“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton
“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin
The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.
One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.
Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).
Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.
What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.
Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.
The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.
Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.
The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.
Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.
It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.
Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.
Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.
Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:
1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.
2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.
3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.
4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.
5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.
6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.
7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.
8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.
9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.
10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.