Let me confess: my biggest weakness is dreams. Any kind of dreams. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is my dream, or somebody else’s dream. As long as it is powerful enough to make a person wake up every morning with sparkles in their eyes, I will love it. For me, dreams are the only things that humans exist for, the only purpose, the only why to our existence. They are the realms where humans can be more than human, become beings bigger than themselves. That is why it pains me so much to see a dream get shattered, to see a person give up on that vital air and surrender their selves to mediocrity. The failure of a dream might as well be death.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo touched my love with dreams, made me realize that I was still in love with them despite having had so many brushes with reality in the past. It had embodied everything there is to be cherished: The relentless following of the fanciful, the innocence of youth, the sweet balancing act of despair within each adult. There is much to see in this film, not only with the superficialities of the work itself, but with its creation, the meta-elements woven inside, the many references it made to an age long gone. I suggest you not take everything as it is. Have a little faith in what the work is trying to say. It has a voice. It may not sound good, but it is a voice. And a voice deserves listening, especially what it says between the lines.
In fact, as I am writing this piece, I fear that I might not be able to say all that I want to say. But I will do it. I will serve this film justice. I will have it done.
Come, friend. Dream with me. But before we do, we have to see how dreams are destroyed.
The Destruction of Dreams – Reality’s Cruel Hand
Hugo is quite brutal with its depiction of dreams being destroyed, and of all dreamers it just had to pick Monsieur Georges Melies. To those who are not familiar with him, he is one of the most influential filmmakers in history. Over 500 films produced, directed, designed and acted, using his camera in a glasshouse in Montreuil. For the time, the films he created were the most beautiful ever conceived. Every strip of film he created dripped with passion, an innocence that must have already died off in these modern times. Of all dreamers, he must’ve been one of the greatest ones. A paragon who must have inspired generations after himself.
But what are we shown in Hugo? A bitter old man, a perpetual frowner who goes so low as to threaten to burn a little boy’s notebook. If we did not know any better, we might have already tagged Monsieur Melies as the villain of the work. But why does he do what he do? Why is he the bitter shadow of the man he used to be? Later it is revealed that he is a man broken by reality, the past containing his dreams bringing him nothing but pain. It seemed that powers larger than himself had twisted his dreams, swallowed them into the darkness, to be forgotten in the annals of history.
Doesn’t that happen to most dreamers? Doesn’t reality tend to get in the way of what we love? Or worse, abandon it altogether? One does not have to suffer what Monsieur Melies did to know that feeling. Despair, sorrow, sadness, whatever you can call it, none is so much fleeting as the kind that comes with the death of dreams. ‘You should not yet know such sadness,’ said Mama Jeanne to Hugo the first time he came with the drawing of the man on the moon, the bitter reminder of Monsieur Melies’ dreams. Imagine, a child being told that in the tone of a cautionary tale. Lucky are the youth, for they do not know yet the despair of failure. In all honesty, how did you feel when one of your dreams were destroyed, friend? It has happened, I am sure.
The world, you see, is not so kind to most dreams. The film itself even shows us evidence of that—out of the 500 films that Georges Melies had made, only 80 had been rediscovered by the end. The rest? Melted into shoe heels. The sets and costumes used to create them? Burned in despair. The automaton that linked Hugo to Monsieur Melies? Rusted, degenerated, barely itself. They were all representations of how the world treats dreams. And the present situation is not so different from back then. As of this writing, millions of dreams are ending, belonging to millions of people who probably didn’t deserve this sadness at all. But wouldn’t that be unfair to them? My apologies, but that was the whole point: the world is unfair, especially to those who dream. Many dreamers rise up in the day. Most don’t survive the night.
It would be okay if the sadness were only the kind of sadness that disappears as fast as it comes. But what happened to Monsieur Melies? Embittered and sad, he had to eke out the rest of his existence as a shadow. Now let me talk about that existence. The lonely, unhappy existence of God’s Lonely Men.
Survival – Subsistence in Sorrow
In Hugo, we come across many characters. You may want to give special attention to one, though. The Station Inspector, the stiff, bitter man who seems to exist only to send our Hugo Cabret to the orphanage. He looks quite cruel, but deep inside he is only a victim of reality. Does anybody remember the scene where he finally captures Hugo, stuffs him in the cage, starts berating him for his ways? Then suddenly, he segues into an harangue about his own time in the orphanage. In the Inspector’s own words, he was taught, “How to follow orders. How to keep to yourself. How to survive without a family. Because you don’t need one. You don’t need a family.”
It is an exercise in sympathy to understand the Inspector, but once we get over our own self-righteousness, we will see that he was a child as well. He is not as awful as he would seem—he exchanges pleasantries somewhat normally with people and is nice enough to inquire about a man’s missing wife or becoming a godfather. A dreamer, he might have been. Maybe. But reality crushed his hopes as he went into the orphanage. What happened to him after that? He went home from the First World War with an injured leg, his only friends in the world the local prison impounder and a loyal dog. His own stiffness, his own fear of people, his own loss of hope for the dreams of the world had turned him into the so-called despicable character. It will take him some time and a lot of hardship to see himself through the rut of his own volition. But remember, he is only a victim of the world’s harsh reality, the same one that destroys dreams. He is a representation of those who have already lost hope and had descended into despair.
Now, let us look at Monsieur Melies. Now, you see him in your mind, yes? All right, now imagine somebody else. Somebody important to you. Maybe your mother, your sister, your best friend, your lover, it does not matter who; it just has to be somebody important. Now, imagine that person telling you this:
“Your whole life had been meaningless, your lifework had been destroyed and everyone has forgotten you.”
This is what reality told Georges Melies.
We already know that he is a broken man by the middle of the film. So broken that merely a whisper about the man on the moon may shatter him. Have you wondered how he lived out his life after burning all of his props, selling his films, buying that toy shop in the middle of the train station? Saying, “He must have been quite sad,” would have been not just an understatement, but an insult. The despair he went through must have been devastating. How can such a man, after losing his dreams, live out his life after its prime had long past? Well, of course he lives on, but there are many cases where people are alive and dead at the same time. Being dead, Monsieur Melies had nothing to do but to live his benign life reminiscing the old days and spewing out venom at those foolhardy enough to follow their dreams. Be it burning the notebook that reminded him of his precious automaton, or hiding his illustrations in the top of a closet in a room barely used in his apartment, he hides from his pain, but it catches up with him. Whatever does catch up, he regurgitates back towards those who are still alive.
Both him and the Station Inspector do this. It is funny how they are so much alike.
You see, men like Monsieur Melies, like Hugo, like me, they tend to be affected greatly whenever reality gives them large setbacks. Monsiuer Melies had the First World War, Hugo had his father’s death, and I had my first year in college. After being affected and having known that they are not as strong as they believed their selves to be, they live out their lives without any hope, with only a tentative fear of death keeping them alive. They can turn into the worst kind of folk: those who are so hurt that they had decided to only care about their selves, because they couldn’t even do that properly without consciously pushing themselves to do so. Self-loathing out of failure, sorrow out of pain, and eventually, a bad attitude from without. This is the fate of those who choose to merely subsist.
It seems that this tale, Hugo, has quite the grim tone. But it offers a message of hope to those who are willing to rise up again, those who will not just subsist, but thrive. For even if dreams are fleeting, life is not. It is long. There is much more one can do with their dreams. Much, much more.
Rebirth – Being born again through fanfic
Let us start discussing a boy named Hugo Cabret. We already know who he is in the film itself, but let us talk about him at the meta-level. I should tell you, friend, that no such boy named Hugo Cabret really lived to inspire Georges Melies to pull himself out of depression. It is unconfirmed. Even the existence of the automaton that pushed the boy’s will throughout the story is unconfirmed. There are many things unconfirmed with Hugo Cabret, but is the meaning of his existence within the story really important? When did the fact of whether or not he truly lived become important? Why not take him as a representation of something rather than a character in the true sense?
Note that Hugo’s director was Martin Scorsese, a no-nonsense director known for his gritty, violent films oozing with reality. What if Hugo was nothing more than fanfiction written as a love letter from Scorsese to Melies and Silent Movies in general? A self-insert fanfic where Scorsese is the boy who helps his idol regain himself? Why would a director like him do such a thing? Yes, yes, the film is actually an adaptation of the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but that is beside the point. Remember that Hugo was Scorsese’s first family film as well. Maybe, just maybe, despite all the cynicism and reality the world dishes out at a regular basis, there is still the trace of the innocent dreamer within Scorsese, pushing him to follow his dreams despite the risk of failure. That dream might be Hugo, and that innocent dreamer might be Hugo Cabret. Maybe the overall message is, “Do not lose hope, do not lose your dreams.”
Now, let’s descend from meta and look at the elements within the film. You will notice that amidst the poverty and coldness of Gay Paree in winter, love still exists. The Station Inspector, despite looking hopeless, finds love in the sweet flower seller that taught him to finally smile. The fat old man who looks like Sartre finally bridged the gap with the Café Owner, buying a dog to give her own one a companion too. Despite age, poverty, self-preservation, people still apparently have time for feelings such as that.
People can also still be inspired by the works of great people. Look at Professor Tabard, how he idolizes Georges Melies despite the man himself already having lost faith in himself. The inspiration he got was so powerful that it pushed him to become a professor at the Film Academy of Paris, just so he could study about Monsieur Melies.
And now, look at Monsieur Melies. Even if almost all of his films were gone, his costumes and Star Film Studios grounded to dust, and his film career over, because of Hugo Cabret he became a member of the Film Academy’s Faculty, being able to relive his life as a teacher for the arts. Even if it is not exactly like his dream back then, at least it had a semblance to it. At least it was connected. Essentially, his dream was reborn. He was able to live on.
All of these examples, all of these dreamers, how did they manage to thrive and achieve what they wanted? I think I should tell you, friend, of how Hugo Cabret lived.
After his father died, he had nothing more but the Automaton and his Uncle Claude to live with. Hugo wanted to relieve his dream of fixing the Automaton, but with his father dead it seemed impossible. So now, what did he do? He taught himself how to fix mechanisms by maintaining clocks at the station. He stole spare parts, probably getting caught a few times in the process. He even had his notebook—the one that contained all the steps to fix the Automaton—almost get burned. But through all of these hardships, he was able to fix it. And what did that bring him? What he wanted all along: A loving family. The boy believed in his dreams, ignored all the pain, and in the end got what he deserved.
That is what all people should be like in following their dreams: Desperately looking for a purpose and then following it to the ends of the Earth. Hugo was trying to teach us that even if dreams were destroyed, they can always be reborn or replaced with a new dream instead.
It is sad, really, how this message goes unheeded for most folk. Then again, how easy is it to rise again after losing what you had loved all of these years? Maybe, all of your life?