Cogs and Creativity

Preferring to watch movies on bluray, I tend to live behind the curve a bit when it comes to cinema. As a result it was only recently that I managed to see the film Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret). While I enjoyed the automaton (I’ve linked to Maillardet’s automaton before) and setting, it was this somewhat existential, thematic line delivered by Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret) which quite caught my attention at the time:

Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains takes you to places. 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.

I like the sentiment this evokes, and I suspect it’s just as powerful, if not more so, to younger audiences. Fitting in – and knowing where we fit – is a fairly common human desire, and in a big and often impersonal world can be quite a scary concept.

But Hugo is about more than just fitting in – it’s about realising one’s dreams. Hugo Cabret is starting out his life, he has a dream he wants to realise; other characters show us other aspects of this theme – such as what happens when we’ve realised this dream and then had it taken away from us, or how not realising it changes us as we age.

So it was the treatment of Georges Méliès, the once-great and now-obscure entertainer, film maker and engineer which I found particularly inspiring.

If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.

A month ago, my wife sent me a link to an article by Steven Piziks on Passion and Ambition. Piziks suggests that passion and ambition aren’t universal qualities, and that ‘motivational’ catchphrases such as Follow your passion, might sound great to audiences but often fail to prove actionable.

Converting ambition into action is often a solitary activity – it stands to reason that if most of the people around you don’t share your passion and ambition then you’re going to be going it alone. In fiction this can give us the stoic, strong and silent creative type: In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, her paragon of creative virtue, Howard Roark, provides a gold mine of Creative-vs-Rest-of-the-World quotes, one of the most memorable (to me at least) being this response when Roark is encouraged to hire an attorney:

There are some rules I’m perfectly willing to obey. I’m willing to wear the kind of clothes everybody wears, to eat the same food and use the same subways. But there are some things which I can’t do their way — and this is one of them.

In Hugo, Georges’ frustration and disillusionment with a war-weary public sees him abandon his passion for film, an abandonment that is hugely self destructive and which I still find one of the most powerful elements of the film. Because unlike Howard Roark, Georges isn’t intended to be an infallible, one-dimensional foil. Rather, he’s a contemporary fiction character: a conflicted, human person.

If Hugo Cabret’s character arc thematically answers How might you achieve your dream?, then Georges Méliès’ asks what do you do when you’ve lost it?

Hugo’s conclusions probably shouldn’t be taken as career advice – I’m pretty sure there should be a clear delineation between self-help and story. However as an illustration of the effects of creativity, ambition and passion on human beings I think this film managed to fit quite a lot under the hood.

And I do like me a little wish fulfilment.

And a road that leads to awesome.


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