Martin Scorsese Started the Fire: Hugo and The Bad Thing

The first thing to say about Scorsese’s Hugo is that, from the beginning, the concerns that actually motivate the narrative are deeply, basically, and fundamentally very simple. Hugo wants to have a not-shitty life. He wants the most universal things it is possible to want: family, friends, freedom from fear, security, that sort of thing. These are desires that it is easier to express in negative terms: he wants to have parents who are not dead, he wants to not go to The Orphanage, he wants to not be unemployed and useless, and he wants to not be alone all the time. And before The Bad Thing happened, he had those things and life was pretty great. Jude Law was still in the movie, and who doesn’t love that? But then, arbitrarily and without warning, The Bad Thing happened, and most of the movie is motivated by wanting not, wanting not-the-bad-thing.

What was the Bad Thing? It doesn’t matter; it’s an arbitrary and senseless hand of God that enters the narrative and makes things shitty. Fire came and burned the father up, in point of fact, but he could as easily have drowned or been hit by a meteor or killed in the other Bad Thing that will happen later; the fire doesn’t matter in its particularity, any more than it matters why The Great War happens, or any of the other Bad Things that happen. A Bad Thing simply happened and then life got really scary and desperate.

It is important to notice this fairly simple fact, because this is what the narrative is about. The fact that the Bad Thing is arbitrary and senseless is not beside the point; it is the point. As Event, it signifies “arbitrariness.” And while it’s a clumsy bit of writing – deus ex machina being the cheapest form of authorial intrusion there is – that is also precisely the point. Arbitrary does not mean “random,” but something more like “subject to authorial will.” And this isn’t just a badly written movie (though, good lord, it is that); this is a movie that quite explicitly wants to elevate arbitrary authorial spectacle over the complex and contingent ambiguities of human existence, to quite nakedly and directly demand that we revere the Voice of the Author[ity] over the nuances of character. After all, this is a movie whose perverse dramatic climax is when the Director gets the Lifetime Achievement award, and we are meant to believe that Hugo would risk his life to help him do it (or, rather, to overlook the fact that he never would). It’s a bold move to write your Oscar acceptance speech into the film itself – casting Ben Kingsley to play you – but Scorsese, it appears, is a bold auteur: his characters are there to serve him.

It might be too much to call Hugo a fascist movie, in this sense, but I like the way the word feels on my tongue, here, the kind of association between spectacle and authority that it evokes (and consequential contempt and crass instrumentalization of those who are weak enough to be used). In any case, I hope the slippage in my language – between auteur, author, and authority – suffiently indexes the way this movie wants to make the author both the object of the spectacle, the master of the spectacle, and the primary subject of love and sympathy. For in doing so, it wants to make us forget people’s whose precariousness – whose subjection to the whims of the powerful – would make them not give two fucking shits about an old man’s battered ego, much less risking their entire existence to give it one last pump.

After all, something bizarre happens between the beginning of the movie, when we are watching Hugo try to survive in a desperately precarious place, and the end, when we are watching Hugo watching movies and a moviemaker. How on earth has the movie gone from the paradigmatic orphan plot to a Behind the Music documentary? How have we been tricked into thinking the real tragedy of the Bad Thing was that it hampered a director’s career?

Let us go back to where we start, and where we end: Hugo’s existence – post-Event – is profoundly ruled by arbitrary fate. He is contingent, utterly dependent on the unpredictably vaguaries of chance, etc. Hugo isn’t just metaphorically an undocumented worker. He’s actually quite literally an illegal alien, as Millicent pointed out to me; he may have blue eyes and the palest of pale skin – in yet another Parisian nostalgia film where brown people don’t exist – but let us add up the details: existing on the margins of official society, he keeps the machinery running without anyone knowing, lacks a secure right to exist or assurance that his job will continue, his livelihood is illegal (in that he must steal to live), and the police question his presence on sight and will arrest him if the truth is discovered. He is, in other words, the very embodiment of precarious life, a person whose ability to exist is so radically contingent on the visissitudes of random fate that his existence can’t have any independent meaning or coherence; he will simply be, but be fundamentally dependent for life on random chance, until random chance destroys him.

The reason this happened – the thing that caused him to be cast out of meaningful society, a permanent outlaw whose life can have no reliable or secure meaning – is itself essentially meangingless. No one started the fire. He’s not a Harry Potter whose parents were murdered. It just happened. And the result of that senseless event is: to be cast into a world of senselessness.

But at this point, there are two points to make. On the one hand, we’re at the level of very basic universals: Hugo’s Good life went away because of a Bad Thing, and that Bad Thing could happen again, at any time, and take away what little he has left. All that bullshit about movies and clocks and machines and magic tricks haven’t entered into the picture because they’re all essentially compensatory. Why is Hugo into movies? Because he and his father used to watch movies after his mother died. Why is he so into machinery and the automaton? Because it’s his connection to his dead father. The plot – a splendid and incoherent minefield of machines and clocks and movies and magic tricks and all sorts of great MacGuffins – is nothing more than Hugo’s attempt to deal with a reality defined by the absence of everything that is universally good, his effort to bring about a state of being where his life will be not bad. In other words, we have to reduce the movie down to its crude essence: Good Things and Bad Things. Drama! Loss! Pathos!

Which brings me to my second point: someone did start the fire. It was Martin Scorsese. All that bullshit about clocks and magic tricks is there to hide the simple fact that Scorsese’s movie has built us a perfect orphan, with a perfect orphan story, using fire and spectacle to do it. But this is purely functional necessity. For while the movie ends with the important rich director saving him – just as the important rich director put him in this mess in the first place – it turns out, obscenely, that the plight of this orphan was, itself, mere spectacle for us to enjoy feeling sorry for, and the real question in the film is whether we’ll remember that spectacle is the most important thing. Because somewhere in the middle, what is at stake in the narrative suddeny, seamlessly, becomes the question of whether important rich guy will get his proper due from society as an important guy. Martin Scorsese expects us to believe that the most marginalized and vulnerable member of society imaginable – Hugo – would suddenly, for no apparent reason, decide that what he truly needs to do is help an old man who has been, uniformly and without exception, cruel to him. He doesn’t just expect it; he takes for granted that in a movie which starts off being (essentially) about an undocumented alien trying to stay out of an ICE detention center, what we really need to be concerned about is the question of whether a great filmmaker will get lauded and praised for being great.

Underneath all of this, I want to suggest, is the realization (and repression) of the fact that “Martin Scorsese” is profoundly irrelevent to the world today. By putting him in quotation marks, I don’t mean Scorsese himself; I mean that “Famous Director Obsessed With Blurring the Boundaries Between Film History and Real History” is tremendously out of step with a world now defined not by glorious luxury, but by precarious workers whose lives are being destroyed by senseless Bad Things. We are (or he is afraid we are) the people who came back from the Bad Thing and stopped giving a shit about wonderful daydreams, a la the soldiers who came back from the Great War and stopped watching The Director’s movies. And by making Hugo’s narrative about this tragedy and its resolution – about the terrible fact that this is the case, and then building a dream world in which we look away from a terrible reality and fluff his ego as dream-maker once more – is it too much for me to note and to abhor how he has decided to put the focus on himself?  Is it too much to scramble around for the worst words you can find to describe a movie that starts with an incredibly powerful evocation of the fear, loneliness, and terror of useless and discarded life — the pain of being disallowed even to be a cog in the machine — and apply them to the filmmaker who would make that movie, ultimately, about how great it is to be on top of the pyramid, and how sad it is to not be on the very top any more? And then put himself back on top?