Hugo: the soul in the machine

In Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, clockworks tick and clank and grind all around a grimy boy, hidden in the heart of a train station. A long camera shot zooms from outside Paris all the way into the station, pulling us through and into the action, all the way up to the face of a clock, through which Hugo is watching. Scorsese had me from that moment: I was a watcher, too, as a child, often peering down on the world from the safe height of a tree.

As the movie unfolds, so does the child; we learn more of his story and motivations, particularly as he makes a new friend and they begin to unravel old and new mysteries.

The metaphors and visual plays of the film sound trite in words, but Scorsese does with pictures what words can only dream of … and somehow in this season of Advent — and of prolonged waiting and longing in my own life — this film has sunk deep into my own heart.

In one scene, Hugo is maintaining a clock, oiling and adjusting the gears. His friend, Isabelle, is curled nearby, watching and listening as Hugo thinks out loud about Isabelle’s godfather, who is by turns sad and angry. They have recently discovered what the older man has lost, and are trying to figure out what restoration might look like. Hugo says,

Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason? 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.

These words struck me so hard I almost missed the next bit of dialogue, where Hugo and Isabelle wonder about their own young lives, and what their purpose might be. Both children are orphaned; although Isabelle has landed more softly than Hugo, he at least has memories of his parents to guide and inspire him. Isabelle does not. Seeking to give her the little bit of comfort he has, he takes her to one of the glass-faced clocks overlooking the city. Together, they gaze out, the lights of Paris glowing and whizzing before them.

Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I’m not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.

Hugo is making a leap of faith. His life features nothing of what a boy’s should: parents, safe shelter, healthy and consistent food and care. And yet, he believes there is a purpose to his life, which means he belongs. He doesn’t know to whom or to what yet; but the cruel accidents of his life — even the meticulous and hidden work that he does — are not the whole story.

Sometimes, even with all the work I am doing and all the care I am giving, I feel as though my life has skidded to a stop. I stepped off a moving train some years ago, you could say to figure out some of these questions, of purpose and belonging, having to do with family and vocation. But I’ve discovered as Hugo did that time does not stop, not even when you really want it to. And getting back on that moving train can seem impossible.

I don’t believe in a clockwork universe; I don’t believe in a puppeteer (or movie director) God. But I do believe that none of us are extras. We are all integral to the scene; we are here for a reason, even if all the details are not quite clear yet.

Like Hugo, I can feel frustration and even anger when I can’t make things work right, when I don’t get the messages or results I want. I can feel like the beautiful thing I have worked on for years is broken now and beyond repair.

And yet … and yet. Here in the second week of Advent, these words come:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

God tells the prophet to comfort the people, that God is coming, and will bring reward and recompense, feed God’s people like a shepherd, gather the lambs in God’s arms, carry them in God’s bosom, gently leading the mother sheep.

This hits me, too: I feel like a mother sheep sometimes. The other morning, driving my son to school, we passed Tiny Farm, a direct-to-market grower of vegetables. They began keeping sheep a couple of years ago, and year by year numbers are added to the flock. On this morning, all the dozen or so sheep were gathered in the middle of the pasture, gazing east where the sun was just beginning to glow through the pines.

What do sheep know about sunrises? What do I?

Do I at least know what direction to look? Sometimes. Sometimes I forget. Especially when God’s timing is involved. The author of 2 Peter says that one day can be like a thousand years to God, and a thousand years like a day. That’s not really helpful, is it. I try to hear what the author says next: that God is not being slow, but rather patient, so that all can be worked out.

What are we waiting for now, I wonder. I just want to do what I was made to do, with all the purpose and belonging that entails. How hard can that be?

Long pause. Catching breath.

Well. I need to remember which direction to look. I need to remember that I have my part of the work to do, leveling mountains and building roads for God’s future to travel on.

And in the meantime, I have my equivalent of clocks to wind. Gears to align. Hands to move into place. Peace to make, if not for myself, at least for those around me, whose brokenness is more apparent. If I cannot find the overarching long view and grand purpose, at least let me love what is, and comfort those I can.

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One Response to Hugo: the soul in the machine

  1. CMrok93 says:

    The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review.

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