Hugo is one of those movies that does multiple things at once. Upon its release, it was touted as Martin Scorsese’s first family film that also happened to be a masterpiece. But when you look a little deeper, it does something more. This movie was an opportunity for two lovers of cinema to meet and to share a story together. Brian Selznick, the author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the book which preceded Scorsese’s film was written by someone who also looks to the history of cinema to inspire his own stories. So, it would seem fitting that an American master of the art form would take up its adaptation, finding in the character Hugo a kindred spirit.
The film opens with a sweeping CG shot of 1930s Paris, giving the audience all at once a sense of time, place, and style with the visuals throughout the film borrowing heavily from the steampunk aesthetic. As we are escorted through the train station, we are introduced to our chief pair of central characters: Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), a stately gentleman with a handlebar mustache, a bald spot, and hair that has long since been washed gray with age manning his toy booth and Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) excitedly peering out into the world of the train station from behind one of the clocks that he maintains. The story follows the young orphaned clock works expert who lives in a world within the walls of the train station as he steals both to survive and to find the final piece necessary to unlock the mystery of the automaton left to him by his late father. In a quest to retrieve the notebook left to Hugo by his father, Hugo befriends Isabel (Chloe Grace Moretz) as the two become fast friends while simultaneously exchanging with one another their love of adventure, imagination, and escapism; Isabel through books and Hugo, through the medium of film.
It is through this journey of discovery that they uncover the startling revelation; the man known affectionately as Papa Georges is none other than cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès. It is here where the movie shines. Through the magic of modern-day cinema, we are transported back in time to see the birth of special effects as well as the burgeoning of narrative film. We are shown re-creations of some of Méliès’ best-known works as he recounts an amorous affair with budding technology being transmuted into an art form, colliding head-on with postwar social upheaval, and ultimately ill-fated results. From this point forward, the theme of the movie is laid bare: the cathartic power of cinema. Through Hugo, Scorsese allows us to see into a childhood that is little-known; the story of a sickly child looking out into the world through his first viewfinder, constructing his own movies in the world of his imagination. Scorsese’s first foray into the world of family films is a tender love letter to the endeavor that has given him a career, a pathway to self-healing, and a family that he never thought he would have. Simultaneously, it rights one of the greatest wrongs in film history and places Georges Méliès square at the center of the pantheon of great filmmakers upon whose shoulders all of us behind the camera can stand firm and tall. This is an ode to Méliès for cinephiles and their families to revel in. Regarding Méliès work as seen in this film, Roger Ebert once wrote,” We see Méliès (who built the first movie studio) using fantastical sets and bizarre costumes to make films with magical effects — all of them hand-tinted, frame by frame. And as the plot makes unlikely connections, the old man is able to discover that he is not forgotten, but indeed is honored as worthy of the Pantheon.” Indeed, Méliès and his reputation are finally where they belong: out of the pages of film studies textbooks and brought to life for everyone to enjoy and admire no matter how old they might be.
“Man is a curious animal. He is uneasy in the face of great experiences, and if he is forced to experience something profound, he starts immediately to cheapen it, to bring it down to his own level. Thus after a great man is assassinated, lesser men immediately manufacture, buy and sell plastic statues and souvenir billfolds and lucky coins with the great man’s image on them.”
Roger Ebert, “2001” — THE MONOLITH AND THE MESSAGE, April 21, 1968
These words are from an essay I first read in 2002 while I was taking my first film studies class. And when I first saw this film, I admittedly didn’t really care for it. We dissected it in many ways, talking about the mise en scène, camera angles, motion, sound and set design… And then there was the body monolith. Since then, I had seen the film another 4 times, the last of which I began to cultivate an appreciation for the film, yet I still wrote it off as an overrated, often hyped movie with a very thin plot. It was a movie often discussed only because we felt like we were supposed to. It felt much like calling yourself Catholic because you attended mass on Sunday morning with the previous night’s sands falling slowly from your eyes, with your mind only ever finding its own alertness after the recessional hymn.
50 years later, and these words would find new meaning, along with the film that I had never truly seen before yesterday. August 25, 2018, was the day that I lost my virginity. Not in the way that you might think, but in the way that Stanley Kubrick finally managed to penetrate a mind as yet untouched by his epic science fiction masterpiece. It was on this occasion that I realized one very basic thing: all those times I supposedly “watched” the film, I had been to busy thinking about the technical aspects of the film to really see the film. I also noticed another huge difference in Christopher Nolan’s restored 70 mm print of 2001, everything felt as real as it possibly could. The glow of the computer panels that lit the characters faces throughout the film looked and felt just like the glow of this computer screen on my face as I write this post. All other versions of the film that I’d seen were digital reproductions, meaning that colors were shifted, and back in the days of early DVDs, I was usually watching a cropped version of the film which meant I never really saw everything. And this time, that’s exactly what happened… I saw everything!
It pulled me into the desert as I watched my species ancestors go from simple apes to tool-using and intelligent, ingenious creatures, to men who looked like me, and whose creations dwarfed them by several orders of magnitude. I was watching the history of my species unfold into a future that still has yet to be. But all at once, I could see the echoes of that fictitious future in my own reality. Commercial space travel in this future has become so mundane, so commonplace, that the protagonist sleeps rather than being at all impressed with his surroundings. This is clearly something he’s done many times before, and something I suspect that our successors on this planet will see in their still unborn lifetimes. I was enveloped by the blackness of space and held utterly in its vastness. I felt small but oddly proud at the same time. And I came away with my own understanding of the film, not one borrowed from people far more brilliant than mine. After all, it only took me 16 years of watching this movie for that to finally happen.
I now feel that I understand the monolith in the same way that Mr. Ebert did 50 years ago. Some people have pegged it as a symbol akin to the Apple in the Garden of Eden, the event which plunged man into eternal darkness unless he should seek salvation and repentance through his life. Some people say that it represents progress. I think it represents something far more powerful though: the monolith is the perennial mystery. Our species is inherently and simultaneously drawn and repulsed by that which we don’t understand, and we become gripped by fear, disgust, and a host of other emotions. After the storms of past, what often blooms is a nagging curiosity about the nature of the thing which makes us feel so many competing sensations accompanied by an equally vigorous train of thoughts and ideas.
For me, HAL 9000 represents a couple of things: the first and most obvious one is a trope that gets recycled more often than I would ever like to see in symbolizes our dependence on technology and what can happen when we reach that extreme. The other is a bit subtler. HAL represents the point at which our environment becomes able to overtake us. It’s at that point where our adaptations via the machinations that we have built in order to conquer environment outstrip our ability to control them. And of course, we know that eventually HAL is disconnected, Dave’s character undergoes what I can only term as the greatest non-psychedelic induced psychedelic journey I have ever been on. He meets himself, and on his deathbed he is reborn a cosmic infant causing me to ponder Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence; the patterns and impressions on the psyche and cycle of time that seem to repeat themselves as if it happened before, but often changing in subtle ways that cause us to feel the need to reconsider our lives, their meaning, our place in the universe, our relationship to technology and to other people. It is these types of questions that spawned from the mystery of the monolith, and the movie that delivered them to me on this fateful day has caused me to fall in love with cinema with fresh eyes and a renewed joy. And when you find something like that, whatever it is, enjoy it, love it just as you would another person, and share that with someone else.
For it is in the questions that we learn the most about ourselves, like men wrestling with the Angels, it is in the struggle that we find the depths of our soul. 2001 did that for me at last. I was reborn in 1968 while simultaneously existing in 2018. I’ll see you at the next Dawn of Man. If you’d like, you can read Roger Ebert’s Review of this undoubtedly philosophical film, or even THE MONOLITH AND THE MESSAGE.
Over the past weekend, I had a chance to go see “A Quiet Place,” a film starring Brian Krasinski, who also co-wrote and directed the film, and Emily Blunt. The film also stars Millicent Simmonds, who also played one of the lead roles in the film adaptation of the book “Wonderstruck.” The film is, primarily speaking, a horror movie. It takes place in a world, not unlike our own, but it has been ravaged by a group of mysterious monstrous creatures that go on a killing rampage at the sound of any noise above a certain decibel level. The film centers chiefly around a family of five, all of whom are hearing except the teenage daughter played by Millicent. Since the creatures are attracted to a wide variety of different noise levels, the family, having a deaf daughter, employs the use of ASL in order to communicate with one another, though the hearing members of the family can be seen mouthing and/or whispering slightly while signing. Ultimately, this isn’t that big a deal, but there are many things that make watching the movie from a Deaf Studies perspective problematic. This is what I want to talk about, and after that, I will talk about or as an allegory, analogy, or mirror for social problems that we face in today’s society. In this context, there are things that the film does really well if one were to take a look at it from that point of view. Toward the end of this write-up, I will go into some detail about my perspective on that. But first, let’s talk about the signing in the movie.
The signing of the movie is generally fine, although some have criticized the father’s signing as being choppy and somewhat sloppy. When you take into account that the cast had to learn ASL for the film (which Millicent herself says actually added to the joy of making the film because everyone wanted to communicate with her) when it’s shown the signing is legible and generally fluid. There is one issue with regard to the portrayal of signing in this film, in that it suffers from what I call “Children of a Lesser God Syndrome.” That is, in large part, it is difficult if not impossible to see what the characters are actually signing to one another because of the way the film is edited. It has been pointed out to me, however, that this is only the case when the characters in the film are not signing to their teenage deaf daughter/sister.
If we take this problem and extrapolated to further accessibility issues with regards to the Deaf Community being able to access the film and enjoyed to its full extent, the film also falls short in one more respect: about 95% of the film is told without dialogue, there is a small sliver of the film in which spoken dialogue is used. This is only a problem because there are only subtitles present when the characters in the film are signing to one another, and no subtitles are provided for the small portion of the movie during which spoken (voiced) dialogue is used. For me personally, this either indicates laziness or a lack of forethought with regards to accessibility. And given that the Deaf Community has had major issues with accessibility in movie theaters generally, I thought maybe this is the movie that would create a trend. Unfortunately, the only person who ever mentioned anything about American Sign Language or the Deaf Community when giving interviews is Millicent Simmonds.
Now I’d like to talk a bit about the role of horror movies as kind of a mirror for humanity. Alfred Hitchcock during his heyday was extremely interested in what could make people afraid, the psychological mechanisms which induced fear in a person even when they were confronted with a real, or true to life situation. George A Romero, the creator of the cult classic film series of zombie movies we all know and love was interested in the issue of group identification, us versus them mentalities, and consumerism as social problems. For me, any movie worth watching in this genre holds some kind of mirror up for us to look at ourselves in a different way. This is where the movie shines as far as I’m concerned.
If you look at the film from a general social model of disability perspective, characters who are otherwise capable, able-bodied, and free to roam find themselves locked into a routine where they crash headfirst into their surroundings quite often, as is evidenced within the first ten minutes of the film. Life isn’t what it used to be, and the world is a desolate wasteland where people live in fear of the creatures that hunt them. This can be looked at as a hyperbolic allegory for the lives of disabled people who meet tremendous obstacles in life. It can be daunting to learn how to do even the most basic things under moderate to severe limitations, physically speaking. In the movie shows it to us in kind of a poetic horror format: this is what it’s like when you cannot move freely throughout the world. Things you once took for granted become extremely important, while other things are slightly outside the realm of possibility.
Millicent’s character struggles with feelings of not belonging with her family, often feeling as though her family places more importance on the “nondisabled” children, whereas she often feels as though she might be a burden on her family. This is where her need to do things for herself often comes from. It’s an experience that I’ve had personally, and it’s an experience that, while it is improving, is all too common. She also has to contend with this feeling when it comes to her father attempting to fix/manufacture a hearing aid and/or cochlear implant. It’s not always clear which one of these things and actually is because both show up in the movie often interchangeably.
The creatures in the film have an extremely sensitive sense of hearing, and for me, they represent the cruelest parts of the hearing world as a deaf person might see it when they feel at their worst. The creatures have effectively isolated humans from one another, such that communities don’t really exist. That feeling of isolation can often lead people to do some strange things. There is one scene, where a random guy’s wife dies, and despite the fact that our protagonist family is in the general vicinity, he opens his mouth to scream out loud and die. People with various disabilities and/or medical conditions often contend with feelings of self-worth in this way and can lead to suicidal ideation. It may not be the most common problem, but it’s common enough to still be a problem. Without giving too much away, eventually, the deaf girl ends up being the hero of the story. And in my humble opinion, she is the smartest member of the family in terms of her decision-making throughout the film. It is this aspect of the film, or as a mirror for our society that makes me cherish it. And I hope that the young actress who portrays the deaf heroine meets with much success in her life and career. And hopefully, this becomes a gateway for more visibility and representation in the film industry with regards to disability.
There is one final note that I’d like to end on before I leave you. And that is, there are some address criticisms made at the film with something akin to “the writer/director could’ve chosen to do anything else, but he chose this rather than excluding an entire community.” I understand where this comes from, I really do. And I am happy that a movie like this exists, this is a small step in the right direction. But it’s not just the end result that we must be concerned with, but also the motivation behind it. Because not only does the motivation behind it affect the end result, but it also affects what fruit the product bears. Positive social change never happens on its own, there are people who are endlessly fighting behind the scenes quality of life of the groups and causes they feel most connected to. While not death myself, I have lived with a disability my entire life, and I know how isolating can be. I also know how for filling a life can be once you’ve chosen a path that is meaningful for you. All I’m trying to say is that we can be more thoughtful and we can do better. And we have to keep fighting so that everyone’s struggles are recognized for what they are. Symptoms that are problems of human thinking that isn’t quite bright enough yet. One day, we will get there.
Hello again, I am back with more Japanese death poems to lighten the mood of this blog. No, seriously, the subject of death is one that I personally come back to many times. One reason why I’m infected with this morbid obsession is that most people approach this topic with some type of taboo silence on the words, “death,” “dying,” or “dead,” because the impact of those words can be received quite hard for some people. For me, I lost my paternal grandparents at a young age and my father around age 12, so the topic of death is not only an intellectual interest, but a quest of understanding. Does it sound like I am making light of such a heavy subject? Maybe, but the old Zen monks also made light of death. This is the poem I want to share today, by a Zen monk known as Taigen Sofu:
I raise the mirror of my life
Up to my face: sixty years.
With a swing I smash the reflection—
The world as usual
All in its place.
There is some humor in this poem with the smashed reflection. We all too often take ourselves too seriously and we tend to forget that the world is still turning. The sun isn’t going anywhere unless it explodes in which case our species would most likely be annihilated. Even after that stars and asteroids will continue existing. To some this is a depressing reality, but if you look at it with a sense of humor, the small anxieties we accumulate over time seem silly and ridiculous next to the sun blowing up. We can go on with our lives and achieve the goals we set out for ourselves. Really, no one knows anymore than the guy or woman next to him. I have been watching a lot of Netflix comedy specials like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Tom Segura; they look at the world and see something to laugh about and some of the old Zen monks (not all of them) in Japan looked at the world the same way. To them it’s futile to make yourself bigger than you actually are. I am not sure that this post was even philosophical, but I have a feeling it accomplishes something. Remember, we are doing this to remind ourselves, just as much as you, that life can also be funny and ridiculous. Happy end of February and see you in the next post!
Because someone (I did) forgot my notes this morning pertaining to the Taoism post this was initially supposed to be, we’re going to talk about something different and sort of impromptu. Besides, I’m PRETTY sure a Taoist would appreciate the ability to adapt to the situation without missing a beat First, I have a question for all of you: What is a friend? We use the word friend to mean a variety of things ranging from “This is a person I barely met and maybe couldn’t give to shits about, but it’d would be impolite to say that” to “This is someone I’d take a bullet for.” And of course there are the myriad nuanced definitions in between. My question is, why do we ascribe the term friend to the shallower end of the spectrum at all?
Aristotle famously said that a friend was a single soul which dwelled in two bodies. I like that, but it makes me feel like friend and soulmate are synonymous, and because of that, a singular and exclusive term, in the same way as “There can be only one (Highlander).” So I went off to look for an alternate friendship model that encompassed an idea of social networking with Aristotelian closeness. I found it in an unexpected place: while in a class/group therapy setting for depression. We were introduced to the Okinawan idea of a moai: “Moais are social support groups that form in order to provide varying support from social, financial, health, or spiritual interests. Moai means “meeting for a common purpose” in Japanese and originated from the social support groups in Okinawa, Japan. The concept of Moais have gained contemporary attention due to the Blue Zone research popularized by Dan Buettner. According to research, Moais are considered one of the leading factors of the longevity of lifespan of the Okinawan people, making the region among the highest concentration of centenarians in the world”
I’m going to leave this right here while I go off and add to my moai, or as I see it, the extended family who chooses each other. Until next time, keep philosophizing!
Today, I am going to do something different. For Wednesday posts I’m going to draw from a book of death poems. Specifically, death poems written by Zen monks, samurai and the everyday merchants that wandered Japan, from the feudal era to the Meiji period. The book I am using is called Japanese Death Poems and it is compiled by a professor named Yoel Hoffman. So what does dying and writing poetry have to do about Taoism? Well, if you’ve been pondering the Taoist works we have shared, then the connection between death and the Tao is one of transition and acceptance; I will only share one poem and describe who wrote it and what it might mean. Remember that we are not scholars, so don’t expect a detailed analysis.
Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.
This death poem was written by a Zen monk named Mumon Gensen; he died in 1390 ADE. I like the imagery in this poem, this one of the many things I like about this book. Zen Buddhism is the result of the marriage between the Buddhist ideas of India and the rich imagery of the Taoism of China. Over there it was called Ch’an and when those ideas sailed to Japan, it was translated as Zen. The image of “a cloud of mist” is a common theme as life is seen as full of distraction which “clouds your vision” as the Jedi would put it in the Star Wars mythos. And death as a “floating moon” is the specter that follows all your days. The ending of the poem is something of a reminder that pondering about these subjects is useless; Zen Buddhism is known for being a philosophy that looks down on doctrine and metaphysical speculations. Talk of the afterlife is discouraged since we can never really know and that the point is to live within the present moment, an echo of Taoism and Chuang Tzu. There is so much more in this book I would like to bring up, but that’s what the next few weeks are for. So, until next time.
Here is a link to the book on Amazon: