Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The World of Jacques Tati

It is easy to be bored by Jacques Tati, just as it is easy to be bored by life. To paraphrase an old saying, who is tired of Tati is tired of life. His comedy is made up of incidents, or rather incidentals. Nothing really dramatic happens. At times nothing much seems to be happening at all. Then, when one looks closer and observes the incongruities, the human comedy looms large. Isn’t this the common experience of most people’s lives?

Thoreau maintained that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Tati would claim that most men and women lead lives of quiet exasperation or habitual confusion. Various critics have seen his comedy as basically Russian (Slavic fatalism?) or English (understatement?). It cannot be adequately explained or assessed in such nationalistic terms. One might as well label it Gallic simply because Tati was French. It is, perhaps, most felicitous to see his Monsieur Hulot character as a kind of Everyman in a chaotic world which is committed to postures of order and stability. Not that Hulot sees the truth of things beneath the surface. His creator does, or he wouldn’t have been able to make the films for which he is renowned. Hulot observes without comment. He is the innocent bystander caught up in everyday complications, an anti-hero who does not mock the conventions with which he comes into conflict because he is neither sceptic nor cynic.

There is none of Charles Chaplin’s studied pathos, none of Harry Langdon’s wistfulness. If Tati can be compared to any other visual comedian it is Buster Keaton. Strangely, he was quoted as saying that W. C. Fields and Woody Allen made him laugh the most. Yet Fields’ comic malevolence and Allen’s intellectual flippancy are worlds apart from Tati’s gentle humour. They observe the world around them and tear it to pieces while remaining within their own self-protected enclaves. Fields, one feels, keeps antagonists at bay in mumbled asides, while Allen takes refuge in analytical wisecracks. Tati strides on and survives the pitfalls and hazards of life by virtue of his innate curiosity. His casual intrusions are the result of tireless inquisitiveness. What gives M. Hulot a comic perspective is the narrow range of his vision at any given time or in any given situation. He does not foresee the consequences of his intrusions or his actions. When he is forced to contemplate the consequences and is embroiled in embarrassments, his attempts to extricate himself are not frantic but measured responses.

Cinema audiences conditioned down the years by slapstick comedians and an emphasis on running gag routines do not easily succumb to Tati’s anticlimactic style. They come away feeling let down, their expectations confounded. Tati would not have survived in Hollywood, even in the great days of silent comedians, because he was not a ‘gag man’. His forte was to “give the comic personality more truth”, as he put it. “There was a school that said silently to the public, ‘I am the amazing star of the evening. I can do a terrific number of things. I can juggle. I can dance. I’m a great man. I’m the gag man.’ That was the old school of the circus and music-hall, and one I came from. What I’ve been trying to show is that the whole world is funny. There’s no need to be a comic to make a gag.”

People are not funny when they are trying to be funny. Tati does not laugh at himself. M. Hulot remains unaware of his absurdities. As Penelope Gilliatt observed in a profile of Tati, he shows that the absurd lies not in the film universe but in the consciousness of the spectator. “His gags are never one-liners detached from character, however much the characters are detached from one another. The tail of each gag follows the original burst of life, like a comet.”

Take a simple scene in Playtime. A group of women tourists arrive back at their hotel after a shopping expedition. As they go up the escalator, in their street clothes and burdened with parcels, another group is coming down, women dolled up for a nightclub visit. The contrast is at once sharp and funny. Why is the scene funny? After all, it is a commonplace. Who hasn’t arrived back at a hotel, tired after a day around town, to see spruced-up people going out in search of night life?

Tati places the camera behind the incoming party and facing the outcoming one. The humour of this scene cannot be explained verbally because it is essentially visual. This is true of any Tati film. What seems inconsequential in print becomes on the screen an illuminating view of human nature. It is hard to imagine Tati working from a screenplay when what appears on the screen seems so spontaneous.

Tati’s sense of the ridiculous transforms a matter-of-fact, anonymous world into a repository of comic juxtapositions. The screenplays are all around us, all the time, if only we had the wit and sagacity, the inner vision and enough sense of the ridiculous to observe them. Jacques Tati does so for us. One can see a Tati film any number of times and each time discover fresh perspective and incidentals.

Ray Seaton

Jacques Tati's Playtime screens on Saturday and Sunday, October 9th & 10th, at 15.35.

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