like clockwork

an overwhelming love of the magic of movies issues forth from martin scorsese's delicately intricate new machine, hugo (2011).

adapted from brian selznick's excellent children's book, the invention of hugo cabret, it tells the story of an orphan who secretly lives within the walls of a paris train station. he passes his days surreptitiously performing maintenance on the station's clocks and scavenging wheels, pins and gears from toys he has stolen from the station's toy shop. he must take care to avoid the overzealous station inspector, who takes great delight in sending wastrels off to the orphanage. he must also avoid being caught by the embittered, sorrowful old man who runs the toy shop long enough to accumulate the materials he needs to refurbish his mechanical man, which he believes bears one last message from his father. he doesn't manage that bit very well. the old man lures him into a trap and confiscates hugo's notebook that contains his father's sketches of the automaton, partly out of spite, partly because he finds the contents of the notebook upsetting. hugo enlists the help of the old man's niece to retrieve his notebook and their resulting adventures together, sneaking into the cinema, haunting bookstores and libraries and repairing the automaton uncovers wounds, connections and significance they could never have imagined. if you want to be surprised by these revelations, stop here and come back after you've seen it. i cannot effectively talk about what i enjoyed about the film from this point on without revealing one of its essential secrets.

as it happens, the proprietor turns out to be georges méliès, retired magician and one of the pioneers of early cinema. it was méliès who first saw film's potential to go beyond documenting the everyday, to understand that the magic of film and the worlds it could transport you to were limited only by the filmmaker's imagination. his genius in editing and developing fantastic special effects made it possible, for the first time, to put dreams on the screen. by the time we find him, though, he is a relic. his art is lost to the world and he sits all day in the station, morose and forgotten. the kids slowly begin to unravel the mystery of his identity with the help of one of the coolest booksellers ever, christopher lee, and an academic and film historian who originally believes méliès to be dead. their diligence leads to a revival of both the man and his work. as a result, some of the world's most important pieces of cinema are saved from oblivion and the message hugo was waiting for has led him home.

it is a beautiful film and the leading candidate this year for film most likely to be lost on most of its audience. ostensibly a kid's movie, i don't think that's quite right. yes, there are things in it kids will enjoy, mostly embodied by sacha baron cohen's gangly station inspector. his (at times incongruous) broad physical comedy and cartoon menace provide the best place for kids to find purchase in a film that otherwise might test their patience. it's also not truly for holiday viewers in search of a blockbuster to while away a couple of hours, though it may be marketed as such. it is appropriately magical and entertaining and those folks will enjoy looking at it. its 3D is only the second legitimate use of the technology that i have seen this year and it certainly qualifies as spectacle but it's also much, much more than that. at its heart, it is essentially a paean to antiquated technologies, the magic of movies - from their very inception - and is the most eloquent and lovely argument in favor of film preservation that you may ever see. it was made for people like me and i am grateful. i would accuse scorsese of reading my diary, if i kept one. it's made for those of us who love things made of iron, wood and burnished brass and painted by hand, steam trains, sleight of hand, leatherbound books, snow falling and that special girl with a good vocabulary whom you can share all your secrets and greatest adventures with. most of all, it's made for those of us who genuinely love the movies and who envy those fortunate people who were there when pictures moved for the first time. it's funny to think that it took all this time and adapting a piece of children's literature for martin scorsese to make the movie that might be his most personal. if you are familiar with the man, you know how much he is in love with the movies and how infectious his enthusiasm for them is. i could listen to him talk about the movies for as long as he could go on. case in point: his documentary my voyage to italy (1999), in which he talks for four hours about all the italian films he grew up loving and it seems like it's over in thirty minutes. his lengthy reminiscences are interspersed with long clips, many without the benefit of subtitles, and the whole thing is absolutely riveting, even if you only have a cursory interest in world cinema. with hugo he is finally able to combine his prodigious technical abilities with this seemingly limitless enthusiasm for being transported by the magic of the movies. he brings all of his skill, knowledge and love to bear on the material and it is wondrous. it comes at an opportune time, as well, as it seems film is in danger of extinction. i hope people are paying attention. years from now, i'd like to think back on this as a love letter to film, not a valediction. if you love movies and all that they are capable of, you owe it to yourself to see it.

if you have some time, and are so inclined, you might also check out the film foundation. it is a nonprofit that scorsese founded in 1990 dedicated to film preservation and education. they do good work.

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