 1915, he and George were not on speaking terms. Gaston died in 1915.

In 1913,Méliès’ first wife, Eugenie died, leaving him a widower with two children. His company was already bankrupt. World War I began in 1914.  One of his studio buildings was used as a hospital for soldiers. His films were indeed melted down to make boot heels, but this was a matter of war.

George Méliès’  home and studio were repossessed (by the French studio he owed money, Pathé) and he did indeed burn his sets and costumes.

Married to his second wife, Jeanne d’Alacy, Méliès was working at the Montparnasse train station in Paris, selling candy, snacks and toys. His granddaughter, Madeleine was living with them. In 1929, there was a retrospective of his work and yet, despite all public acknowledgement, Méliès was still poor. In 1932, he was given a place in a film industry retirement home. He died 21 January 1938.

France would declare war on Germany in September 1939 and in the spring of 1940 Germany would invade France.

Scorsese’s movie is filled with an air of nostalgia, with no hint of the coming disaster that would soon engulf these people, their glowing romances and the innocent lives of Isabella and Hugo. He aptly realizes the pure wonder that fuels the mainstream of steampunk–the possibilities of re-writing a better past, re-newed amazement at the mechanical antiques from that time and the scent of romance and adventure (with a small dose of danger).
If you’re inspired to make your own automata, check out this website.
For an artist, who was steampunk before he knew what steampunk was:
ArcLight Pasadena – 336 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA – Map‎11:55am‎ – ‎5:05‎ – ‎7:40‎ – ‎10:20pm‎
Gold Class Cinemas at One Colorado Pasadena – 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, CA – Map‎10:30am‎ – ‎1:15‎ – ‎4:00‎ – ‎7:00‎ – ‎9:40pm‎

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