The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever. But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a film. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.
Brian Selznick (yes, he’s related to David O., who was his grandfather’s first cousin) has written and drawn a very beautiful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There are words, too, but it is most effective in sequences that move through space and time in a series of quasi-cinematic “shots”, all precisely etched in crumbly pencil. You almost want to try and blow the lead dust off its pages. I’d like to show you some pictures from it, but I can’t get it into my scanner without cracking the spine, and I’m rather prissy when it comes to my books (is it just me? Don’t you just hate it when you lend someone a book and it comes back creased, dog-eared and decorated with coffee circles?). So, I’ve borrowed some images from elsewhere, and you can watch a slideshow of the book’s opening section here. Hugo Cabret lives in Montparnasse railway station, hiding out from the sinister station master. His father, a clockmaker, has died in a fire, and Hugo is obsessed with fixing the writing automaton his father left behind, convinced that when its mechanism is complete, it will write him a message that his been hidden for years. He has a run-in with the old man who runs a toy stall at the station, and the connections between them all are slowly revealed.
I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler, because it’s the key selling point of the book for me, and it’s the reason I’m posting about it in this blog (but please skip the rest of this post if you don’t want to know any of the book’s secrets), but it turns out that the old man is French early film pioneer and magician Georges Méliès, whose films have received a fair amount of attention on this blog. As a result, the film makes glancing connections with actual history, and treats Méliès’ films as glorious lost objects, precisely as they must seem to children today. The brilliant director really did end up selling toys in a kiosk at a Paris train station. There are stories that the magician had built an automaton that could write, but no proof of this survives today, and there is no photographic evidence (as ever, I would be very happy to be corrected at any time on this).
Variety announced last year that Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots) was going to direct a film adaptation of Hugo Cabret written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), though things seem to have gone a bit quiet. If it does get off the ground, does anyone have casting suggestions for a Méliès? Personally, I think there’s one very obvious choice so perhaps I should ask if anyone has a better idea than Jean Rochefort? Actually, Rochefort has already played Méliès on the concept album La Mécanique du Coeur, by French band Dionysus, based on the book by lead singer Mathias Malzieu. Luc Besson has optioned it, so we might be looking at two Méliès movies in a short space of time.
Plenty of magicians, including John Nevil Maskelyne, whose whist-playing android “Psycho” is still on display at the Museum of London (though the galleries will be shut until next year, sadly) and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, displayed trick automata in their acts. That is, the machines couldn’t really perform the feats of which they were reputed to be capable – they were moved by hidden operators or wires.
Selznick has said that he was inspired by Gaby Wood’s book on automata, Edison’s Eve, published in the UK under the title Living Dolls. That’s another interest we share in common. I’ve been a fan of moving mechanical figures for a long time, and I’ve sometimes speculated that automata might be one of the missing pieces of the historical puzzle of proto-cinematic media. I wouldn’t want to force the comparison, but automata share the same facet for recorded movements, the capturing of performance and the uncanny endowment of inanimate objects with signs of life. A couple of years ago I was travelling in Europe, and one of my most memorable stops was at the museum of art and history in Neuchatel, Switzerland. On the first Sunday of every month, you can watch a demonstration of the Jacquet-Droz androids. Here are some pictures I took:
Sorry about the focus. It was very low light (the dolls, I was told, were very shy and didn’t like flash – i.e. they’re almost two and a half centuries old and a bit fragile). The doll on the right in the background is a writer. He dips his quill in a pot of ink and writes in a beautiful script on the card in front of him. The draughtsman in the foreground can draw a small repertoire of pictures in pencil. On that day, he was drawing a portrait of Louis XV. I managed to get my hands on their handiwork. I still have the cards on my desk. Here are some more pics. Click on them to see the remarkable detail:
But for something extra special, here’s a video I made (sorry, just on my little camera, no professional equipment) of Marianne, the Jacquet-Droz harmonium player.
Notice that after she’s played her tune, she takes a bow, and if you look very closely, you can see her breathing. I can’t be the only one who suspects that she must have been the inspiration for Hoffman’s living doll Olympia in The Sandman.
The story of Hugo Cabret hinges, like so many stories, particularly those aimed at children, on a secret object with magical powers (the automaton’s drawing abilities are beyond anything that has ever been built) passed on from father to son, and as such creates a compelling subtext about the way we remember things over long stretches of time, and the machines we use to help us do it. Melies’ films memorialise a certain period in time, but they also transform it, like dreamy misremembrances of how things might have been. If this book can introduce young people to the actual wonders of Melies’ films, it will have done a valuable service already, but it can also remind adults of the beauty of filmic bodies, with their ability to disappear, rocket to the moon and fall back again, or multiply indefinitely. The automaton might be a previsualisation of the malleable cinematic body, one which can carry messages through the decades across several lifetimes, replaying the same performances for audiences separated by centuries. A living doll like Marianne exudes an eerie presence, a feeling that she has been a imperious and imperishable witness to history.
Review at NPR, with Selznick reading an extract.