Starting in 2020, a friend started running a virtual happy hour on Friday nights as a way to give us all a little human interaction outside of work during the COVID Pandemic. We’ve enjoyed these gatherings so much, they’ve now been going on for two years. During one of these sessions, a friend recommended the movie Hugo directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ben Kingsley. My wife chimed in that she’d seen it and strongly suggested we should get a copy. We finally did and I finally had a chance to sit down and watch it.
I think Hugo is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a mainstream steampunk film. Hugo Cabret is an orphaned boy living in the Paris train station in 1931. When his father died in a fire, Hugo had been taken in by his uncle, who maintained the station’s clocks. The only thing Hugo had of his fathers was a broken-down automaton, like the ones used in magic shows at the end of the Victorian era. It appeared this particular automaton could write. Hugo sets about finding parts to make the automaton work again, which means occasionally stealing parts from a toy seller at the station. The toy seller catches Hugo in the act and makes him empty his pockets. In the process he discovers the boys notes about the automaton. Soon after this, Hugo meets and befriends the toy seller’s goddaughter, Isabelle. She helps Hugo and the toy seller reach an understanding and Hugo starts working for him to pay the toy seller back for the parts he took.
As the movie progresses, we eventually learn that the toy seller is none other than Geoges Méliès, the filmmaker who made A Trip to the Moon in 1902. Méliès fell on hard times after World War I. He’s depressed and has no interest in talking about his films. Working together Hugo and Isabelle do manage to get the automaton working and they eventually learn that the automaton once belonged to Méliès. In short, the film tells the story of Hugo coming to terms with the loss of his father and it’s also the story of how Méliès vanished from public view because of World War I and how he came to terms with his legacy in the 1930s. My only real complaint about the film is that the scenes of Méliès directing his films looked a little too much like modern filmmaking. The glimpses of early filmmaking we saw in E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire felt a little more true to the period than what we saw in Hugo.
With its automata, its look at the magic of early film making, and the great clockworks of the Paris train station, the film Hugo feels very much like a steampunk or maybe even dieselpunk story (it is set in the 1930s, after all). However, it isn’t quite steampunk. Instead, it’s historical fiction. After all, automata who danced, wrote notes, or did other tricks really existed. The master maker of such automata was none other than Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a magician who was one of Méliès’s real-life mentors. Robert-Houdin, incidentally, also inspired magician Erik Weisz, who took the stage name Harry Houdini in Robert-Houdin’s honor. Still, it’s astonishing to see a film which feels so steampunk directed by such a mainstream director as Martin Scorsese and which was taken seriously enough to win four Academy Awards.
The film Hugo reminded me of my approach to steampunk and other, similar historical fantasy. I start with meticulous research about what happened in history. Within the true story, I find the tale I want to tell, usually by asking “what if” about some set of real world events. The “what if” might involve some fantastic element like asking what if airships had been present? Or, what if the automata had miniaturized analytic engines and could do complex calculations, becoming more like modern robots than simply sophisticated clockwork toys.
Hugo came out in 2011 and it feels like a lot has happened since then and steampunk has faded in mainstream popularity. Georges Méliès was fortunate enough to see the magic of his films be rediscovered during his lifetime. I suspect steampunk and historical fantasy are far from the end of their life. There’s still much magic for audiences to discover. If you want to delve into my steampunk worlds, just visit http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion