How Hugo shows his appreciation for silent films

As one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, Martin Scorsese gave us many classics dealing with various themes. With works like After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The age of innocence, and Kundun, it is obvious that his work is not limited only to mob and crime films. However, even with his versatility as a director, it is the family film Hugo which stands out as its most particular. Despite a wider audience for the genre, this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book, The invention of Hugo Cabret, flopped at the box office and seems to have been forgotten by most. It shouldn’t be. Hugo is a wonderful experience of discovery and enchantment, enhanced by its reflective telling of film history and a genuine love of cinema, especially silent cinema.

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The magic of movies

Scorsese addresses this infatuation with cinema through the titular character Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in a train station after his father died in a fire. Hounded by a life of loneliness and work, his only sources of comfort are an automaton, the artifact he and his father were trying to fix when he was still alive, and memories of the movies they watched. He ends up befriending an adventurous young woman, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and takes her into a movie theater, because she admits that she has never seen one. In perhaps the film’s most uplifting sequence, the pair enjoy death-defying stunts in the Harold Lloyd film Safety last! as Isabelle’s face lights up with fascination and admiration. The magic of moving images is the essence of this moment, acting as a flux capacitor for the DeLorean that is the viewer’s mind. It is here that the audience is taken back in time to their childhood, to the lasting memory of the first time they laid eyes on a big screen. Unfortunately, they are caught by a bailiff and escorted away. Like Hugo and Isabelle’s joy, the audience’s nostalgia is fleeting, and it brings them back to reality.


The other interesting elements of this film unfold slowly as it progresses. When the two finally operate the automaton, it draws a picture of the moon with its face grimacing from a rocket stuck to its eye. It turns out that the device was created by Isabelle’s godfather, Papa Georges (Ben Kingley), later revealed to be the breakthrough filmmaker, Georges Méliès, and the photo, an extract of his creation par excellence Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon). It is in this unveiling that the meta-cinematic nature of the film is put forward. It unfolds like a movie about movies, a nod to the great annals of silent film by hauntingly presenting the conventions of meta-cinema. Hugo does so in a multitude of ways.

Playing with truth and fiction

First, it blurs the lines between fiction and reality, mixing factual elements about Georges’ life with artistic freedoms. Georges Méliès was truly a magician who turned to film as a career move by modifying his own version of a camera. However, he co-founded the Star Films studio with Lucien Reulos and not with his fictitious wife, Jeanne. His decline also led him to work in a toy store at a train station, but his bankruptcy was not directly caused by the war. It was more of a change of taste and a shoddy contract with Charles Pathe who sealed his fate, with most of his films being burned and turned into shoe heels. Most heartbreaking of all is that, while his rediscovery in Hugo results in a revival of his career as a film teacher, in real life he died in poverty while suffering from cancer. Scorsese indirectly addresses these attempts to embellish the filmmaker’s life by addressing the audience and informing them of his fictionality. In a moment when Georges revisits his own failures at Hugo, he mentions that happy endings only happen in movies. It’s ironic that a movie that leans so heavily on formalism throws a haymaker out of a meta-reality check.


Appreciation of silent film history

The central point of HugoThe reflexivity of is found in its allusion to the history of cinema, then in its diversion. Like a child dressed up as his favorite superhero or movie character, Scorsese delicately appropriates the images of The trip to the moon and puts his own stamp on it. A shining example is the diegetic superposition of Jeanne Méliès, George’s fictional wife, in several sequences of his films. Most notable is its inclusion among the divine beings admired by astronomers during their journey to the moon. This vampirization of the medium is most evident in three scenes; The reading of Hugo and Isabelle Rene Tabardon Georges’ film, the dreamlike flashback to Georges’ career and his climactic speech as he is honored by the film academy for his contributions to cinema.


On the recommendation of the librarian Monsieur Labisse, the two friends go to the library of the film academy and open René Tabard’s book, Inventer Le Reve (The Invention of Dreams). As they turn the pages, the screen presents an amalgamation of excerpts from old silent classics such as Arrival of a train in La Ciotat, The Great Train Robbery, The kissand Intolerance among others. This is an influential slideshow, about films that were essential to early cinema, and which mesmerized and fascinated crowds in their time. The scene mixes these old images and gives birth to a postmodern album of films. Meanwhile, the reminiscence of Georges shares in complex ways the happiness of cinema and the agonizing pains of production problems. It’s a meta slice of a filmmaker’s life, a medium reflecting on its own creation, evolution, and eventual re-creation. Perhaps the icing on the cake is a cameo from Scorsese himself as a photographer, presenting a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for his recreation of Georges life and work. Finally, the end of the filmmaker’s speech of gratitude literally goes from fictional character to Hugo to the real-life maestro who bows his head in his work, The indomitable mustaches. Ultimately, the sequence becomes the endpoint that sews Georges Méliès the text to Georges Méliès the actual historical figure, artistically completing the newly crafted image.


Essentially, the image simultaneously informs the audience of its own artifice and uses the images of a bygone era to concoct something “new”. It brings a sense of comfort and familiarity for those immersed in the world of silent film, and a wonderful insight into the dream factory for those who are not. Hugo is not only an innocent family film that touches the hearts of viewers, but it is also a romantic love letter to the early days of cinema. It’s a palimpsest, urging audiences to not just appreciate but learn how today’s films rest on the shoulders of those who came before them.

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