Archive for the Dreams Category

Martin Scorsese and the Trauma Machine

Posted in Dreams, Entertainment, Film, filmmaking, Hugo, Martin Scorsese, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, psychoanalysis, Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 2, 2012 by Uroboros

Besides being an exceptional bit of cinematic wizardry, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a real rarity in terms of the spin it puts on its themes. Many modern stories cast a wary eye on technological innovation. Sci-fi novels and films, especially, tend to find humanity’s knack for creating gadgets  and mechanisms to be dehumanizing, if not downright self-destructive. The Terminator and Matrix franchises, for example, paint gloomy pictures about the fate of our reliance on machines. Hugo, however, not only celebrates humanity’s technological prowess but actually argues that, far from dehumanizing us, the gadgets we invent can help us fulfill our potential as human beings.

Hugo Cabaret is the orphaned son of a clockmaker who secretively maintains the clocks at a train station while feverishly trying to fix the automaton his late father salvaged from a museum. The child believes the automaton, which is designed to write, will pen a message from his late father, something which will help Hugo understand his purpose in life. The wish is, of course, fantastical, the product of a child’s vivid imagination, pure make-believe. As unrealistic as it is, though, this dream fuels Hugo, intertwining his destiny with that of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies. In the film, both Hugo and Melies are deeply-wounded and broken creatures, who, through the power of technology, are healed, achieving a wholeness which restores a sense of purpose to their desperate lives. The revitalizing technology, of course, is the film camera.

The Automaton

Scorsese revels in the power of cinematic storytelling, championing it as a perfect medium for human beings to express and articulate their dreams. Hugo‘s underlying argument is psychoanalytic. As Freud and Jung theorized, when we dream, whether at night or during the day, we’re experiencing symbolic, coded messages from our own unconscious, a personal repository of repressed fears and unfulfilled wishes for Freud, a collective reservoir of human potential for Jung. In the film, Melies waxes rhapsodic about filmmaking as the stuff of dreams, a means for transforming personal visions into the focal point of collective experience. This is the magical force latent in the film camera, the celluloid balm projected onto the silver screen. Scorsese is unabashed in celebrating the potential therapeutic value inherent in a technology he’s dedicated his life to mastering. The revered auteur was a lonely boy, too, with a vivid imagination and passionate dreams. As a sickly child, he spent many afternoons watching the world from his bedroom window conjuring up personal versions of the stories he experienced at the movie theater down the block. If you’re a fan of his work—of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, etc—then you’ll recognize Hugo as both his most un-Scorsese-like film and his most deeply-personal.

It’s no surprise he revisited Melies’ story, either. Melies didn’t invent filmmaking. The technology had been around for a while. Melies’ great insight was in imagining how movies could be more than mere novelty—more than dropping a nickle into a machine in order to get a spectacular but fleeting thrill. Melies grasped film’s potential for turning the unconscious inside out; when he looked at a camera, he saw a dream machine. If you automatically associate filmmaking with storytelling, then you’re seeing the medium as Melies envisioned it. Through Hugo’s quest, Scorsese offers the audience a wonderfully-mythologized account of the early evolution of film, rendered in lavish light and colors, set in intricately-detailed locales, and framed in eye-popping and content-appropriate 3-D (as opposed to how 3-D tech is used in most films these days, a money-making gimmick tantamount to the Nickelodeonapproach of pre-Melies cinema, i.e. titillating thrills as fleeting and disposable as the plastic glass through which they’re viewed.) Here, technology not only serves Scorsese’s story. It is the story. The narrative focuses on people who are either driven or haunted by dreams, the sting of unfulfilled passions. This duality is captured by the German term for dreaming itself, traumen, which, of course, suggests ‘trauma.’ In other words, dreams are a kind of wound, the expression of something within that needs to be healed. We suffer dreams in the sense of ‘undergoing’ them; they’re spontaneous passions which move us through pain toward pleasure; they’re a renewable energy source for the pursuit of happiness. Hugo reminds us that, far from hindering this pursuit, the technologies we generate along the way can help us achieve our ends.  Machines can actually make us more human.

It’s a strange, unique message. Modern culture’s anxiety about rapid technological progress has grown increasingly gloomy, if not apocalyptic, over the last several decades. As a culture, we do need to tell and retell the Frankensteinian stories about technology run amok. We need to consider the destructive and dehumanizing impact our scientific breakthroughs can have. But, watching Hugo, I was reminded that Frankenstein isn’t the whole story. Hugo envisions another kind of image in the ink blot, one where the automaton’s pen—the cogs and gears, the clicking and winding—doesn’t necessarily spell humanity’s doom. Instead, they help us reconnect the broken parts and revitalize that spark which makes us human: the ability we have to use our imaginations to produce meaning and manufacture happiness long enough to keep the human project itself running.

As Hugo Caberet tells Isabelle:

Everything has a purpose, even machines. Clocks tell the time, trains take you places…Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad. They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose, it’s like you’re broken…Machines never come with any extra parts. They always come with the exact amount they need.

If the world is one big machine, Hugo adds, no one is an extra part. We’re all here for a reason. In an age when people feel trapped in an overly-mechanized culture, it’s refreshing to hear a radically different take on the nature of machines, a more optimistic answer to questions concerning technology and its potentially traumatic impact on human nature.         

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