From Méliès to Montparnasse, a Cultural Cheat Sheet for 'Hugo'

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Decoding the many references to film history in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated movie

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Paramount

Martin Scorsese's delightful children's film Hugo is currently nominated for eleven Oscars, the most of any film of 2011. And in a year of movies like The Artist and Midnight in Paris that pay homage to early 20th century film and cultural history, Hugo might be the most complex cinematic homage of them all.

Based on the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo tells the story of an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a train station in 1931 Paris. Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) maintains the station's clocks and tries to repair a mysterious automaton left to him by his late father, a clock maker. While doing so, Hugo encounters an old man who sells toys in the station, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and his precocious step-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo and Isabelle team up to find the secret of the automaton, discovering along the way that Papa Georges is none other than Georges Méliès, the legendary turn of the century filmmaker known for such fantasy films as A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Scorsese uses the stunning 3D cinematography of Hugo much like a palimpsest, layering multiple levels of historical, cinematic, and intellectual history in each scene. Hugo references everyone from Jules Verne, Django Reinhardt, and the robot C-3PO to classic silent movies like Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. Scorsese has even said that he considers the 3D in Hugo as a cinematic form of Cubism.

This cultural guide will help to decode the wealth of allusions in Hugo, making for a crash course in film, art, and literary history:

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Govindini Murty is a writer, independent filmmaker, and co-editor of Libertas Film Magazine. She has contributed to The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Daily News.

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