By Joseph Fahim
What was the very first movie you’ve ever seen? Mine was Victor Fleming’s classic musical “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland. I was probably four years old. The film was showing on TV and I remember being transfixed for its entire duration.
I gasped when the muted sepia-tinted Kansas suddenly gave way to the orgasmic color explosion of the Land of Oz. I waited in anticipation for the arrival of the great Wizard. I abhorred the sight of the Wicked Witch of the West (who gave me nightmares for weeks) and I cried when Dorothy bid her farewell to her beloved friends.
For many reasons, the memory of the “The Wizard of Oz” never left me, and like Dorothy, I always grappled with the ambiguous concept of home.
“The Wizard of Oz” was the beginning of my undying love affair with the movies. Like many film aficionados, I was a scruffy-looking loner with few friends and infinite imagination. There was always an immense pressure to fit in via sports, church groups and systemized family gatherings. I miserably failed every time, but I didn’t care. I had my books, my movies…my very own glorious imaginary world.
Cinema wasn’t just a part of my childhood, it was my childhood. Every single birthday from the age eight was spent at the cinema, every Christmas and Easter was spent at the cinema, every class I skipped was risked for the cinema; my endless summer days were mostly spent at the cinema.
Each and every movie I saw growing up — the good, the bad and the unwatchable — has a fond memory for me. The movies of my childhood aren’t just mere fragments of a past life, they are part of me, and they continue to be.
What the movies of my childhood taught me was to never lose my sense of wonder, the sense of purity ingrained in great art. Life, adulthood, has an inverse effect though, and no matter how sternly you fight it, cynicism ends up creeping in, imposing doubt, the one force that should never have a place in film.
Gradually, you tend to forget yourself, to forget the child that made you who you are, and with cynicism comes an intense torrent of other ailments: nihilism, misanthropy, fear, faithlessness and anguish.
This week, I went to look for my older self, for that child, in the unlikeliest of places: in the murky, hostile and tremendously violent world of Martin Scorsese. The man who made his name with crime epics “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” has created one of the most beautiful love letters to the movies in the most unexpected of forms: a 3-D family adventure. In doing so, Scorsese has accomplished something even more remarkable: He created a portal for us film lovers to revisit our childhood, to recapture that first instance when we fell in love with the movies.
Set in a 1930s Parisian train station, the eponymous hero of the story (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan residing in a small chamber deeply embedded inside this grand, intricate structure. A sad, lonely boy with a gift he inherited from his clockmaker father (Jude Law) for fixing machines, Hugo spends his mornings tending to the towering clocks of the station with his drunken, negligent uncle (Ray Winstone), and his evenings trying to repair a handsome, broken automaton. The automaton is the one object left of his father and Hugo somehow believes that it might contain one last message sent from him.
Penniless but determined, Hugo assembles the missing pieces of the automaton from the toys he steals from the station’s toy shop, which is owned by an elderly clerk known as Georges (Ben Kingsley). After he gets caught, Hugo befriends the owner’s granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a confident, loving girl with an irrepressible appetite for literature and a fervent desire for adventure.
The unlikely pair team up to solve the mystery of the automaton while fending off the relentlessly watchful eyes of the station’s pitiless inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose main life pursuit is catching straying young orphans and shipping them off to the children’s home.
Their adventure leads them to a startling discovery: Georges, the toy vendor, is in fact none other than Georges Méliès, the great silent filmmaker and cinema’s first wizard. The real story of the rise and fall of Méliès takes up the second half of the film, leading up to the conclusion, a passionate statement about the need for film restoration and preservation of the world’s cinematic heritage.
Born in 1861 to a wealthy family, Méliès broke away from the family’s shoe business to become a stage magician, purchasing the Théâtre Robert-Houdin where he invented more than 30 illusions over the period of nine years.
On Dec. 28, 1895, he witnessed one of the first public film projections in Paris and instantly fell in love with the new medium. The early works of Edison were photographical experiments; illustrations of the moving image displayed in the tiny Kinetoscopes for a small audience. The French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière took film to the next level, producing actualités — the very first form of documentaries — that recorded footage of everyday life and projected them on large screens for a bigger audience. The awe, shock and amazement experienced by viewers at the first screening of “Train Arrival in the Station of La Ciotat” is beautifully recreated in the film.
Méliès was an altogether different filmmaker. His cinema was an extension of his magic; creating various tricks on and off camera (he’s responsible for founding the basics of stop-motion animation, dissolves and multiple exposures). His films steered away from reality; these were hyper realities, fantastical snippets of “wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians” that at times bordered on surrealism.
His most famous film is “Le voyage dans la lune” (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), the splendidly loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” which contains one of the most memorable images in the history of motion picture: a rocket landing on a man-shaped moon.
This image becomes the key for unveiling the secret carried by the automaton, thus the marvelous, low-key adventure of Hugo and Isabelle becomes a pretext for the history lesson Scorsese imparts, thus introducing silent cinema to a younger, broader audience.
Based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated novel, “Hugo,” from the outset, features the required ingredients of family films: an adventure of sorts, exhilarating chases, a dazzling set, breathtaking visuals, an obstacle for the young hero to overcome, a villain and romance.
Yet the action feels much more subdued; the course of the narrative is zigzagged, relying on expositions rather action sequences.
“Hugo” is awash with nostalgia, of loss, of profound longing. The real villain of the story, Scorsese reveals, is not the Station Inspector — whose tender romance with Lisette the florist (Emily Mortimer) illuminates his soft side — but time.
The collapse of Méliès’ studio was not only brought about by World War I that deemed his carefree science fictions irrelevant (in addition to the rise of better equipped film corporation like Pathé, a fact Scorsese doesn’t mention), but simply because his films went out of fashion.
Changing tastes have driven pre-narrative cinema into obsolescence. The audience’s fixation on the now, on the new, has led to global public amnesia. Our short attention span has led to the desertion of anything remotely old. “Out with the old, in with the new” became the widely adopted motto. We deliberately choose to forget the past, to turn our backs against it, to engage ourselves in the impermanent, substanceless amusements of the present.
In the age of “convergence” and “transmedia,” cinema has grown to assume a lesser principal role in our lives, driven to the margins by countless distractions. And yet, that singular experience of watching movies when you’re young, from an innocent, unadulterated, nonjudgmental perspective, has never lost its power.
Hugo, above all, is that young spectator; the young Scorsese, the young dreamer. From the imposing clock tower, he observes the lives of others, compensating for the lack of his. Movies, unsurprisingly, is his one true respite, his life’s sole source of bliss (the first time we see him laugh occurs during a screening of the Harold Lloyd classic silent comedy “Safety Last!”).
The automaton is linked to a distant past, to the Méliès movies that enchanted Hugo’s father in his childhood. Like the automaton, movies embody different pasts, operating as a time machine to different places, different ways of living, different cultures…different worlds.
Scorsese takes joy in recreating these cinematic worlds: the delightful Paris of the ‘30s, the myriad labyrinths of the station, the “Safety Last’s” most famous set piece, and, most captivating of all, the Méliès’ pictures (the underwater decor of 1903’s “Fairyland: Kingdom of the Fairies” is downright stunning).
Unlike Scorsese’s hard-bitten masterpieces that combined a garish style with ultra realism, every element, image, storyline and simplified emotion, alludes to the movies.
The razzle-dazzle of the 3-D effects aside, the most moving, most magical moment of the film is a relatively unassuming one. In a small, darkened room, film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) screens a hand-colored print of “A Trip to the Moon” to Hugo, Isabelle and Méliès’ wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory). Gazing in wonderment at the screen, they laugh, yell and immerse themselves deeper into this otherworldly place.
It was this moment when I finally was able to see the old me, the little kid who was addicted to the sound of the projection, to the smell of popcorn, to that gorgeous flickering light, and a tear swiftly trickled down my face.
For me, and I suspect millions of other kids out there, the escapism factor wasn’t the only draw movies provided us with; it was the sense of comfort, the absence of uncertainty and mendacity, the purity of the fundamental cinematic experience.
The adult world is incapable of offering any real consolation; modern life is too quick, too evanescent to give that much-coveted assurance. Thus, time and time again, we return to those old, dusty cardboard boxes, to those evergreen movies of our childhood, to the “wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians,” and then, like both Hugo and his creator, we realize we’ve never been really alone, we always had the movies.
“Hugo” is currently showing in theaters in Cairo and Alexandria.
The famous image of a rocket landing on a man-shaped moon is the key for the story’s central mystery.
Director Martin Scorsese in a brief cameo role.