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Industry in Idealized Form: The Work of Movies in Film's First One Hundred Years

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

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Martin scorsese's big-budget, 3-d extravaganza hugo, which opens with images of Paris as a huge timekeeping mechanism, undertakes a dual rescue mission. It reclaims Georges Méliès's early cinematic fantasies from the violence of time and progress and saves a young, industrious boy from the violence of a society that has no room for children who fend for themselves outside a family. In doing so, Hugo assures the viewer that the technological wonder of future filmmaking is rooted in a romanticized image of a thoroughly bourgeois past. The movie's threats are embedded in a mise-en-scène full of iconic imagery of modern industry made fantastic. The giant clocks and gears located above and in the walls of Paris's largest train station, which are voluntarily tended by a lone child laborer, evoke neither wonder nor laughter as much as a sense of menace in connection with the young protagonist scurrying around in them. While Scorsese's film situates the origins of movies in fin-de-siècle Paris as the modern industrial city, it also takes pains to make Méliès's products seem like dreams, cultivated in a greenhouse of industrial activity to become larger-than-life projections obscuring modern industry. Tater I will consider the consequences of the film's arc taking this precocious lad from the world dominated by fanciful dangers into a home: for the moment it will suffice to remember that Hugo evokes work as the source from which humans and an automaton derive their purpose and that the film means this to be self-evident to the audience. At the same time it sets in motion a narrative that aims to remove the protagonist from the world dominated by signs of modern industrial work and from the labor that seems such a distressing burden on him at the film's outset. This essay explores that apparent contradiction in the broader history of cinema.

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Special Topic: Work Coordinated by Vicky Unruh
Copyright
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

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