Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” depicts a young man’s dream of entering a movie theater, sitting down to watch the film and realizing that he’s seeing footage of his parents’ courtship. Schwartz treats this premise pessimistically–at one point, the man attempts to warn the couple that it’s not too late for them to stop, even though this would of course prevent him from ever being born–but Schwartz’s central idea, being present at and witnessing one’s own origins, is the idea at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s latest film Hugo, considered in a more wide-eyed and hopeful manner. Scorsese is a child of the cinema par excellence, and his film imagines this origination, showing moments from cinema’s era and place of birth and examining what might be called the moment of his spiritual conception.
The stakes of Schwartz’s story–the possibility of being able to foresee one’s own conception and contemplate even intervening, facilitated by a dream logic–are less interesting to Scorsese than the more challenging question he asks, finding sweeter, more innocent answers: What if I had, indeed, been born but never discovered my true calling, the cinema? At one point in the film, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) contemplates the world as a collection of machines, deducing that each begins with all the parts they would need to function and that each also serves a definite purpose within the whole. Like Schwartz, Scorsese wants to uncover that uncanny place where a world of equally possible realities are imaginable–we are born or we are not born, we discover cinema or we become a priest (as Scorsese once considered)–because only by contemplating the rightness of each possibility can we imbue our own lives, which have their origins outside of us, with total and certain meaning. The connective spark, the leap of faith from the possible to the necessary, is supplied in Hugo by the magic of cinema.
Fittingly for a movie concerned in this way with lineage, Hugo’s story is set in motion by its protagonist’s father (Jude Law). We see him only briefly–Law’s performance is straightforward but tender–but he is portrayed as a mythical figure for Hugo, the essential point of origin for his purpose in life. As Scorsese has done with cinema, young Hugo assumes as his heritage an automaton left to him by his deceased father. The machine not only leads Hugo to uncover a secret world of forgotten cinema but also directly symbolizes the magic of cinema: when finally activated, it draws an image on paper of a scene from Georges Méliès’ most famous film. This automaton allows Scorsese to literally depict cinema with a human face. Tellingly, Hugo and his companion Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) watch the sudden, miraculous animation of the automaton with rapt wonderment and hushed awe, a frequent reaction by characters in Hugo that acknowledges cinema’s otherworldly presence. To be in this presence and find significance in his life, Hugo even puts himself in harm’s way, and we might pause to ask why. The answer is suggested by Isabelle in the way her predilection for adventure informs Hugo’s spirit: uncovering this secret world promises for us what is absent in our own world. Hugo thus acts as a surrogate for our and Scorsese’s most innocent yet fervent hopes: to believe once more in the magic of cinema.
Enthralled by sober, puritanical realism, we no longer believe in this magic. Is the culprit our metamorphosis into adults, or is it our transition from the age of Méliès to the present day? At one point, Scorsese shows that storied moment at the dawn of cinema when the first motion picture audiences recoiled at the sight of a train heading towards them, asking: Is it they who are naive for believing or is it us for not? Presiding over aesthetic experience with all the tasteful prudence of an accountant, we resist “magic” as childish. Hardly trivial, what’s at stake in this question is the way we view technology’s role in our lives. We fear technology may turn us into machines, and Scorsese even depicts an evocative dream sequence in which Hugo transforms, limb by limb, into his automaton. But Scorsese’s fundamental belief, tied to his life’s work, is that a machine like the film projector unlocks a world we can visit in order to become more fully human, as when Méliès, a shadow of his former self, brims with life again when his work is rediscovered.
That Méliès had so swiftly lost everything in the first place suggests the fragility of cinema’s dream world, a child in need of protection, and Hugo glows with the warm, comforting presence of a parent. The film is a children’s tale told by Scorsese with the care of a parent reading to his child, turning the page and pointing out amusing details: his technical expertise guides our eyes at all times so we don’t miss anything. Easily one of Scorsese’s gentlest films, Hugo operates according to a logic that finds it necessary, in the end, to humanize even the one character who truly threatens Hugo, Sacha Baron Cohen’s pesky but hardly villainous train station inspector. When most of the characters, both major and minor, are brought together for the final scene, most appropriately at a film screening, we see in this moment one of Scorsese’s fondest and most deeply felt realizations of his vision of community, a democratic assembly where all find a place. In envisioning this, Scorsese has succeeded in responding to the challenge implied by Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” arguing that the world of images–and cinema is here frequently compared to dreams–can enliven the world with magic rather than merely distract or entertain. Wrapping these themes around the story of a young boy finding his place in the world is a gesture both autobiographical and giving, a foundational statement on the importance of art in an era that often casually dismisses it.