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Hugo


I recently watched Hugo, the 2011 film directed by Martin Scorsese (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0970179/).  This film has a theme roughly relating to watchmaking, in the form of automatons, mechanical toys and large clocks.  It has a nice story, excellent performances and completely enjoyable visual effects.

It also provides provokes some thoughts on something that is often on my mind about watchmaking, perhaps particularly in the day and age.

The film explores the life of a young boy living alone in a 19th century train station.  We learn, he has an aptitude for mechanics and he uses his skills, secretly, to maintain the clocks in the train station.  He fixes things.

As the story unfolds we learn further that the boy is haunted by what’s “wrong” with his role in life, he is specifically troubled by the death of his father.  The boy sees the world as a vast clockwork, each tiny piece, or person, serving a function.  But his life, his own role, it seems, is as something like a left-over part, something that should not exist.  The desire to fix broken things, as a hunt for answers about his own life, is set up as the motivation for the boy’s mechanical skills, the desire to understand the death of his father, and this provides the spine of the film.

It’s the stuff of good story-telling.  The film sets up a number of characters, each with their own troubles in life, and the thread of the film is the way the boy, unknowingly at first, takes up a role in “fixing” these things.

This is what watch and clockmakers do, they fix broken things - they make each part function toward the overall design, and put each piece right, with none left over.  The personal tales in the film nicely hang on this theme.

I liked the film.  But it does fall into a trap that illustrates the view of watchmaking in popular culture, today certainly, and maybe always to an extent.  The boy’s skills are displayed in the film with a sort of magical quality.  In montages, he reaches for mystery tool after mystery tool, fitting odd bits of gears and springs together, and with a wave of the hand (or a few cuts anyway), the clock, the wind-up toy, the automaton all come alive and perform amazing feats.  In the world of this film, mechanics play a critical visual role.  But it’s also a world where a random handful of gears and pinions can be quickly transformed into some amazing machine, as if by the magic; clockmaking  becomes magical, almost literally, in the supernatural sense.  A couple of scenes even go so far as to directly associate clock work with sleight of hand (literally card tricks).

Yet something I find personally enjoyable about watchmaking is that is is nothing like this.  In fact it is completely the opposite!  There is no magic.  None, at all.  Mechanical watches work by virtue of a little straightforward Newtonian physics and a whole lot of high school geometry.  And that’s it.  Everything going on in a watch is completely understandable.  There are no magic parts.

In this day and age very few things are like that.  A computer programmer, for example, may know a good deal about a computer language, but not the operating system.  Even if they do know a lot about the operating system, there’s sure to be “magic” a little further down toward the computer hardware.  

Automobiles are an extremely common mechanical thing in our world.  And yet, virtually no one can claim to really understand all the construction of all their components right down to the most basic.  In most things, at some level, the knowledge of a domain expert reaches a foundation layer.  What is below that, must be taken for granted - it’s magic.

Not so in a mechanical watch.  It’s all right there in plain sight.  It only works one way, as designed. And it all must be exactly right for this to happen. It is not encumbered with anything magical.  Hugo, and popular culture, notwithstanding, a random handful any old unrelated of gears can not be assembled into a mechanical device that does anything at all, any more than a heap of random scrap iron can be assembled in a weekend into a replacement for your car’s transmission.

There’s a few minor problems in the film also.  Some of the events seem not well grounded.  A couple of things seem to happen for the sake of the film, and not because the character has a clear motivation.  Those are small issues.  Hugo is a good film and well worth a view, even for a watchmaker.  But, it is the order and strict “sense” of clockworks that colors and troubles the boy’s world in Hugo.  Yet the tendency to slip into clockworks as “magic” ironically undermines that theme.   It makes the difference between a very good movie and a great one.
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