The Message in the Machine

            My husband finally got me to watch the movie “Hugo”. I’d had no desire to see it when it was first out in the theaters, because it had been advertised as a 3-D film. I’d also somehow had the impression that it was about animation, which it is not, but the killer was the part about it being in 3-D. In my biased mind, 3-D means all show, no substance. Plus I don’t want to have to wear cheesy glasses for two hours. And the things rushing at me in 3-D productions make me feel a little nauseous. I know: I’m old. My husband really wanted to see “Hugo”, but I kept deflecting him. We finally rented the DVD last week, sans glasses, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The joke was on me, because I absolutely adored this movie, probably more than my husband did. I recommend it to everyone. “Hugo” is masterful. It is visually lovely, well written, beautifully acted, and directed by a pro (Scorsese!). It is sweet, funny, heartbreaking, suspenseful, educational, and the bearer of a fantastic message.

            The movie “Hugo” is based on a book called “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”. The author, Brian Selznick, wrote and illustrated such a beguiling hybrid of a novel and a storybook that it was the winner of the 2008 Caldecott Award, which is normally given to a traditional picture book. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how closely the movie follows it, but the basic plot centers on an orphan’s tale. When Hugo’s father dies, Hugo is taken in by a drunken uncle who makes his living by winding all the clocks in a busy train station in 1930s Paris. When the uncle disappears, Hugo continues to wind the clocks so that no one notices his uncle’s absence. He lives alone in the walls of the station, steals food, stays on the margins, and breaks the viewer’s heart. Hugo has inherited from his father a love and a talent for machines. With patience beyond his years, Hugo tinkers with and fixes all kinds of mechanisms. His true goal is to resurrect the strange, sad-faced automaton – a mysterious mechanical man – that he and his father had been working on together. Hugo meets Isabelle, a comparably lonely girl who loves to read, but who craves actual adventure. The rest of the movie depicts Hugo and Isabelle’s adventure together, intertwined with the origin of Hugo’s automaton and the history of the motion picture, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who has not yet seen it.

            But see it! It’s the message of “Hugo” that has stayed in my mind and has moved my heart. Isabelle has also lost her parents, although she lives with her godparents, and Hugo explains to her, in an attempt to assuage her sense of loss, how he has found comfort in the face of his grief:

           “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”

            It struck me as deeply spiritual, this young boy’s attempt to make sense of a seemingly nonsensical existence. I like thinking of the world as God’s machine, as a wondrous invention in which every part is needed. We are metaphysical cogs, souls with different abilities and attributes and functions, but somehow we all fit together. And we are all necessary for the grand machine to work exactly as it’s supposed to work.

             Isabelle’s godfather is an older gentleman who exemplifies one of the pitfalls of aging, in that he no longer feels he is a useful part of society. Many older people, especially upon retirement, feel a bit cast off by the lives they used to lead. My mother often speaks of feeling “like a leftover” since my dad died. It’s like she has lost sight of her proper place in the world, and instead sees a future in which she is an ill fit, an extra. As Hugo tells Isabelle, “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken.” Hugo and Isabelle are able to offer an avenue of redemption for her godfather’s brokenness, which is another reason I like this movie so much. Like Hugo, I don’t believe we ever become spare parts. We are not created for despair. Our function may change, but we remain essential to the whole. Not one of us, in the divine scheme of things, is extra.

             And I must thank my husband, who has always managed to open new doors for me in spite of my resistance. Thank you, for “Hugo”. So glad we still run smoothly.


Craig McKee
4 years 11 months ago
For a small view of the real wonder of this ''machine'' know n as Spaceship Earth, check out the Discovery channel's HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS series.
If that doesn't put us in our infinitesimal place, then nothing will!

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