First things first: Happy 200th Birthday Mr. Dickens!
This posting is a continuation of my last article entitled Some Thoughts on Favorite Authors and Films, Storytellers and Lonely Children in which I mentioned that Martin Scorsese’s latest film Hugo, and the book that inspired it, are currently making a serious bid to break into my own top ten list of desert island favorites.
With that in mind, my purpose here is simple: To implore anyone and everyone reading this blog to get out and see Hugo before it disappears from theaters. And if you’ve already seen it, to go out and see it again. And to spread the word about it to family, friends and anyone else
who will listen.
And do yourself a favor and see it at least once in 3D. Notwithstanding the dramatic technical advancements that have been made in recent years, this is normally not something that I care about. However, Hugo is the first 3D film I’ve seen in which use of the process was not an unnecessary gimmick. It is simply part of the overall story and it works.
And in case this hasn’t convinced you, let me drop the “M” word. Hugo is a masterpiece pure and simple.
Every once in a while over the course of film history, the stars align perfectly and the right people are brought together at the right time and place. No one has ever been able to adequately explain this phenomenon and yet every serious movie lover knows that it is true. Casablanca is certainly such as case. And The Wizard of Oz and It’s A Wonderful Life.
In the case of Hugo, a great book by an author and illustrator named Selznick crossed paths with a master film maker who not only loves movies but knows their history. A great screenplay was written and a dream cast assembled. And the result, once again, is a masterpiece.
Don’t ask me to explain it. I’m just grateful that it happens and content to simply enjoy and be grateful. And, I will add, to see it as proof that God does indeed move in mysterious ways and that its corollary that things usually happen for a reason is perfectly true.
So what does this have to do with Dickens? In my view it has everything to do with Dickens. In fact, as I mentioned in that earlier article, if Dickens were alive today he would love this film. He would probably have seen it several times by now and would be eagerly awaiting its release on home video.
And, of course, he would also love the literary masterpiece from which this cinematic masterpiece grew. The film is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal – the equivalent of an Oscar for children’s book illustration.
Quite an achievement since The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not a picture book. It is a novel. Or is it?
In truth, as author and illustrator Brian Selznick notes in his exclusive discussion of the book for amazon.com, it “…is 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.”
That pretty much covers it. All I can think to add is that it is also 500 plus pages of pure magic. Which is why, like the film adaptation, it too is making a serious bid to appear on my short list of desert island favorites. And more importantly, which is why there would most definitely be a copy in Dickens’s personal library were he alive today.
When he was a child, specialized, high quality children’s books as we know them didn’t exist. It’s a different world today, and if Dickens were in it, it is inconceivable that he would not be engaged and involved with our modern children’s book industry on some level. Certainly as a reader. And I will say as a writer too. In fact, I would be willing to bet that somewhere along the line he would pick up a Newberry Medal, in essence the equivalent of an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Writing for children is the most difficult kind of writing there is and, sadly, the world is full of delusional and/or misguided people who think it is easy. Those who write for children are special people with special gifts. But it all starts with respect for children and childhood and an understanding of a child’s point of view and voice. And an unspoken acknowledgement that children have a right to have their own point of view and voice. Nothwithstanding the fact that he was far from a perfect or ideal father, this is a litmus test that Dickens would have no trouble passing.
Now to return to that question of what this has to do with Dickens, the heart of Hugo – both book and film – is a celebration of something that Dickens thought about often and cared about deeply. Fancy. The term seems to be somewhat archaic today. So, if you prefer, substitute imagination, or fun, or simply finding joy and celebrating life. Or some combination of all these things and more.
And Hugo celebrates fancy – with all that the word implies – by examining the life of one of the world’s great storytellers, Georges Melies, wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley, and the exciting new medium through which he told his stories. He did not invent this medium in the sense that he created its requisite technical apparatus. However, by cultivating ground that had been seeded by his countryman Jules Verne, and by building on his own background as a magician, he was certainly the first to truly grasp its potential. Its potential to not only tell a story but to create a new kind of magic. Cinematic magic.
Click here for some information on the exciting restoration of Melies’s most famous film Le voyage dans la lune — A Trip to the Moon — that was made in 1902. And click here for information on its forthcoming home video release.
It is important to note here the presence of what might be termed a larger Dickensian context. If Dickens were alive in 1898 or 1902 or 1905, there can be absolutely no doubt that the wonders of the new medium of cinema would not have escaped his attention. And being a pretty fair magician himself, he would certainly have been a Melies fan. (He would also have been an R. W. Paul fan, but that’s another story.)
Dickens walked boldly and confidently through life. And in spite of the fact that he concerned himself with all manner of serious social questions, and that the prematurely old man who never finished Drood was very different indeed from the supernaturally energetic young man who took the world by storm with Pickwick, he enjoyed life. He liked to have fun and he wanted everyone else, young and old, rich and poor, to have fun too. Indeed, as the proprietor of a circus tells us in Hard Times: “People mutht be amuthed.”
In this context, he loved books. All kinds of books. He revered Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. And he always had a special place in his heart for The Arabian Nights and for fairy tales and ghost stories.
And he loved popular music. And pantomime. And the circus. And magic. And, of course, theatre.
He attended the theatre often, wrote plays, staged his own productions and, by all accounts, was an excellent actor. Indeed, those fortunate enough to have been present at his legendary public readings witnessed much more than a writer simply reading from one of his books. And even though he does not have a whole lot to say on the subject, it is inconceivable to think that Dickens, especially the young Dickens, did not know his way around the music halls of London as well as he did its theatres.
And while he did not live long enough to witness the formal launch of the movies, he was nevertheless a witness to their birth. A witness to what might be termed the dawn of the audio-visual age. An age in which the invention of photography procreated with an understanding of the persistence of vision and unleashed a horde of thinkers, tinkerers and mad scientists who changed the world. An age in which, if we look hard enough, and connect the right dots, we will even discover the birth of television.
And it was an age of panoramas and dioramas and stereoscopes and increasingly sophisticated magic lantern shows. An age in which, long before Betamax and Nintendo, long before the Pathe Baby and the Edison cylinder, people’s parlors and lives were brightened by amazing wonders with strange names like the Thaumatrope and the Phenakistoscope and later the Zoetrope.
None of this was lost on Dickens.
Nothing ever was.
I interrupt this rambling, but hopefully not entirely incoherent, sermon with a purely personal aside.
Assuming that there are no unpublished manuscripts lying about somewhere, I would venture to say that for most Dickensians the ultimate in the Holy Grail department is the hope that a fully authenticated letter from late in Dickens’s life will one day be discovered. A letter in which he absolutely, definitively and incontrovertibly sets the record straight about whatever did or didn’t happen with Ellen Ternan.
From the standpoint of Dickens scholarship, such a letter would be earthshaking in importance. No doubt about it.
However, for me, the ultimate in this type of discovery would be a lengthy letter, also from late in his life, in which Dickens recounts in great detail the wonders of a magic lantern show that he attended the night before. A show — technically possible by the mid-nineteenth century — featuring actual photographic images fixed on glass slides. Images of handsome men and pretty women and exciting far off places.
Imagine that it included a detailed statement of his feelings about the magic lantern and similar stimuli and that it discussed the extent to which these things had influenced his writing.
Imagine that it included a speculation, and a prediction, that one day those photographic images would somehow achieve full motion and that they would be used to tell all manner of stories ranging from the realistic to the delightfully unrealistic.
And imagine that such a letter concluded with a confirmation of something that many commentators have wondered about over the years: That when those images did achieve full, realistic motion, he would be happy to adapt his stories — and create new ones — for the screen.
I guess I just choose to believe in fantastic long shots and tantalizing “what ifs” and “if onlys.” I can, for example, vividly recall working on a term paper and presentation on my absolute favorite film, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, in a class that I was once privileged to take under the great Jay Leyda at New York University.
And at the end of my presentation I tossed out my firm belief that before departing on his ill-fated trip to South America, Orson Welles – being Orson Welles and because he was Orson Welles – slipped some anonymous lab technician a hundred dollar bill, or maybe a case of bourbon, to make him a personal and delightfully illegal print of his uncut masterpiece.
And how do we know that Welles didn’t go to his grave smiling in the knowledge that in the office of some twenty-first century Jaggers there rests a letter. And that if and when the happy day arrives that no individual or corporate entity even remotely connected to RKO can touch his film again, that letter will be opened. And it will divulge the whereabouts of what I believe would be his greatest gift to the world. Talk about your ultimate in Wellesian legerdemain…
And over the years I have been both delighted and honored to learn that distinguished writers and scholars like V. F. Perkins and Grahame Smith, and I’m sure countless others whose names I will never know, are also true believers. As such, the complete Ambersons will be found. And with similar confidence, I await the joyful discovery of that long lost audio-visual manifesto in Dickens’s own hand.
A grasp of that audio-visual context is vitally important when trying to understand Dickens, his world and his work. But before moving on, if I may be permitted one more purely personal aside, I offer no apologies for my use of the term audio-visual. I think it still works just fine. And I say a pox upon the HD, IT, widescreen technocrats who have recently declared it obsolete. The folks who still choke on the inconvenient reality that cumbersome old 35mm film still trumps their precious Blu-ray and who look down their noses at anyone who can tell the difference between a projector and a toaster.
Anyway… Hugo is also part of another — and ultimately more important — Dickensian context. A context that is rooted in the basic respect for childhood that was noted above.
But it goes much deeper than that. And there are numerous examples that can be cited, David Copperfield and the autobiographical fragment about Warren’s Blacking being just the most common and obvious. And, of course, Oliver Twist. Although as much as I love Oliver and sympathize with his plight, it is his little friend Dick who breaks my heart. And Jo the Crossing Sweeper from Bleak House. And that wild, nameless urchin in The Haunted Man.
And, as I recycle this paragraph from my book, I am deeply moved by the story of Dickens “…finding a deaf and dumb boy, presumably abandoned and in Dickens’s words ‘half dead,’ on the beach at Broadstairs where he was vacationing. Apart from the fact that Dickens arranged for the boy to be cared for, little is known of this incident or of the boy’s subsequent fate; on the vast canvas of Dickens’s busy life it is a footnote, and a minor one at that. And yet one would not be wrong in viewing it as a microcosm of the world that Dickens refused to ignore. In words that could be Dickens’s own, Peter Ackroyd [in his mesmerizing biography of Dickens] describes this boy as ‘one of the thousands of homeless children, many of them in some way disabled from ordinary life, who seem to drift across the landscape of the nineteenth century, discarded and forgotten.'” And, I would simply add, lonely.
However for me, as I mentioned in my previous article, the issue comes into deep focus in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past revisit one of his lonely Christmases in which he had been left behind at school with only his books for company. A Christmas on which, Scrooge assures the Ghost, Ali Baba did come and relieve his loneliness.
Dickens knew — and could never forget — what the world looked and felt like to a lonely child. And at the risk of coming across as a pretentious jerk, I offer the following quote from my book as another proof of this. But decide for yourself whether or not it sheds any light on whatever Dickens did or didn’t know about lonely children. I tend to view it as one of those rare occasions on which maybe, just maybe, I was actually on to something important:
“…what one wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall at some of the Dickens family’s early Christmas celebrations, say in the years just after young Charles’s sojourn at Warren’s Blacking. A fairly large and undoubtedly boisterous family would be present, and let use assume that John Dickens is a veritable modern Misrule. (On this latter point, film buffs might think of W. C. Fields’s brilliant portrayal of Wilkins Micawber in MGM’s David Copperfield. Micawber is known to have been largely inspired by Dickens’s vision of his father.) Amidst whatever gaiety is taking place might we not observe one young man — still smarting from his experience at the blacking factory and with at least a hint of a faraway look in his eyes — feeling, in a very real sense, alone in a crowd? Might this explain the lack of a joyous ‘Christmas Chapter’ in David Copperfield?”
This, in my opinion, and for whatever my two cents are worth on this or any other subject, is Hugo’s ultimate Dickensian connection. That its story is told through the eyes of a lonely child. If, as noted above, Hugo’s heart is its celebration of fancy, then this is its soul. And in this regard, Asa Butterfield’s performance in the film’s title role is simply astonishing. But in a very quiet and subtle way.
And I would add here that the film could almost be called Hugo and Isabelle. Such is the understated strength and charm of the presence of Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle. What I don’t know about adolescent girls is a lot. But I do know something about people who take refuge in books and words. As I see it, she and Hugo are kindred spirits in more ways than one.
Their relationship is truly touching. And thankfully the film does not turn it into yet another tedious and predictable teenage romance kind of mess. In this regard, I positively shudder to think of what a film maker without Martin Scorsese’s obvious respect for, and appreciation of, a great book would have done to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And someone without his knowledge of, and love of, the movies.
Yes, given their ages, this — a romance — may indeed be where Hugo and Isabelle are headed after the final fadeout. And if they do, we wish them well. However, I choose to focus on those moments that transcend whatever sexual awakenings may indeed be simmering beneath the surface. Moments in which two human beings are starting to realize — and are maybe asking themselves if it can really be true — that they are no longer alone.
As I say, whatever happens to Hugo and Isabelle, we wish them well. But unfortunately children do not run the world. Nor do people like Georges Melies and Charles Dickens. For all we know, Hugo and Isabelle may perish in the conflagration that will engulf France and the rest of Europe less than a decade later.
Or maybe one of them will break the other’s heart. It happens. Although since they have both fallen under the spell of a master magician, I tend to think that this will not be the case.
In her classic book Writing for Young Children, Claudia Lewis tells us that “…the writer of a story is in the position of the adult who stands before the inquiring, scrutinizing child with his values in his hands. ‘Show me what the world is like, and what you who have lived here a long time have made of it…’ ‘What can I expect of you?’ the child challenges.”
No one knew better than Dickens that the answer to those questions isn’t always pretty. But he never gave up. Even in those later, old-before-his-time years, he was still lighting candles instead of cursing the ever increasing darkness. He was a storyteller and that is what storytellers do. They light candles that illuminate our lives and, every once in a while, change the world.
Again, Dickens never gave up. His famous “Carol Philosophy” was all about making the world a better place through a truly radical revolution. A moral revolution. A collective change of heart that started with each and every individual heart in the world.
And if that sounds like some sort of platitude then so be it. But remember what George Orwell had to say about this in his famous and truly brilliant essay on Dickens, that his “whole message is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.”
However, as I note in my book, “…it is a matter of no small significance that a writer like Orwell — i.e., a writer not inclined to reach for convenient bromides — goes on to wrap up this section of his essay by concluding that ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent is not such a platitude as it sounds.'”
So there you have it. A world run by decent people. What a concept.
Anyway… I was just about to wrap up this rambling epistle with a brilliant flourish when I thought I heard something. Did someone just ask “If Dickens was so concerned with decent behavior then why wasn’t he decent to his wife? Why was he, in fact, so appallingly indecent in his treatment of her?”
That friends is one helluva good question and it will take a better Dickens scholar, and a better psychiatrist, than I can ever hope to be to answer it. All I can say is that all the genius in the world does not excuse or explain what he did to her. I’ll side with Catherine on this one.
So now that the three-hundred pound guerilla in the room has been acknowledged, how do I wrap this up on a positive note? We are, after all, celebrating Dickens’s birth. A happy occasion, right? Hardly the appropriate time or place for warts and all biography.
But maybe, for me at least, some sort of an answer, or at least some part of an answer, will be found in an exremely unlikely place. This may trigger a petition by the worldwide Dickens fraternity to have me committed, or at least conserved, but here goes.
I have always sensed some sort of a vague, cosmic connection between Dickens and one of my very favorite films. A film that is definitely in my personal top five list of all-time greats.
It is a strange, wild, funny, poignant, inspiring affair that ultimately defies any attempt to fit it into a convenient category or precisely defined genre. Although if you insist on labeling it, it is commonly referred to as a western.
It is one of the most genuinely lyrical and indescribably poetic films ever made. It is also one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film; right up there with Rick and Ilsa. It is about rugged individualism and making something from nothing. It is about the passage of time and the fleeting nature of happiness. It is about life and death and love and loneliness and God. And a lot more.
I refer to Sam Peckinpah’s 1970 The Ballad of Cable Hogue. I love and revere Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. But for me, this is Peckinpah’s ultimate masterpiece. It features one of Jason Robards’s finest performances in the title role, as well as equally brilliant turns by Stella Stevens as Hildy the love of his life and David Warner as a delightfully fraudulent preacher named Joshua.
The gist of the story is that an eccentric character named Cable Hogue finds water in the middle of a barren desert and creates his own little bit of of heaven on earth; two acres of land that Joshua refers to as Hogue’s Cactus Eden. Dickens had his own Cactus Eden. London.
Now David Warner is a great actor with serious Shakesperean credentials. But in the film’s memorable finale, he delivers a profoundly moving eulogy for Cable Hogue that surpasses and transcends anything he ever did with Shakespeare on stage or screen. And for me, the film’s closing words can just as easily have been said of Dickens in June of 1870: “Take him Lord, but knowing Cable, I suggest you do not take him lightly. Amen.”
So while we who are still in this world are hopefully trying to behave as decently as we can while looking for our own Cactus Edens, let us be grateful for the storytellers who make the task a little bit easier by giving us hope and lighting our way. And let us not take Charles Dickens lightly. Let us be grateful that he — warts and all — once walked this earth. And that he never really died. That through his stories, he is still very much alive and well. That he just turned 200 and shows no signs of slowing down.
In closing, I hope this little attempt at a birthday tribute makes some sort of sense to others. And I am well aware of the fact that, along the way, I have no doubt been guilty of all sorts of unprofessional and unscholarly behavior by zigzaging all over the place and by speculating (but hopefully not pontificating) about what Dickens would think and feel and do if he were still with us in body as well as spirit. If I belonged to any prestigious academic organizations, I’m sure that movements would already be afoot to have me tarred and feathered and my library card revoked.
However, since the main ingredients of this admitedly strange stew are two masters of fancy and all that is fanciful — Charles Dickens and Georges Melies — I offer no apologies. To quote Mrs. Dilber in the greatest of all Carol adaptations: “In keeping with the situation,” none are necessary.
And one more thing. If you’re one of those adults who can’t forget what the world looks and feels like to a lonely child and/or adolescent, don’t worry about it. We’re in good company…