Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Past and the automaton in Scorsese's Hugo


I have always regarded the automaton in Scorsese's Hugo as a metaphor of the historian's quest for recovering and deciphering the past. The quest to piece the past together is perhaps not so much about a longing to possess some forgotten truth: it has to do with refusing to accept deletion, mortality - it is about installing order to an unknown and for this reason chaotic world. 

Unlocking the archive. The boy finds the key which will put the automaton into operation.
Putting the pieces together lulls us into safety. We cannot have disorder. We need classification, categories, causes and effects, solid interpretations, objectifications of uncertainty. There is such a thing as putting the past together, says the automaton. The automaton is itself the assemblage of its parts, neither male nor female, carrying a screwed-on Frankenstein monster-like face, always on the verge of speaking but mute, about to have an expression but remaining enigmatic with an emerging but never quite there Mona Lisa smile. 


When the key is finally produced and clicks into operation, the automaton proves to be a vessel of yet another cypher. Preserved and revered because it was thought to carry a message from the boy's dead father (what a great metaphor for a historical archive!), the automaton produces something entirely different (oh the joys of historical research and discovery!). The automaton's whole purpose was to preserve and reproduce a fragment of a forgotten film maker's work. It is a vessel of a historical record.

The whole elaborate contraption exists so that it can reproduce this image from the past, this fragment of the past external to itself yet the raison d'etre of its existence. Putting a pen holder to use, the automaton imitates a living organism as if to animate what has been dead and forgotten. The automaton, a monument of the past itself, produces and preserves another monument of the past. The past in which both monuments existed does not exist save within these monuments - within the automaton, the pen holder, the image. The materiality of the automaton - its cogs and wheels, its moves, its pen holder, the ink it uses - and the materiality of the image it produces - the painfully slow production of pen marks on paper makes the finished image even more stunning in its brutality - conceals the fact that the past is in fact dead.

Hugo and Isabelle marvelling at the automaton drawing in Scorsese's Hugo (2011)

The past's reproduction, its material traces comforts us that not all is lost, that there is life after death, that there is order, truth, certainties. We can live happily ever after if only we try hard enough.

The automaton starting to draw in Scorsese's Hugo (2011)

In the nostalgic and optimistic world of Scorsese's Hugo the relics of the past have a real connection with the present. In fact, they enhance the present by recovering the past even if that recovery is unavoidably incomplete. We are certainly imaginative enough to fill in the gaps and create our own version of the past in the present.

The automaton drawing an image from George Melies' old movie in Scorsese's Hugo (2011)

Screenshots from Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011)

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