I always think that great examples of creativity evoke great reactions. Recently, I saw the movie Hugo. There were times when I wanted to sigh happily, times when I wanted to shout out, “Yes, that’s it!,” times when I wanted to stand in my seat and shout, “Bravo!! Fantastic!!” and times when I wanted to throw popcorn at the screen, and rewrite the script.
Hugo is the story of an orphaned young boy who keeps the clocks of a Parisian train station going. He is left an “automaton” by his diseased father, but is missing the key, so he embarks on a journey to find it and discover what the automaton is trying to tell him. He is lead to Isabelle – the owner of the key - and to “Papa Georges” – Isabelle’s adopted father and a prolific retired film maker, and Mama Jeanne – Isabelle’s adopted mother and a prolific retired actress.
I should say upfront that I think it is an absolutely brilliant movie, with a beautiful vision and wonderful execution. It has in fact, become one of my all-time favourite films. It’s a magnificent testament to the power of the imagination.
This is why I had the reactions I had:
The “sighing happily” moment
When the kids are introduced to new art forms. Hugo introduces Isabelle to film – which she has never seen (for reasons that become clear as the plot unfolds), and Isabelle introduces Hugo to a wonderful second-hand bookshop. There are some beautifully inspirational moments that capture what it is like to be a kid when you come across a new art form for the first time, and that little “o” of wonder on your face as your mouth drops open. It’s easy, I think, when you’re working in your art form day in, day out to forget what that’s like, and I really appreciated the reminder that art is, in its essence, the creation of magic.
The “Yes, that’s it!” moment
The film explores many themes around what it is to imagine, create, and be an artist. One of my favourite was the idea that, if you are an artist who is not creating art, you feel “broken.”The automaton is broken because it cannot draw, and the filmmaker, character Papa Georges, describes feeling broken because he has stopped making films. This idea of feeling broken perfectly captured those feelings that many artists have described to me – and that I have felt myself – in the absence of meaningful art-making.
The bravo moment
I love to applaud brilliant ideas, and whoever decided to film this in 3D made a brilliant choice. At first it’s no more than a gimmick – the audience ducks when something gets thrown, and pulls back when a vicious dog comes hurtling towards them. But then we start to see the resonances with the plot and themes. We are introduced to the early days of film-making, and repeatedly shown the footage of an audience reacting to some of the first moving images – a train coming into the station. This unsophisticated, naïve audience is shown screaming and trying to get out of the way because they feel that the train is going to run them over. Laughable, now - it’s just a movie! So how can a sophisticated modern cinema audience possibly understand what that was like for those early audiences? By experiencing the movie in 3D and having very similar reactions to those early audiences. Brilliant! Bravo!
The throwing popcorn moments
As much as I enjoyed the movie, I did have one real beef with it, and that is how the story of Mama Jeanne is told. In my opinion, her story is even more tragic than her husband’s, because no one seems to recognize that she, too, is an artist who is not creating. She is an actor who believes her life’s creative work to have been destroyed, and cannot even tell Isabelle – her daughter – about her identity as an artist. But the movie’s pivotal interest is on the broken figure of her husband and his lost art, and Mama Jeanne (the fact that I can’t remember her real name speaks volumes) is put in the position of having to protect him from painful memories. I was hoping to see her regain her creative strength at the end of the movie, when all the wrongs are righted and all the loose ends tied up, but sadly, the final scenes just make her story all the more tragic – while her husband stands up on stage and is recognized publically for his contributions to film-making (the lost reels having been recovered), Mama Jeanne is forced to watch from the audience, the proud wife, and clap proudly. I got the distinct feeling that we, as the audience, were supposed to feel that everything was all right again, but I couldn’t help thinking, “What about HER??!! What about HER art? What about HER lost creative identity??!!!”
All told, though, there are many reasons to love this movie, especially if you are interested in the role that the imagination, vision, creativity and art play in our lives. Final reaction: Bravo.