Quiet and at a Distance

“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

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

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.

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Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

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).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

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.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

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.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

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.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

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.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

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.

Traffic

Traffic

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:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

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.

The Movies You Didn’t See

brewster-mccloud 2

If you are a true movie lover then you are also a digger, a searcher, an explorer. You seek out movies. Finding the “other films” out there might be your mission. You are daring. You lap up silent cinema and tuck away great foreign flicks under your arm and you mull classics and contemporary titles over in your mind while always maintaining a healthy reserve of schlock and exploitation, but your thirst remains insatiable, unquenched. You must dig. You must search. You must explore that which swims beneath the surface of the mainstream.

Today I give you an assignment. Today I tantalize you with just a few titles that you won’t want to miss. Today I champion some wonderful and strange films that think way outside the box and that have yet to be released on DVD in America* [*AUTHOR’S UPDATE: Criterion has picked up Zazie dans le Metro and there’s a region-free Hour-Glass Sanitorium now currently available through Mr. Bongo. Currently unsure of the other two]. Here we go with Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro (1960); Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970); Wojciech Has’s The Hour-Glass Sanitorium (1973); and Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). WARNING: proceed only if you are into the realm of the zany and awry.

zazie dans le mtro

1. The first film I would like to inform you of hails from France. It is Louis Malle’s (Au revoir les enfants, My Dinner With Andre) frantically frenetic and buoyantly cartoonish Zazie dans le metro (1960). Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, this unique film feels like some sort of coming of age tale, a burlesque comedy, and “Looney Tunes” hybrid. Young Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) must spend a few days with her lazy and unusual Parisian Uncle Gabriel (Cinema Paradiso’s Philippe Noiret) so her mother can entertain herself in the arms of her new lover.

The precocious girl soon grows weary with Uncle Gabriel’s peculiar habits and schedule and so she runs away to explore the city of Paris by herself. Uninterested in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or any other monument or locale of note, Zazie obsesses over just one thing: the metro. . . unfortunately there’s a strike on and the metro is closed. Just like the grownups to block the only thing a little kid wants to do. Zazie is pursued by angry Parisians, cops, would-be perverts, her uncle, and more while the adults fall in and out of love with each other against the manically shifting scenery and bustling cars and shows featuring slight transvestism and more than one man in a polar bear costume. A highlight is an extremely energetic and ridiculous chase scene that plays out like a Roadrunner cartoon on methamphetamines (think that one scene from Stephen Chow’s Kung-Fu Hustle only screwier).

zazie

This is a deliriously hyperactive movie that captures the essence of childhood wonder better than most “normal films.” All the intertwining of plots and unraveling of characters culminate in a psychotic explosion of noise, movement, and laugh out loud comedy that will make your head spin. This movie is just whimsical. I highly recommend this bold and wacky comedy brimming with sass and snark for anyone looking for the craziest most frenzied and absurd trip to Paris they’re likely to find. Or perhaps if you just like good slapstick.

2. Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) stars as the eponymous and quite quixotic Brewster McCloud in Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*HGosford Park) Brewster McCloud (1970). This is one strange film. With the adolescent angst and awkward foibles of the average American youth, the enigmatic Brewster lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome perfecting his mechanical wings so that he can fly away. As the tagline winkingly suggests “this might be over your head.” Women find the quiet boy irresistible and the police find him rather elusive as they pursue him for the suspected stranglings of several not-so-upright citizens. There’s a cantankerous old man (Stacey Keach); a nasty old woman (Margaret Hamilton, with more than just a few nods to her work in The Wizard of Oz); a ditzy but compassionate tour guide (Shelley Duvall) who loves Brewster; a mysterious and angelic mentor (Sally Kellerman) who protects Brewster and warns him of the dangers of women and distractions from his goal; a detective (Michael Murphy) hot on his trail; and several other quirky characters mashed together including a narrator who is not exactly on the same page.

brewster-mccloud 1

Amidst all the murder, mayhem, car chases, and courtships there is always a cutaway to the narrator, a lecturing professor of ornithology (Rene Auberjonois), who not only is describing the habits and behaviors of many a fascinating fowl (which strangely coincides with the main character’s actions) but he is also progressively transforming into a bird himself until at last he is reduced to a squawking, pecking aviary curiosity. The movie is off-beat and unusual in many ways, but at its heart it seems to really be about being alone yet driven in a world that is preoccupied with other things. Brewster McCloud only wants to build his wings in peace and take flight in the Astrodome. He tries to avoid distraction and distances himself from people as much as possible, but people keep getting in the way and none of them understand him or what he is trying to do. The finale is especially enjoyable. Find Brewster McCloud and take flight. If we share as much in common with birds as the transforming lecturer would imply then perhaps there is plenty to relate to here.

hourglasssanitorium 2

3. Our next film comes from Polish auteur Wojciech Has (The Saragossa Manuscript) and is called The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (aka Sanatorium pod klepsydra) (1973). Based on the writings of Bruno Schultz, the story unfolds in an old, decrepit, silverfish-nibbled asylum. A man, Jozef (Jan Nowicki), has taken a ramshackle train to this place to see his dying father. The building is crumbling and there seems to be no one in charge (Svankmajer would love it). A ward tells him that Time may not make all the sense in the world here, and lo, it is true. Jozef wanders from room to room in search of answers but is instead greeted by characters and events from history, his childhood, and his more recent past. The story unfolds like a more psychoanalytical Alice in Wonderland for adults. Every room is bursting with Jozef’s lost memories. Jozef re-experiences his childhood and his relationship with his bird-loving father, sees women he once fancied, is pursued by soldiers for having an unpopular dream, observes strange Jewish rituals, and takes command of a room of waxwork historical figures.

hourglasssanitorium 1

The cinematography is utterly remarkable and the imagery is nothing short of staggering (very evocative of some of the best work of Terry Gilliam). The film has poetry, wonder, curiosity, magic, and humor as we are carried through this dream world of wondrous pageantry. It’s a difficult film to describe, but it is also very difficult to forget. The director of the amazing Saragossa Manuscript (a masterpiece loved by such artists as Luis Bunuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Garcia) has crafted another world from bits and pieces of the past and you will enjoy exploring it as much as the protagonist, Jozef. For a thrilling excavation of the back of the mind, check out the fantastic Hour-Glass Sanatorium. It has also been brought to my attention that the Svankmajer-influenced Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes) may be adapting Schultz’s prose to the screen again.

skritek 1

4. We have been to France to be children with Zazie, come back to America to be adolescents with Brewster McCloud, and hopped over to Poland to rediscover our past as adults with Jozef’s exploration of a strange sanatorium. Now we shall embark on a trip to the Czech Republic to combine all these things with a movie about one dysfunctional family in Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). This magically absurd tragicomedy about the dynamics of a struggling family is unique for many reasons. One is the ubiquitous intrusion of a distracting gnome (skritek is Czech for “gnome”), the second odd thing about this movie is that all of the dialogue is spoken in complete gibberish (so don’t try to look for subtitles). As the plot unfolds the young daughter struggles with her teacher in school and her family at home, so she occasionally is visited by the strange gnome who always finds a way to cheer her up. The pot-smoking, vegetarian, anarchist son is trying to express himself but—ignoring entirely legal means of self-expression—winds up in trouble with his teachers and the police. The father works as a butcher, but weary of the routine which has become his life, begins an affair with a co-worker. Meanwhile the mother works as a cashier at a supermarket, but with the stress of her job, her family going in different directions, and her husband losing interest in her, she’ll try anything to revitalize her life.

skritek2

The whole story is set against a rather cartoony version of the Czech Republic with vibrant colors, exaggerated sound effects, vaudevillian action, and a toe-tapping score. As problems befall the family we grow to see them as more than caricatures, but as people and we feel their anxieties and we smile when it all comes together. This is a very original movie with much humor, heart, slapstick, and magic to offer. If you are looking for an unforgettable journey through one family’s crazy life with zero language barrier then I encourage to see Skritek.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Where can I find these movies if they are not available? Why would you entice me this way? Well, here’s where it can get fun. We live in an age of instant gratification and sometimes the search is half the fun. You might have to get creative. Some of these films are floating around online right now. Some have been bootlegged as rentals in cult movie shops. Some might be tricky. Always keep your eyes and ears open and above all: read. You might be surprised by what you find. I’m still discovering movies like this everyday. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of research and a little bit of patience and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

skritek 3

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 2, 2010