I can tell you about most any movie that was released between 1999 and 2000. I know because I saw 92 of them, which isn’t even counting the repeats – in the summer of 1999, I saw The Matrix three times and The Mummy twice in theaters.
I wheeled my chair into those movie theatres and, once I was there, I relaxed. I could enjoy myself. In the darkness, I was just like everybody else.
In 1999 and 2000, I had a flurry of leg operations. I was born with an orthopedic disability: my legs are not symmetrical. Everyone has slight differences in length between their legs, but there are a few of us graced with Proximal Focal Femoral Deficiency, (or “congenital short femur”). For me, this asymmetry meant a multiple-inch length difference between one limb and the other, with a grab bag of accompanying symptoms. In short, I needed to be fixed.
My parents and teachers were always cautious of my orthopedic safety. I wasn’t allowed to play most sports. When my third-grade class went on a field trip to the ice skating rink, I sat on the sidelines with the parental chaperones and watched. In middle school, the P.E. teacher gave me the honorary title of “manager” for the seventh grade girls’ basketball team. I rode along in the van to away games and got to wear the team jersey. At the games, I’d sit and halfheartedly cheer my active friends. I have no memory of what I felt about all this at the time: I just assumed that I didn’t belong on the court. Of course, as an adult, I am sad for the myriad physical experiences I missed out on as a child. As for days off and summer vacation, I don’t know what other kids were doing, because I was at the movies.
For a year and half, a large metal contraption held my leg together as it was reconstructed and lengthened. The metal frame was heavy and I was small, so I used a walker or a wheelchair to get around.
My world was not—could not be—expansive. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. Local restaurants and cafes often had narrow, tricky entrances, and the art museum downtown had a painfully slow elevator. But I soon found that movie theaters are one of the easiest places to navigate in a wheelchair.
And a movie could take me somewhere else for a few hours.
In 2007, Brian Selznick published a remarkable book.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret happily smacks aside genre restrictions and takes up a sizable space of its own on the bookshelves of any children’s section. Although it’s a novel, vibrant black and white illustrations move the narrative forward. Selznick described it as “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.”
Flipping through its pages, you get the impression that an old film has fallen into the pages of the book and that a creaky projector is throwing images onto a screen in front of you.
A full moon shines over a city spread out under the stars. We zoom into the train station through its front doors, we see a boy furtively running through the crowd. We follow him as he crawls into a grate to sneak through the station walls. He peers down on the busy station crowd, watching one old man in particular…
The experience of reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a special one, especially if you love movies. Appropriately, the book is about the earliest days of cinema.
Like many characters from our iconic children’s stories, the book’s protagonist, Hugo, is an orphan. It is 1931. He lives in the walls of Montparnasse Station in Paris, where he tends the clocks. In his lonely attic room, Hugo is kept company by an automaton who sits poised at a small table, a broken robotic man that he once set out to repair with his late father, a clockmaker. Although his repair work is unfinished, Hugo is convinced that the mysterious automaton holds a secret message from his departed father and is dedicated to unlocking its mystery.
Hugo keeps close watch over the mini-universe of Montparnasse. The station has its own ecosystem: a familiar cast of characters who work at shops, a cafe, and a toy stall run by an old man, Papa Georges. Our orphan hero gets by on stolen goods but, in attempt to snatch a little mechanical mouse from the toy stall, he is caught. His punishment from Papa Georges is to work in the stall alongside him, repairing toys.
Soon, Hugo befriends Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle, who aids him in his quest to repair the automaton. They succeed but, even once they fix it, the mystery is far from solved. When the gears start working and the automaton comes to life, it leans forward on the table and draws a precise image, one familiar to film lovers everywhere: a rocket ship crashing into the eye of the moon. Hugo is upset that the mechanical man does not have a message for him from his beloved father, as he was hoping. Instead, by signing the drawing “Georges Melies,” the automaton unlocks a new puzzle: the true identity of old Papa Georges.
The children learn that Georges Méliès, the toy stall owner they’ve known as Papa Georges, was once a famous early-era film director. He created over 500 films, one of which, the iconic A Trip to the Moon (1902) is captured in the automaton’s drawing. Through the children’s discovery, Méliès is eventually reconnected to the film community he’d left decades ago, and finally paid the respect he deserved for all of his pioneering, visionary cinematic work.
In my wheelchair in those dark theaters, I was in excellent company. As a boy, Martin Scorsese had severe asthma that often kept him indoors. He’d sit at the window and watch as kids on his street played outside. And then, like me, he’d go to the movies.
“I was isolated from everything,” He says. “My parents didn’t know what to do with me. I couldn’t run and play sports… So my parents took me to the movies… I had a very sheltered life until I was 15 or 16. I was sad at times but it forced me to think of other ways to express myself. It made me start to draw and make movies by myself before my parents would come home from work. I’d have that hour and a half where nobody was in the apartment. I could draw and do things. I saw certain films. I was also doing homework. When I read the Hugo book, and how this boy is isolated in the train station and that was a dangerous world, too, I was drawn in by it. I was compelled to read the rest of it. It turned out that the story is resolved through the invention of movies which is interesting.”
Like Scorsese and me, Hugo is an indoor kid. He spends his time peering from behind the clocks of the train station, watching the people go about their lives far below. It takes time for him to find out where he belongs.
It’s only appropriate, then, that Scorsese was the one to turn The Invention of Hugo Cabret into a movie. But when his camera swoops into the train station in the film’s opening moments, it’s almost hard to detect that we’re watching a Martin Scorsese film. We’re shown an old world in bright jewel tones and are quickly immersed in all the old tropes of a classic children’s story. An orphan with tragic parental loss? Check. Bumbling but sympathetic villain? Check. Spunky gal who likes to read? Check. Where is all the bloodshed, the violence, the profanity? Where is Leo? Where is De Niro? With Hugo, Scorsese trades in his more familiar tools for some time travel, nostalgia, and a history lesson.
When Hugo and Isabelle discover that Papa Georges actually has a dynamic background in filmmaking, they head for the Film Academy Library and page through a book of film history. Scorsese takes this time to revel in cinema’s glorious birth. We experience a montage-reel of clips from Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Hugo also marked Scorsese’s first foray into 3D cinema, a nod to all the 3D classics he enjoyed as a youth in the 1950s like Dial M for Murder or Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Here, in this tribute to cinema history, it’s easy to find Martin Scorsese. After all, in 1990, he started the Film Foundation and has spent decades enthusiastically campaigning for cinema preservation. More than half of all films made before 1950 have been lost, and we see vivid examples of this in Hugo. In fact, a huge catalogue of Méliès’s films were destroyed during WWI: the celluloid negatives were melted down to create heels for shoes. We are reminded that movies are cultural artifacts for us, a history worth preserving and screening for the public. To date, the Film Foundation has helped to restore over 620 films and made them accessible through programming at festivals and museums.
Many characters in Hugo serve as stand-ins for Scorsese. He is the lonely boy looking at the world through the window. He is film scholar Rene Tabard, who’s passionately loved cinema since he was a boy. He is Méliès, the master director. And he is the preservationist who revived the story of Méliès for future generations to enjoy.
Scorsese makes a cameo in Hugo as the photographer capturing Méliès’s magical glass-walled studio. In a top hat and spectacles, Scorsese aims the camera at Méliès. Both men look happy to be there, happy to be part of the magic, and thrilled to be sharing it with us. “The most enjoyable time was building an approximation of Georges Méliès’s glass studio,” Scorsese later shared. “We started replicating scenes from Méliès’ films as best we could. We recreated the underwater set for “Kingdom of the Fairies.” With Méliès’s films, especially the hand-colored ones, it’s like illuminated manuscripts come alive. We shot Méliès shooting his films for five or six days. It was one of the best times I’ve had shooting a picture.”
At the end of the film, the camera sweeps us through a window and into an apartment that is bustling with a party. Hugo is still indoors, but now his new friends, the movie-family he has made for himself, surround him. And like him, I was never alone at all those movie screenings fifteen years ago: my father, mother, brother, and best friend were at my side.
Now I walk into movie theaters, but the dark remains as welcoming as always. I survived several more operations throughout my teens and early twenties, and saw many more movies. No matter what was happening in my life, movies were consistently something I could count on, could interact with or be excited by. And that enthusiasm holds steady to this day: with each new film I experience, I am entirely ready to be immersed, to be swept away, to travel somewhere new. Like Scorsese and the young characters in Hugo, I was charmed at a young and impressionable age, and will be a moviegoer for the rest of my life.
Anna Sjogren lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She writes for the Portafilterland coffee profile project and is publishing a memoir this Spring through the Independent Publishing Resource Center’s Writing Certificate program. She gets out of town as often as possible, via film, novel, or airplane.