Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hugo Cabret: Moving Pictures

Reflection on Brian Selznick,The Invention of Hugo Cabret (New York: Scholastic Press, 2007). 

On the cover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, author/illustrator Brian Selznick draws a keyhole in the foreground, intricate machinery behind, suggesting what we'll find inside the covers.  Precious machinery is the controlling metaphor of this "novel in pictures," cogs and wheels spinning and interlocking within a clock, in an automated man, inside a twelve-year-old boy's thinking, and in motifs that the author refines throughout the book.

At first, the story concerns just twelve-year-old Hugo, secretly doing his derelict uncle's job of tending the clocks at the Paris Metro station, circa 1930.  He lives in an attic workshop above the station, where he can peer out from behind the numerals on the clock's face.  The workshop is cluttered with machinery, including a damaged automaton left behind from the fire that killed his mother and father.  Because the automaton's robot hand is poised to write something; Hugo imagines that, if only he could wind it up, the machine would write him a message from his father. Hoping that drawings inside his father's small notebook will help him to restore the automaton to "life," Hugo steals cogs and springs from the station's irascible purveyor of wind-up toys.  

Gradually the gears of the story engage a wider array of characters:  the toy-maker's goddaughter Isabelle, her grown-up friends the bookseller and Etienne, who sneaks her into the movie theatre where he works.  Isabelle carries the literal key to the story, a heart-shaped key that will connects Hugo's prized possession to the movies of real-life film pioneer, Georges Melies.  

Aside from the pleasures of emotional ups and downs, as loner Hugo fights for his survival and comes to understand friendship through Isabelle, Selznick gives us the aesthetic pleasure of recognizing motifs that grow in significance throughout the novel.   From his vantage point behind the face of the clock high above the Metro station, Hugo sees all the people as cogs and wheels in some vast machine -- though they seem randomly disconnected from floor level (142); his own thoughts feel like more cogs and wheels (165). 

The story of young Hugo and the old toymaker interlock at a crucial moment when the old man feels that Hugo has betrayed his trust, and Hugo cries, astonished to see that the angry old man also weeps.

The iconic image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye, invented by Melies, is prefigured, copied, and varied throughout, in many images of the moon above Paris, in a still photo from the movie, in a pencil copy, and in Etienne's eye patch. 

There's another motif, prefigured, then made explicit, of Prometheus -- one who steals to bring light and life and imagination to the world, and who is punished for his good deed.  Hugo, hearing the story, reflects on the many things he has stolen from friends in the course of the story, and what has been stolen from  him. 

I know that Martin Scorcese made a movie of this book, and I suppose that's fitting for a work that lauds cinema for giving us waking dreams; but it's only through Selznick's pages that one can appreciate the author's love for words, for books themselves, and for cinematic effects frame-by-penciled-frame.

Thank you, student Stewart M. for loaning me your copy!

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