Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mermaids in the Basement & Automatons in the Loft: The Poetry of Hugo and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Of the three films set in the 1920s that were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year (The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo), P&PC liked Martin Scorsese's Hugo the best. It wasn't even close. I mean, we enjoyed the others a lot—we did. The characters of Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris had us clutching our sides and ROTFLOL. And we sat, like the rest of the audience at the Salem Cinema, stunned as George Valentin did the best reworking of the silent-to-talkie transition thing since Sunset Boulevard (and way better than the 1975 Merchant Ivory film The Wild Party, which we mention here mainly because we've got to give it props for being one of the few films ever based on a poem (Joseph Moncure March's jazzy, underrated, and once-controversial 1928 book-length poem of the same title). But Hugo's story of the 12 year-old fugitive orphan who maintains the clocks at the Gare Montparnasse and who serendipitously strikes up a relationship with a toy store owner who happens to be the silent film maker Georges Méliès in hiding just got us. Based on Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese' movie had all the Parisian romance that Midnight in Paris did, and it had all the celebration of movies that The Artist did, but it had at least one thing that the others didn't: poetry.

We're not talking "poetry" in the "it was as eloquent as poetry" sense, nor in the "it had all the beauty and pathos of poetry" sense. No, Hugo really had poetry in it. About forty-five minutes into the film, Hugo and his precocious, middle-class schoolgirl friend Isabelle are at the train station. They've just been kicked out of a movie theater (Hugo sneaked them in by picking the lock to a back door), and Hugo is taking her to see the automaton that he's been trying to repair in memory of his father—the automaton that, with the help of Isabelle's heart-shaped key, eventually draws a picture that links Hugo to Isabelle's godfather Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley) and thus helps bring the automaton-like Méliès back to life. Before they can get to Hugo's digs in the train station loft, however, Hugo and Isabelle are stopped by the Clouseau-hilarious, existentially-wounded train station policeman Inspector Gustave—played wonderfully by Sacha Baron Cohen in the scene pictured here—who has had his eye on Hugo for weeks and who specializes in sending unchaperoned children off to the orphanage. Inspector Gustave grills Hugo and Isabelle about why they are roaming the station without parents, and Gustave's doberman companion Maximilien (as in Robespierre, we assume), who has given chase to Hugo a time or two before, sniffs them up and down suspiciously. Here's the exchange that follows:

Maximilien: Bark, bark.

Gustave: Seems Maximilien doesn't like the cut of your jib, little man. He is disturbed by your physiognomy. He is upset by your visage. Why would he not like your face? Eh?

Isabelle: Well, perhaps he smells my cat.

Gustave: Your cat?

Isabelle: Yes, Christina Rossetti's her name, after the poetess. Would you like me to recite?
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd chute;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set...
Gustave: All right, all right. I know the rest. That’s enough poetry for today. I love poetry, particularly … that poem … by Christina...

Isabelle: Rossetti.

Gustave: Yeah yeah—she's one of my favorites. I know it's Rossetti. I know it's Rossetti. I love poetry, just not … in the station. We’re here … to get on trains 'n' get off 'em, work in different shops. Is that clear?

Isabelle: Yessir.

Gustave: Watch your step. Go on. Go!

Fending off Gustave's advances, Isabelle is quoting the first four lines of Rossetti's "A Birthday," and one of the many compelling things about this scene and the role of poetry in Hugo is that there's no mention whatsoever of Rossetti in the original novel—it was added for the film. Even more curious than this, perhaps, is that the poetry that is mentioned in the book is left out of the movie. Apparently, as Hugo's father suggests in one of the novel's early scenes, and as Selznick explains in his acknowledgments, the automaton that Hugo is trying to repair—and that, in the story that the movie tells, once belonged to Méliès—is based on an actual automaton (pictured here) that was built by the 18th century Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet. Now in the collection of the Franklin Institute museum in Philadelphia, Maillardet's automaton not only draws four different pictures, but it writes three poems as well, two in French and one in English.

Examining the broken automaton in Selznick's novel, Hugo's father explains, "I'm sure that if it were working, you could wind it up, put a piece of paper on the desk, and all those little parts would engage and cause the arm to move in such a way that it would write out some kind of note. Maybe it would write a poem or a riddle. But it's too broken and rusty to do much of anything now.” Hugo's dad was right—one of the poems written by the Maillardet automaton is pictured here, and you can see a couple of videos of the machine working here—but Scorsese's automaton is, apparently, only capable of making pictures. We here at P&PC understand the movie logic, of course, which is also at play in other films like G.I. Jane, The Contract, and The Long Hot Summer that either construct their credibility as art in relation to poetry or else participate in waging what we've called a "strange, low-level, but ongoing smear campaign against poetry." Hugo is ultimately about the magic of movies, and so the magical things in it must (so movie logic goes) be associated with visual phenomena—pictures that are moving both literally and emotionally—and not with what emerges, in the process, as the counter-discourse of words and their epitome: poetry.

If you pay attention to these sorts of things like the investigative reporters on staff at P&PC do, then the Christina Rossetti scene in Hugo, as original as it seems, might actually sound a little familiar—not because it's in Selznick's book (which it's not), but because it's essentially a replaying of a scene from the disturbing 1976 Nicolas Gessner thriller and murder mystery The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. In a great illustration of T.S. Eliot's quip about how the good artist borrows but the great one steals, Scorsese's film basically takes Gessner's scene—in which a precocious girl outmaneuvers a police officer by quoting poetry in a small New England town—and transports it to 1920s Paris. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is the story and quasi-Oedipal drama (adapted from Laird Koenig's 1974 novel of the same name) of Rynn Jacobs (Jodi Foster), an orphan (sound familiar?) who keeps living in her poet-father's house long after he's died (hello, Hugo). Rightly suspicious about the whereabouts of Rynn's parents, Officer Miglioriti stops by one night, asking to speak with Rynn's father for the purpose of telling him about the improper attention that town resident Frank Hallett (a totally creepy Martin Sheen) has been paying to Rynn. Rynn goes upstairs to get her dad, but, as usual, comes back down saying he's unavailable because he's hard at work on his poetry. Here's that scene:

Rynn: Sorry, he's working. He's translating some Russian poetry. When that door is locked I can't bother him.

[Rynn sits on the couch and picks up a cup of tea]

I suspect the only reason [landlord] Mrs. Hallet lets us into her village is because my father is a poet. Mrs. Hallet loves poets. That's one of his books over there.

Miglioriti [picking up the book from the mantle]: He wrote that, huh?

Rynn: Yeah. You want him to sign a copy for you?

Miglioriti: Yeah, sure, I never met a real poet. I mean … Look, don't laugh at me, but I can't believe people like poetry. I'm not talking about that birthday card stuff, but real poetry. And when it doesn't even rhyme!

[Rynn snickers}

Rynn: Oh, I'm not laughing at you. My father says that most people who say they like poetry only pretend to like it. You're honest.

Miglioriti: He's your favorite poet, huh?

Rynn: No, he's my father. Emily Dickinson's my favorite.

Miglioriti: Emily—Emily Dickinson, yeah.

[At the mention of Dickinson, Miglioritti changes the topic, and their discussion turns to Mrs. Hallet's son and how it can be pretty nice in the village once someone gets used to it.]
So you do the math: in both movies, a precocious young woman protects a secret from an older, threatening, male law enforcement official by rebuffing him with a magic charm in the form of an unmarried, nineteenth-century woman poet. Sure, Isabelle in Hugo actually quotes Rossetti while Rynn doesn't quote Dickinson. But isn't the reclusive Rynn—living alone in the house in a small New England town—actually channeling Dickinson herself? In fact, given the secrets Rynn has in the house's basement, and the father she pretends is on the upper floor, it's hard not to hear the first two stanzas of Dickinson's poem "I started Early—Took my Dog" as a silent soundtrack to this scene:

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –

Hollywood hasn't been shy about linking poetry with criminals and other people trying to avoid the law: an escaped hit man played by Morgan Freeman quotes it in The Contract; it makes up the world through which assassin Martin Q. Blank moves in in Grosse Pointe Blank; it is quoted by Ponyboy in The Outsiders; it interferes with Daddy Varner's authority in The Long Hot Summer; it is linked with "England's greatest sinner" in Bride of Frankenstein; and it is written by Edward Norton's character in Fight Club. Trend? We think so. Both The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and Hugo participate in this tradition, but in putting poetry into the mouths of juvenile female speakers, they turn it, we feel, in slightly different direction. We're not sure what that direction is at the moment. But like Gustave's doberman Maximilien, we're not entirely confident, here at the beginning of National Poetry Month 2012, that we like the cut of its jib—or its visage.