More so than any other medium, film seems to embrace a rich and flattering appreciation for its own history. This year’s Academy Award frontrunners, Hugo and The Artist, can certainly attest to that. Maybe it’s because making a film is such a monumental, communal achievement. It takes countless moving parts, elaborate trickery, crafty fund raising, and a great deal of luck and passion to get something up on the screen. When that much work and suffering goes into making a story, making a story becomes a story in itself.
Hugo‘s positive reception, I feel, has much more to do with its choice of subject matter than its craftsmanship. As a film fan, I can see its heart is in the right place. George Melies, one of cinema’s first great creative minds, is a man very much worthy of a great, celebratory eulogy, and Hugo certainly gives us that. Throw in the fact that the great Martin Scorcese, perhaps the most valuable film making and history resource alive, is behind the camera, and it is with a heavy heart that I find myself sighing at the film’s sloppy, juvenile writing.
Hugo‘s title character is a young orphan obsessed with fixing things. After his attempts to repair an automaton fail to satisfy a sense of longing for reconnection with his father, Hugo digs deeper into the machine’s history. He unearths the tragic history of George Melies, a shop keeper at the train station Hugo makes his home. In years past, Melies had been a great film maker, a magician responsible for putting sorcery on celluloid. But now, all his films are thought destroyed and forgotten. With the help of Isabel, Melies’ Goddaughter, and Rene Tabard, agreat film historian, Hugo puts himself to the task of fixing Melies.
Hugo‘s affection and appreciation for its subject matter are genuine and apparent in the filmmaking, but where the writing suffers are its attempts to colour the margins of its world. Unabashedly, Hugo repeats its theme again and again: people are broken, and we all must fix one another. A pair of subplots, featuring a wounded Inspector’s pursuit of a flower girl and an old newspaper man’s wooing of a cafe proprietress, certainly serve that theme, but they are frustratingly tangential and meandering, and have no bearing on the central plot. The threads exist side by side with Hugo’s, but they’re interweaving is arbitrary. When the Inspector, flower girl, newspaper man, and cafe proprietress appear at the party for Melies, their presence is bizarre and unjustified. Their hopes and concerns had no bearing on Hugo, and Hugo’s had no bearing on their’s. Since Hugo is so clearly the main thrust of the story, every one of these side characters innumerable scenes feel utterly superfluous.
That being said, easily my favourite scene in the film exists solely in service of one of those subplots. Near the beginning of the film, the Inspector makes his first attempt at talking to the flower girl. He summons all his courage, takes a single step towards her, and his crude leg brace squeaks so loudly the entirety of the train station stops in its tracks. His courage falters, and he slinks away in shame, the flower girl hardly knowing he exists. It’s a quiet, wordless scene that expresses so much about the tragedy of insecurity.
Does a single great scene justify an entire subplot, particularly when it has no bearing on the greater plot? It’s difficult to say. As far as strict film writing theory is concerned, probably not. I am sure, however, that I am grateful for having seen that heartbreaking little moment.