There are spoilers below for the movie “Hugo” and also, perhaps, for the novel entitled The Invention of Hugo Cabret. You have been Warned.
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Last night, I watched a movie called “Hugo,” about a boy who has been the recipient of several devastating tragedies in his short life, including the loss of both parents, the unwelcome arrival of a drunken uncle into what is left of his life, and that uncle’s almost immediate, and somewhat problematic, departure.
Hugo and his father were, just before his father’s death, rebuilding an automaton that the museum his father worked at had received but had never put on display. After his father’s death, repairing the automaton becomes a sort of a quest for Hugo. He half-believes that the automaton — which writes, like The Writer built by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, in 1768 — will, when repaired, transcribe a message for Hugo from his father. Hugo also states explicitly, that, after the automaton is repaired, he’ll be “less alone.”
Hugo lives in the clocks of the Paris train station. His drunken uncle had a job keeping the clocks running; he trained Hugo to do the work so he could spend more time drinking — this is fortunate, for the uncle soon drops out of Hugo’s life, leaving him utterly alone.
Hugo’s life in the train station is perilous. Presumably, the uncle was paid for his labor, but his nephew is not; he is afraid that he’ll be caught by the Station Inspector and sent to the orphanage, so he stays out of sight as much as possible. He steals food, and he steals mechanical toys from the old man who runs the toy shop in the train station.
Until one day, the old man nabs him, makes him empty his pockets and takes the notebook that the plans for the automaton are drawn in.
The lives of the lonely boy and the old man have now touched and they rapidly become entwined. The old man is revealed, through the efforts of Hugo and the old man’s god-daughter Isabelle, who befriends Hugo, layer-by-layer, as old men ought to be revealed, because lives are like onions, as someone who is not me once wisely said.
The movie is remarkably clear in stating the desires of the characters: Hugo wants to belong, Isabelle wants to belong, the fearsome Station Inspector wants to belong, though he denies it (You’ll learn a lot in the orphanage, he tells Hugo; I did. You’ll learn discipline and how to keep yourself. You’ll learn that you don’t need a family. And he repeats that, fiercely, as if to convince himself, as well as the boy — “You don’t need a family!”). The old man…wants to forget the past.
He’s not alone in this — the Great War has recently ended. The Station Inspector, again, when trying to woo the pretty flower girl, sees her looking at his mechanical leg and he says to her, flatly, “Yes, I was wounded in the war, and it will never heal.”
Wars are like that.
Life is like that.
I won’t go on any further, except to say that the entwining of the lives of the old man, the boy, the girl produce an outcome in which all of them belong; the old man, far from forgetting the past, is brought to remember it, to see it through the eyes of others — and recovers his soul.
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It’s hard for me to see this as anything but one cohesive story — the boy’s happy ending depends upon the old man remembering who he is; the old man will not remember until the boy forces him to do so. These two outcomes are inextricable; they cannot be separated without damage being done to both.
And yet — yes, I’m finally coming to the point, thank you — And yet. . .
There were professional reviews of “Hugo” which complained that the filmmaker had really wanted to make a movie about Georges Melies (the name of the old man in “Hugo”), a pioneer of filmmaking in the 1900s, and should therefore have done so, and left the little boy out of the thing.
There were other professional reviews which complained that the story of the old man could easily have been dispensed with, in favor of the story of the boy who lived in the clock.
They said, some of these reviewers that these other stories — the stories that they would have preferred to see, would have been better than the story the filmmaker actually made. (Regular people said the same thing; a young lady said so in my LJ this morning, which is sort of why you have this rant.)
But here, they — the professional reviewers and private viewers — are wrong.
What they would have had, absent the old man, or the boy, would not have been, necessarily, a better film, but a different film. This is a small, but important difference.
It’s perfectly fine to say, of a book, a movie, a poem — this wasn’t the story I expected, or I wanted a different story, or even I didn’t like this story.
The error lies in stating, unilaterally, that, by mutilating the work as it stands, it will become “better” — which is to say, more in line with the taste of the viewer or reader. That is an error, and it does no justice to the actual work that has been done.
. . .and having said this, I feel much better, thank you.