Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Theology Goes to the Movies: Hugo

"Once upon a time I met a boy named Hugo Cabret. He searched to find a secret message and that message lit his way all the way home."

That message also lit a floodlight of thoughts as I watched the brilliance of Hugo unfold before my eyes on Friday night. If the movie was this endearing and the characters this lovable, the book must be simply spectacular. It's already on my Amazon wishlist! Rarely do I follow all the Oscar hype; but Hugo far surpassed even the flash of those lights.

Although this film took place in Paris, France I couldn't help but think of one particular German word that captured the life of Hugo Cabret: beruf. Some translate it as "occupation," but in classic Lutheran theology it is also translated as vocation, from the Latin, vocatio. Calling.

As the movie progressed, the plot did so much more than carry you along; it tinkered on you, like a skilled watchmaker gracefully creating a masterpiece from a chaotic mess of springs, gears and sprockets, all with the utmost care and craftsmanship. There were problems that needed fixing. The orphan boy and the memories of his father. The uncle's mysterious disappearance. The orphan girl and her Papa and Mama. The automaton and its own mysterious message. And of course, the amusing antagonist Inspector. By the end of the movie, which I hope not to give away entirely (but you've been forewarned!), this massive pile of moving parts came together awakening the imagination. No extra parts, everything was there in the film for a reason. Everything and everyone had a place, a part to play. Indeed, Scorcese built a fine watch.

But of course, he didn't build it alone. He had help. Superb acting, especially the boy who played Hugo, Asa Butterfield. Sir Ben Kingsley performed superbly as well. And you can't forget all the work of editing and writing and cinematography and on down the list. All of that too is the doctrine of vocation. Vocation was all over this movie, right down to every last cog and wheel of the great clock itself. There is such a thing as the vocation of film-making. It is a delight to see it in action. Film, entertainment, the arts, music, literature - all these can be God-pleasing masks through which he works, serving his creation. Call it the vocation of the imagination. In other places I've called this kind of thing the right-brained apologetics.

J.R.R. Tolkien called it the work of sub-creation: "We make still by the law in which we are made" (Mythopoeia). This is part of the reason why people love reading classic books, watching timeless movies, listening to music that stirs the soul or gazing at art in its many forms. It not only awakens our imagination, these creative arts give us a glimpse of reality bigger and beyond ourselves. They do the same thing for us that watchmaking and fixing did for Hugo, remind us that there's purpose and meaning in life. And more importantly, the good movies, books, art and music point us (intentionally and often times unintentionally) beyond sub-creation, beyond the creature to the Creator. Lewis talked about this in Surprised by Joy as he recounted reading George MacDonald's Phantastes, as his imagination was "baptized."

Now, when it comes to Hugo, I don't think I'm making this up. Of course, I'll probably never be find out how Martin Scorcese or the writers of the film would articulate it (of even if they could at all). But if you could get them to read the chapter on vocation from Gene E. Veith's Spirituality of the Cross, I would like to think they might say, "Why yes, that sounds a lot like this boy, Hugo and his adventure. I see what you're getting at."

For despite the fact that there was not a lot going for this orphaned boy - who lived in the train station clock tower, foraged for bread, dodged the inspector and stole parts from the toy shop - he had a knack for tinkering. But it was more than a knack. Hugo was good at fixing things. His father, a watchmaker, had taught him well. And his uncle, bacchanalian though he was, still managed to show him the ropes, er gears and winding levers, of the station's myriad clocks. Hugo discovered this himself at a young age, probably far younger and with more wisdom than we "educated adults" would give credence to these days. Nonetheless, out of the mouth of babes:

Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot [main clock tower]. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.

Hugo is right. Everyone has a purpose, a part to play. There are no "extra parts" in this world. Calling. Vocation. Beruf. This is where our Lord goes to work everyday, in the stations in life where he has called us: family, church and government (broadly speaking). The ordinary, the mundane, the everyday tasks. This is how God brings daily bread to our tables, health and healing to our bodies, a roof over our head, and yes, even a watch to keep time with (despite the fact that it's probably digital and far less elegant than in yesteryears).

Consider the words of St.. Paul: "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many....there are many members, yet one body"  21  (1 Corinthians 12).

Even creation itself is wound up like a great grandfather clock - hours move, the weather and seasons do too. The trees and rivers clap their hands (Psalm 98, Isaiah 55). The morning fauna sound the cuckoo clock letting you know the time is near. We even learn from the fig tree its lesson. It's all there, the intricacy, care and brillliance of a watchmaker.

And yet, we notice - as Hugo did - that there's something broken in this world. Everything needs fixing. Scientists call it entropy. Scripture calls it sin, death and decay. Hugo observed this firsthand. The death of his parents. His uncle's abandonment. The weary, retired film maker, Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). He and Hugo were not all that different from each other. Both needed fixing.

Hugo needed parts for his father's last project, the enigmatic automaton. But more than that, he needed answers: what is my purpose, beruf, vocation? Where do I find my place in a world that has come unwound, out of gear and in disarray? And Georges needed purpose too; he needed beruf, vocation. His former days of film making magic had waned, and he thought, passed with time.

"Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do... Maybe it's the same with people. If you lose your purpose... it's like you're broken."

What each man needed was fixing. And it was through each man's vocation that they found what they were looking for all along. It was the movies - not coincidentally the very movies that Georges made - that had bonded Hugo and his father together. And it was this son who brought a broken man of the movies back to his vocation. He fixed Georges.

"Happy endings only happen in the movies," said Georges. But that's not entirely true. In fact all happy endings - whether they are found in epic movies or fantastic books - are all glimpses and windows into (and perhaps even gears and sprockets of) the one truly happy ending: the Great Eucatastrophe.

Hugo, you see, isn't the only one who likes to fix things. Nor is he the best at it. That was his vocation, true enough. But it also happens to be Jesus' vocation. Christ is no blind watchmaker. Jesus comes to fix creation, broken by sin, death and the devil. The watchmaker becomes part of his own design. The director becomes the lead actor. The Creator becomes a creature. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And in this case, the movies (and art) imitate reality. For it was not a heart shaped key that solved the world's greatest mystery or fixed our deadliest problem, but a cross shaped one. Christ Crucified for you and for all of us, a world full of Hugos and Georges who need fixing. For years Jesus labored in his creation, proclaiming good news to the poor, setting the captives free, restoring sight to the blind, and finally, raising the dead. For hour he labored in agony on the cross. For three days he rested in the earth. And finally he rose. Life restored. Creation and creatures fixed. Behold, I make all things new. And you receive it all in Baptism, in Absolution, in the Eucharist. You are orphaned and broken no more.

"You don't need family," the Inspector crassly snapped. He's wrong, however. For you can't fend for yourself, go it alone or make it on your own - not in this life or the next. But God will not leave you as orphans. You have been adopted into a family. You are a member (and a valuable instrument) in his workshop, the Church. You are no longer a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, but a child of God. You had as little choice about it as the day you were born. Your belly button is constant reminder that you are dependent on someone else for your life. That life is a gift. For as many vocations as you have in this life, that is your most important one of all. For that is Christ's vocation for you, to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify you by his Holy Spirit. And the Father, echoing the words of Georges to the Inspector says, "Monsieur,  this creation, these children belong to me."

This is one adventure you won't want to miss.

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