Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What surprised me about 'Hugo'

Every time I chance to watch a realistic depiction of the world in the 20th century, I get a bit of a shock. This shouldn't really be the case, considering the fact that I was born a good eleven years before the century ended. Also, most of the books I have read - be it Enid Blyton, Wodehouse, Agatha Christie or more recently,  James Joyce and Salman Rushdie - have been set in the 20th century. And the world I read about in these books never seemed so vastly different from mine. True, there were no cell phones or computers but I too have lived a life without either of these gadgets and  that life is one I can easily identify with even today. Much as I can identify with the 20th century world portrayed in the books. There were cars then, there are cars now. The same goes for trains, buses, electricity, T-shirts, shorts, pianos, concerts, microphones, rabies vaccines and everything else that makes our time different from those dark, historical, medieval times where people used oil lamps, wore long robes and hewed their musical instruments from single pieces of wood.
Yet, when yesterday, I saw 'Hugo',  my initial reaction was : 'Ah! 19th century France'. And I wasn't the only one who thought so, she did too. Then, when within the film, talk of 'the cinema' began, I adjusted that reaction to 'Ah! Early 20th century France'. Soon 'the war' (which was clearly the First World War)  was talked about in the past tense; yet again I found myself pushing forward my consciousness of time, and then finally, my curiosity piqued considerably, out came the droid, straight to Wikipedia and I confirmed the actual year of the film's action: 1931! Which was a piddly fifty eight years before I was born into the world I have been repeatedly claiming familiarity with. Quite disturbing.

Has the world really changed beyond recognition since 1931 or is this the effect of Scorcese's superb use of 3D? To confirm it either way, I'm going to list three differences between the world of Hugo and the world of Andrew.

1. Gare Montparnasse Railway station : Since most of the film is set at the railway station, this is easily the most glaring difference. Pictures say it best :

                                                                                                       [Copyright Jean-Marie Hullot]


It's not just the fact that the trains in Hugo's world look like they are fresh out of James Watt's imagination, it's the entire station. Most of it is lighted by fire, the clocks  are possessed of quaintly elaborate winding mechanisms and in spite of what the station master had to say as regards the correct type of non poetic activity proper to it, a lot of people seem to come to the railway station only to socialize.This Master(plus his ugly dog)  is wholly responsible for handling security in the huge station. And his only security related activity  seems to be mopping up homeless children and sending them off to the orphanage. An almost inconceivable scenario in today's terrorist threatened world. 

2. Paris' streets : Having never been to Paris after birth, I cannot provide the most accurate account of its streets. I am, however, reasonably sure that they bear nothing but the barest-bones resemblance to the dark, dingy, cold bylanes portrayed in Hugo where the tallest building is three storeys high. And where the frequency of cars in what should have been a crowded area is so minuscule that a small boy can run amok without the slightest respect for objects that could make French toast of him. Not that small boys on the streets of Bombay are any different; that however, is another concern and will be dealt with in a later post about 'proles'.

3. People: There wasn't the most in depth examination of 'life' within the story of Hugo; most of the film is centred around two characters. There are, however, a few insights. One is children's rights - if France's could be like that, I dread to imagine the rest of the world.  Another is courtship; the station master actually got himself a wife by doing what he did - today he'd probably end up with a lawsuit. Yet another is the fact that people seemed to be less sophisticated and more easily pleased - however novel and pioneering George Melies' techniques may have  been, I don't see modern audiences being amused by the silly dances and disjointed sequences within his films. These days, if something is innovative, but stupid and pointless, it is generally declared so and scorned. Like Siri by Apple. 

It is safe to say two things : a) that macroscosmically, film well made portrays life  far better than any book can possibly hope to  and b) that the world has changed more in the last hundred years than  in the previous three hundred; indeed a middle aged man living in 1912 would be more at home in 1612 than in 2012. This may have something to do with the fact that a war, more devastating than the one mentioned in the film soon followed and changed the world forever. 


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