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Hugo (2011) – Passionately Ambivalent

January 3, 2012

One of the most influential populist understandings of how humans think is derived from the model of the triune brain devised by the neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. According to MacLean, the human brain is the product of three evolutionary steps, each step not only marks a transition from one type of animal to another, it also heralds the acquisition of a new set of cognitive skills. The first part of the brain to develop was the reptilian complex (or ‘Lizard Brain’), which governs such behaviours as aggression, dominance and all of the ritualistic posturing that usually accompanies the desire to take and hold territory. Next to develop was the paleomammalian complex (or ‘Limbic Brain’), which controls basic emotions, motivations and the desire to reproduce and protect one’s young. Last to develop was the neomammallian complex, usually associated with the human cerebral neocortex, this part of the brain controls reasoning, language, strategic thoughts and all of the other cognitive skills we normally consider to be quintessentially human.

This model of human neurological development has proved so immensely influential that its three stages have now mostly entered common parlance. Indeed, when someone has a reaction they know to be irrational, they frequently chalk it up to the primitive harpings of their lizard brain, the part of their brain and personality that wants to fight or run away from any potential source of trouble. One explanation for this model’s continued success is that it taps into a popular understanding of how humans evolved and links it to what it feels like to be human. We have all seen the animations that depict human evolution as one long march out of the slime and into the light and so it is easy to picture our ancestors struggling with inferior neural circuitry until evolution kicked in and all of their experience points went into buying the ‘Limbic System’ trait. Lodged at the heart of the model of the triune brain is the decidedly Whiggish notion that the story of evolution is ultimately the story of progress and that the hardware we now have is a damn sight better than what our ancestors once used to apprehend the world. This Whiggish view of human evolutionary history is also buttressed by our collective experience of technological change. For example, most middle-class Westerners are now familiar with the experience of using a computer until it becomes so slow and clunky that they are forced to either invest in upgrades or buy something sleeker, faster and better adapted to the demands of today’s over-designed web pages. One might even go so far as to argue that the success of the model of the triune brain is due to the fact that it offers us a Just So Story that tells of How the Human Got its Brain.

One of the advantages of thinking about oneself in terms of different brains is that it allows us to distance ourselves from thoughts we deem unacceptable. When people act rashly and chalk it up to the intervention of their ‘Lizard Brain’, they are suggesting that the person who acted rashly was not the person they generally consider themselves to be. However, while the Lizard Brain is generally seen as being alien, it is not necessarily held in contempt or singled out as a source of toxic irrationality. Instead, people who talk about themselves in terms of the triune brain generally talk about the Lizard Brain in terms that are decidedly ambivalent. On the one hand, the Lizard Brain is the thing that makes us over-react when someone challenges our position in the group but, on the other hand, it is also the thing that allows us to react in an instant when a loved one is about to be run over by a car. Thus, the Lizard Brain is both an unpleasant anachronism that is surplus to requirements and a life saving set of cognitive skills that allows us to cut through the crap and act decisively when it really matters. These ambivalent attitudes to ‘old tech’ are also manifest in the arts.

The Whiggish approach to both human and technological evolution has its equivalent in the history of cinema. Just as the human brain moved through different stages before reaching full humanity, film is seen as the product of different artistic forms:

First, there was illustration and painting that allowed humans to develop compositional skills that enabled them to not only reproduce images of reality but also to convey moods and themes.

Second, there was photography that absorbed illustration’s compositional techniques and added new skills based upon both the immediacy of the photographic medium and the technological sophistication of the photographer’s tools when compared to those of painters and illustrators.

Third, early film absorbed the skills of photography and introduced a new set of technological hurdles involving the movement from capturing still images to capturing moving ones. This progression from depictions of single moments to depictions of expanses of time allowed early filmmakers to begin telling stories and so to begin drawing on the expertise of writers as well as visual artists.

Fourth, the medium of film continued to evolve over time adding first sound and then colour to its moving images. These basic technological advancements were joined by increasingly involved forms of cinematography as well as more and more refined form of storytelling and narrative control.

Fifth, the arrival of the digital era allowed filmmakers to escape the requirement that something be present in front of the camera in order to appear on film. Indeed, while practical effects and the cinematic techniques used to film these effects became more and more sophisticated as time went by, the director always found himself having to create things in the real world in order for them to appear in the world of his film. The development of computer graphics allowed the creation of remarkable images with no basis in reality, images that began as explosions but then became entire worlds and characters. Suddenly, the line between traditional live-action film and animation began to dissolve.

While there have been numerous attempts to find a sixth step in the evolution of the cinematic form, the current cutting edge is the introduction of techniques and technologies that allow films to acquire a third dimension whereby the screen appears to move back and forth to create both the illusion of depth and the illusion that figures on screen are somehow jutting out into the cinema auditorium.

Much like the primitive parts of the human brain, the cutting edge of cinematic technology enjoys something of an ambivalent reputation. Some see 3D as little more than a gimmick that distracts from the traditional cinematic techniques that have been honed and improved by generations of gifted filmmakers. Others, on the other hand, see 3D not only as a financial lifeline for an industry in terminal decline but also as enough of a reason to make and release a film. Who cares whether Transformers tells a story… the important thing is that it looks good and that the punters get their money’s worth when it comes to 3D. Unfortunately, while the question of 3D’s role in the future of cinema has produced a good deal of intelligent commentary, the commentators tend to split quite evenly into neophile and luddite camps. In other words, the debate is often framed as a zero-sum game in which 3D’s success can only come at the cost of traditional filmmaking while the failure of 3D can only spell doom for an existing business model based upon a set of creative industries that struggle to command the public’s attention in the way they once did.

Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is an attempt to build a bridge between these two opposing cinematic camps. Filmed in 3D and packed full of cutting-edge CGI, Hugo is not only a film that looks towards the 21st Century, it is also a film that looks back to the dawn of the 20th Century by celebrating the life and works of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

The film opens with a beautifully choreographed 3D journey through the tunnels and passageways that allow young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to wind all the clocks in a train station without being seen. This dazzling introduction not only allows Scorsese to drag us into Hugo’s 3D world, it also fixes our sympathies with the people who live behind the skirting boards and keep the world moving despite never being acknowledged, let alone recognised for their hard work and devotion. In fact, one could almost look upon Hugo as his world’s equivalent of a Morlock: His presence is absolutely necessary to the proper functioning of the station but the dirt on his face, the coarseness of his speech and his tendency to steal food in order to feed himself make him appear monstrous in the eyes of the people who inhabit the glamorous world of words and fashions that Hugo labours to maintain.

The tension between the world of Hugo and the world of other humans is brilliantly expressed in the conflict between the boy and Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen), the disabled inspector who patrols the station. Gustave poses a constant threat to Hugo because it his job not only to arrest petty thieves but also to round up orphans and ship them to a work house where they learn to become part of the human world. On a more thematic level, this conflict is evident in the fact that, while Hugo expresses himself in few words, Gustave’s language is flowery to the point of outright absurdity. For a character like Hugo who spends all of his time alone and away from other humans, words are not to be trusted but for Gustave, words are a source of both status and power. Gustave’s obsession with words is evident from the way his verbal skills dry up when he is trying to seduce the flower seller and from the way he is forced to bluff when he encounters someone even more wordy and erudite than him.

The tension between the world of mechanics and the world of linguistic excellence maps quite neatly onto the Whiggish history of film. Words were not present at the birth of cinema, they emerged only later and the advent of ‘talkies’ was a major technological and artistic sea change for the medium. By having Hugo enter into conflict with a character who is so obviously made up of words, Scorsese is inviting us to sympathise with things that are older and more basic than words. Thus the character of Hugo is established as metaphorical representative of the Lizard Brain and the film invites us to sympathise with that which is old and primitive rather than that which is new and shiny. However, Hugo is not a film about trusting the old at the expense of the new, rather it is a film about acknowledging the potential and importance of all things, both new and old, which is why Hugo requires its protagonist to go on a journey that will remove him from steam tunnels and passageways and place him in the beautiful world of humans, words, sounds and progress.


Though Hugo begins the film as a penniless waif, he was not always an orphan. Once upon a time, Hugo was the only son of a local watchmaker, a watchmaker who died tragically in a fire but not before unearthing a remarkable automaton who apparently possessed the capacity to write. At the beginning of the film, Hugo is living with his drunken uncle and the only thing that keeps him from going mad is the thought that he might one day be able to fix the automaton and thereby receive a message from his dead father. In order to acquire the gears and tools required for such an undertaking, Hugo steals from the toy-maker (Ben Kingsley) who keeps a stall in the station. One day, the toy-maker catches Hugo in flagrante and confiscates the notebook containing all of the drawings that Hugo’s father made in preparation for fixing the automaton. When the toy-maker looks through the notepad, he is dumbstruck for reasons that are not initially clear. Angry at Hugo’s thieving, he confiscates the notebook and later claims to have burned it. Desperate to reclaim his father’s notebook, Hugo strikes up a friendship with the toy-maker’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who helps him to complete the automaton after spending an afternoon at the cinema.

While the automaton does not convey a message from Hugo’s father, it does produce a drawing of the famous image from Georges Melies’s A Trip to The Moon (1902), unbeknownst to Hugo and Isabelle, Georges Melies is actually the real name of the toy-maker, who has spent decades trying to forget the years in which he was a widely respected filmmaker. After a chance encounter with a biographer of Melies, the two youngsters not only rekindle Melies’s love of film but also kick-start his return to public life and public recognition as one of the great pioneers of early film.

Let me be clear that Hugo is not a well-written film. John Logan’s screenplay is an ugly and ungainly thing whose dialogue veers between the pompous (characters delivering windy speeches about stuff that YOU should care about NOW) and the downright psychotic (characters endlessly repeating key words such as ‘Notebook’, ‘Thief’ and ‘Movies’ until they begin to lose all meaning) while characters remain poorly drawn and entire sections of the narrative hinge upon people being completely irrational. The clunkiness of Hugo’s plotting is particularly obvious in a scene where Hugo suddenly announces that he wants to fix people. Much like Hugo’s incomprehensible belief that the automaton contains a message from his father, this announcement serves no purpose other than to advance the plot by setting up a reason for Hugo to act one way while everything we know about his character suggests that he should act in a different way. Indeed, Hugo is a character who has survived on the margins of human society for a number of months. Traumatised by the death of his father and seemingly abandoned by his uncle (who unceremoniously turns up dead almost as an afterthought), Hugo’s first encounter with human society is with Melies who confiscates his notebook and then claims to have burned it for no apparent reason. There is no possible reason why Hugo should choose to help Melies other than the fact that the plot demands it and so the screenplay provides a scene in which Hugo announces that he has conveniently acquired the precise personality trait that will allow the plot to advance.


However, while there is no denying the lack of quality in Logan’s screenplay, it is equally impossible to deny that Hugo is a film that somehow manages to work. The reason why the film works is because Hugo is a film in which cinematography and thematic-suggestion do most of the heavy lifting while plot, character, dialogue, 3D, CGI and even colour all feel artfully clumsy. Though this may sound like a recipe for an unbalanced and ‘arty’ film, Hugo derives a good deal of power from its capacity to transforms technical shortcomings into emotionally compelling argument.

Hugo is at its best when it operates without words. The film’s greatest moments are either silent (as in the deliciously old school romance between two older people who work in the station but who are kept apart by a jealous dog) or contemporary re-interpretations of great moments from silent film such as Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock tower, the Lumiere Brothers terrifying cinema audiences with an oncoming train or the bestial mechanism of Lang’s Metropolis. The opening scramble through the station’s tunnels not only captures this wordless creativity but also expresses a tentativeness that pervades the entire film.

Indeed, though impressive, much of the opening sequence’s 3D relies upon panning past pillars and having stuff thrown at the screen. Though well implemented by the standards of most (lamentably weak) 3D productions, there’s a blunt archness about this style of composition that seems not only out of place in a film directed by Martin Scorsese but also completely out of keeping with some of the flawless and subtle 3D and CGI on display elsewhere in the film. This feeling that Scorsese is trying something also extends to the plot, the dialogue, the characters and the use of colour (which is fiercely reminiscent of the painted-on colour displayed in the Melies fragments Scorsese shares with us at the end of the film). In Hugo, everything is new and everything is tentative and everything requires work. Indeed, it is in the weakness of the characterisation and the dialogue that we uncover the thrust of Scorsese’s argument.

For Scorsese, all the technical skills that go into making a film are, as yet, unperfected. In Hugo, the 3D and CGI are just as likely to be distractingly bad as such non-cutting edge aspects of filmmaking as making sure that the colours look right or that characters speak in a believable manner. Thus Scorsese is disagreeing both with the luddites we see new skills as distractions from old ones and with the neophiles who see the pursuit of new areas of technical excellence as a justification for neglecting more traditional elements such as character, plot or dialogue. For Scorsese, all technical skills, regardless of when they appeared, are equal and just because humans have been writing dialogue for thousands of years it doesn’t mean that we do not occasionally fuck it up. In order to make a great work of cinematic art, one must master all of the cinematic skills and not simply those that are either cutting edge or traditional.

Another idea that emerges from Hugo is the fact that Melies was not exactly a high-minded auteur. According to Hugo, Melies was basically a stage magician who sold off his theatre in order to begin playing tricks on the public with a new set of tools. He did not produce works filled with psychological insight or dramatic tension, he dressed people up as skeletons and got them to jump around in front of a camera for the amusement of the mob. Indeed, while Melies may have been an artist, he was also a showman, a huckster and a panderer to popular tastes and perceptions. He was a purveyor of cinematic spectacle.



One of the great ironies of Hugo is that while critics have been quick to praise Scorsese’s celebration of Georges Melies, they are equally quick to dismiss the works of his contemporary equivalents. For example, Roger Ebert gave the highest possible rating to Hugo and the lowest possible rating to Michael Bay’s Transformers : Dark of the Moon, a film whose devotion to cinematic spectacle is just as robust and just as hucksterish as that of Melies at his most productive. The films of Melies look primitive and simplistic because they were early attempts to master a set of technical skills that would later form the backbone of films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese celebrates the life of Melies because he understands that cinematic art is a continuous learning process. We do not celebrate Melies for his dramatic poise but for his technical innovations and we do this because we know that those technical innovations laid the foundations for that which would come later. The power of Hugo’s case for the power of 3D lies in a simple precept:

This is the best that we can do right now, but just you wait till we work out how this shit really fits together!

Without Melies, we would have no Scorsese and without Avatar (2009) we would not have had Pina (2011), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) or Hugo. Today, 3D is all about films like Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon but without Bay to develop the techniques and create a market for this kind of film, cinema may well be deprived of countless works of art.

The problem with this argument is that it sits uncomfortably with the bulk of the film’s sympathies. Hugo suggests that, aside from his films having been lost, Melies also faded from view because people saw him as nothing more than a technical innovator who produced amusing but ultimately quite shallow cinematic experiments that were scarcely more evolved than those of the Lumiere brothers. Indeed, to celebrate technical innovation as an end in itself is not to strike a pose between luddism and neophilia but to align oneself with the neophiles who beg the indulgence of sophisticated audiences until the blunt-force spectacle of the new makes way for the luxuriant competence of the tried, the tested and the familiar.

Set in an idealised version of the past despite being about the future, Hugo gives voice to a set of attitudes about the process of technical innovation that are ultimately quite ambivalent. On the one hand, the film wants us to be tolerant of technical innovation because today’s rickety shacks lay the foundations for tomorrow’s great cathedrals. However, on the other hand, the film wants us to recognise that we cannot move forward without sanctifying that which came before but this begs the question of why one should want to move forward at all unless that which we already have is deemed somehow to be insufficient. Taken with all of its other problems, Scorsese’s ambivalence results in an intensely frustrating film where beauty sits beside ugliness, eloquence sits beside dullness and emotional poignancy sits beside grindingly unconvincing sentiment. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is beautifully ugly as well as passionately ambivalent.

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