You thought I was going to say “cinema.” That would be too obvious. Yes, Martin Scorsese’s latest movie pays homage to the magic of film. For those who have not seen it nor read the many reviews, the plot revolves around Hugo (Asa Butterfield) a 12 year old boy who lives in a Paris train station some time between world wars. Hugo’s dual quests involve fixing an eerily beautiful automaton and then discovering the secret of its creator. The creator turns out to be the director Georges Melies (Ben Kingsely), a real-life early genius of film who melded his magician’s bent for sleight of hand with the infinite possibilities of the new medium. Hugo knows Melies only as “Papa Georges,” the broken and melancholy owner of a toy shop in the station.
How does Hugo connect the dots between the automaton, Papa Georges, and Georges Melies? With the indispensable help of ….an academic! Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlberg) is a film historian, a nerdy and obsessed young man who kept the flame of Melies’ work alive by studying and documenting it. Hugo and his friend Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) are reading Tabard’s book in the library when the author himself walks up behind them. The children inform him that there is one crucial mistake in his book, which is that it assumes that Melies died in the Great War. The children assure Tabard that Melies is very much alive, and Tabard returns the favor by sharing with them the library he has collected of Melies’ work, including what he believes to be the director’s only remaining in-tact film. Without Tabard, the children and the world would have lost the story of this early film genius and would have had no reason to find and reconstitute his lyrical and entrancing movies.
That is academia at its best, toiling away at obscure subjects for the love of doing so, work that has no apparent market value but that keeps flames of knowledge alive. Fiction in this case, but during these times of constant questioning of academia, resonant nonetheless
By now you have filled in the title of this post. “Hugo: A Love Affair with Academics.”