I confess I was a little suspicious when my wife suggested we go check out Martin Scorsese’s new film “Hugo.” She knows I’m working on a book about the great downtown railroad stations of North America, so when she said, “You should like it — it’s set in a railroad station,” I could feel her pitching one straight to my strike zone.
So why did I bristle? Because I’ve been burned so many times by entertainment that bungles rail history or technology. Whenever somebody suggests a movie, book or television program with a railroad theme or setting I just know that at some point the work is going to get the railroading wrong. Either there will be an anachronism — a 1920s scene with a steam locomotive that wasn’t designed until the ‘30s, for example, or a sleeping-car porter dressed in a conductor’s uniform, or passengers traveling on a European train will board a coach that any railfan would easily recognize as American.
But in “Hugo” Scorsese doesn’t commit any of those blunders. He takes one modest piece of artistic license by telescoping the now demolished Gare Montparnasse into the still extant Gare du Nord, but in all other respects his 1930-era story is respectful toward railroading, including the hardware, the rituals and the costumes. Although the story isn’t “about” trains, the trains and the vast station are used with care to further a story about a plucky and resourceful orphan boy who lives alone in the steam-punk world of the station’s gigantic clockworks while trying to decode the operation of a mechanical man that his clock-maker father left unfinished when he died.
As you’ve probably learned from the rave reviews that already have appeared — if not from the film itself — the boy’s research entangles him with the elderly and grumpy proprietor of the station’s toy store, played to perfection by Ben Kingsley. “Papa Georges,” as Kingsley’s character is called, turns out to be none other than the great pioneer French film-maker Georges Méliès, reduced to selling toys in a railroad station because his studio went bust, tastes have changed and the public has forgotten his huge contributions to the foundations of cinema.
Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert loved “Hugo,” which he called Scorsese’s valentine to the art of film-making and a belated tribute to one of its once-forgotten pioneers. When the movie opens, Kingsley’s character insists he is nothing more than what he appears — an old man running a little shop in a railroad station. But as young Hugo becomes friends with the old man’s niece, and as he spends more time at their apartment, he discovers that “Papa Georges” actually is concealing a great secret — his titanic achievements as a producer-director-actor-stunt man, proprietor of the first film studio ever built and even an early cartoonist and animator.
(Spoiler Alert: Thanks to little Hugo’s discovery, Méliès receives the public recognition that had eluded him and in a grand ceremony re-introducing him to the Paris art world he addresses the camera with the tongue-in-cheek observation that “Happy endings happen only in the movies.” The power of this scene was retroactively enhanced by my later discovery that in his lifetime Méliès was indeed rediscovered and awarded the tributes and recognition he deserved — though without the help of any orphans hiding in clocks.)
“’Hugo’ is unlike any other film Martin Scorsese has ever made, and yet possibly the closest to his heart: a big-budget, family epic in 3-D, and in some ways, a mirror of his own life,” Ebert writes. “We feel a great artist has been given command of the tools and resources he needs to make a movie about — movies."
Ebert is entirely correct: “Hugo” is about the movies, and it is a long-overdue homage to one of the great practical visionaries who developed them as a technology, an art and a business.
But it’s also about something else — the loss and recovery of reputation — and that in itself ought to give American rail advocates some grounds for reassurance and excitement. For passenger trains in America suffered something very much akin to what happened to Georges Méliès in France: For a variety of reasons the public shunned them and then forgot about them, only to rediscover them and eventually re-embrace them — a process which in this country is only now beginning.
Cultural forgetting-followed-by-rediscovery is not limited to trains and movie directors. Does anyone now remember that the same thing happened to Johann Sebastian Bach? When I my aunt took me to symphony concerts during my high-school years in the mid-1950s, I never heard a note of Bach — or Vivaldi, or Couperin, or Pachelbel or Buxtehude or any of the other Baroque masters — because their music had been in a sort of cultural eclipse for 150 years. By the middle of the 20th century the standard concert repertoire was limited almost entirely to the 19th-century Romantics — Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schuman, Mendelsohn — certainly nothing earlier than the 18th-century geniuses Hayden and Mozart plus a few early-20th-century composers such as Rachmaninoff and Ravel. Although our music-appreciation teacher told us the giants of music were the famous “Three Bs” — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — she never actually played us any samples of the first “B: too weird, too obscure for contemporary audiences.
But even as the contemporary culture mavens were airbrushing Bach out of the musical picture, the Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals were painting him back in. Their recordings sold slowly at first, then gathered momentum, so that by the time I entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1958, some of the edgier guys in the dormitory were waving record albums at me and beckoning me to listen to the latest recording on the Angel label, which specialized in the burgeoning Baroque revival. “You ever hear this guy?” they would say, sitting me down to a little Vivaldi. “He does some amazing stuff.” By the time I entered grad school Baroque music was all the rage. By 1970, Pachelbel’s Canon in d major had become a cult hit, and after Robert Redford used it as the theme for his 1980 directorial debut film “Ordinary People,” it escaped from cultdom to become a nationwide pop sensation and was widely adopted for use in weddings. Obscure no more, Baroque music is common enough today to be used in car commercials and occasionally even woven into rock music.
Tastes change — in both directions. Entire pavilions of cultural achievement — in art, technology and commerce — are neglected, disdained, ransacked, shuttered, the heat turned off — only to be rediscovered, rehabilitated and re-opened again by a later generation flushed with the fever of rediscovery. Reputations are restored to their rightful owners, and appreciation resumes at a higher level.
Except among politicians, of course. How many of that species can you name who listen to Bach or recognize the name of Méliès? Probably about as many as have ridden a train. That’s unfortunate, because the second life of passenger trains in America cannot go forward without political support.
But even if the politicians are always the last to know, they still get there eventually, which means America eventually will get its trains. There’s no need to worry about the petroleum lobby or the highway barons. The trains are coming back simply because their time has come again and the historical spotlight has found them.
Time is like that: It causes things to go into hibernation and then it causes them to wake to renewed strength. A fresh generation of Americans has arrived bringing a fresh point of view and doing things differently. The kids don’t want to drive the way their parents did. They want to keep using their electronics while they travel, and cars won’t let them, so month by month Amtrak’s ridership keeps climbing — and so does transit and Megabus ridership. Americans are awakening from the spell of the car the way concert audiences awoke from the spell of the Romantics. The trains are coming back just as surely as Bach and Méliès came back. Depend upon it.
Be of good cheer, everybody. Merry Christmas. Be sure to see “Hugo,” and be sure to bring your kids — and the kid in you.
F.K. Plous is a former Chicago & North Western Rwy. brakeman and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who currently serves as director of communications at Corridor Capital LLC, Chicago.