Saturday, June 17, 2023

In Praise of Tati

I recently went through old files and found this translation of Serge Daney's Praise of Tati which Andy Rector and I completed a while back. This text from La Rampe means the whole book has somewhat been translated through a patchwork of various efforts over the years. A good teaser for the real thing: Nicholas Eliot's new translation of the book to be published by Semiotext(e) later this year.

In Praise of Tati 

1. Each film by Tati marks at the same time (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati, (b) a moment in the history of French cinema and society, and (c) a moment in film history. The six films he has realised since 1948 are among those that have punctuated our history best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of a few films (all of them good by the way), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period in Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon Oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ‘68). There is hardly anybody else barring Chaplin who, since the sound era, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he is not filming, and, when filming, to be precisely up to the moment – that is, just a little bit ahead. Tati: a witness first and last. 

2. A demanding witness, so an awkward one. Early on, Tati refuses easy options. He doesn’t exploit his brand-image; he doesn’t manage the characters he created: the postman in Jour de fête disappears and even Hulot disperses himself – fake Hulots are everywhere criss-crossing Playtime. He takes a comedian’s biggest risk: to lose one’s audience by leading it too far. But where? Admirable as it is, his conscience as an artist would move us less if it were mere aristocratic loftiness or the haughty retreat of a man at odds with his time and with cinema. But it is something else altogether. If we put into perspective the six films that Tati has realised since Jour de fête (1948), we find that they draw a line of convergence which is that of all post-war French cinema. Perhaps because, even though a comedian enjoys fewer permissions than anyone else to distance himself from the present, especially to be critical, with Tati we best perceive, film after film, the typical fluctuation of French cinema between populism and modern art. Who is capable today of capturing and miming the most ordinary gestures (a waiter serving a drink, a police officer directing traffic) while at the same time integrating these gestures into a construction as abstract as a Mondrian painting? Tati of course, the last mime-theoretician. Thus, each one of his films is a witness-milestone of the “how is it going?” of French cinema. This has been the case for thirty years. Jour de fête is the witness of post-war euphoria, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle testify the longevity of a very French genre (social satire) in the Tradition of Quality, and Playtime, this great emancipatory film, builds La Défense* even before the existence of La Défense, but it already says that French cinema can no longer deal with the gigantism of French reality, that it is no longer – if I may say so – “up to the task”, and that it is going to degrade with internationalisation, meaning the Americanisation which was already threatening the postman in Jour de fête. Effectively, his next two films are no longer entirely French (Traffic is a co-production, a very European film) nor entirely cinema (Parade is a commission for Swedish television).  

3. Tati isn’t just the exemplary and apologetic witness of the retreat of French cinema and the deterioration of the profession, he takes the cinema in its current technological state. And strangely, for someone so often accused of being backward-looking, he just wants to innovate. It’s now a known fact that Tati didn’t wait for anyone to start revamping film soundtracks, as early as Jour de fête. Thirty years later, we’re less aware that Parade is an extraordinary foray into the world of video. In fact, the big subject of Tati’s films is what we today call the media. Not in the limited sense of “the great methods of communication” but in the sense intended by MacLuhan: “the specialised extensions of the mental and psychic capacities of man”, the extensions of our bodies, in sum or in part. Jour de fête is already the story of a postman who, by fussing over the delivery of the message, ends up losing it. A child will end up with the message (a simple letter), but, distracted by a travelling circus, won’t transmit it – a beautiful metaphor for the intransitivity of modern art. But at that stage, the audience has understood that the real message is the medium, the postman, Tati. The media are the fireworks launched too early and by mistake at the end of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot that transformed Hulot in an illuminated scarecrow, prefiguring the brilliant ending of Parade where everybody – meaning anyone – becomes the illuminated trace of a colour in an electronic landscape. And the media are also present in Mon Oncle, in this very surprising stance at the time not to make the audience laugh in ridicule at the programmes shown on the TV set bought by the “modern” couple, but to reduce television to the abstract and almost experimental spectacle of sudden changes in intensity of the pale light illuminating the ridiculous garden. The list is endless. Another hundred examples could be mentioned. The essential being that at any moment and for anyone (in a kind of generalisation-democratisation of comedy that is at the great gamble of Tati’s last three films, and perhaps the recognition that we have all become comedians), there is the possibility to become media. From the doorman in Playtime who, because the glass door has been shattered, becomes the door himself, to the maid who is terrorised by the idea of going through the electronic ray that opens the garage door where her bosses have stupidly locked themselves (Mon Oncle), there is for the human body the (threatening and comic) possibility to become itself a limit, a threshold (and not like in Burlesque, scatological depth). Modern art by definition.

4. Tati doesn’t condemn the modern world (shoddy and wasteful) by proving that the old world (thriftiness and human warmth) is better. Apart from Mon Oncle, there is no praise of the old world: we could even say, without too many paradoxes, that he is only interested in one thing: how the world is modernising. And if there is such a thing as a logic in his films, from the country roads of Jour de fête to the highways of Traffic, it is the logic that continues to irreversibly lead men from the countryside to the cities. Tati tends to show that, in accordance with recent (schizoanalytic) descriptions of capitalism, this media future of the human body works very well in as much as it doesn’t function. There are no burlesque catastrophes with Tati (of the type we can still find with the Americans: The Party by Blake Edwards) but rather a fatality in success that evokes Keaton. Everything that is attempted, planned, programmed works, and any comic element comes precisely from the fact that it works. Watching Playtime, we tend to forget that all the attempted actions are reasonably crowned with success: Hulot ends up meeting the man with  the bandaged nose that he had an appointment with, he fixes the lamp post, makes up with the manufacturer of silent doors, he even manages, in extremis, to get a small gift to the young American woman. On the same token, the opening of the Royal Garden is a success: the large majority of guests dine, dance and pay. Nothing really fails in Playtime, but nothing works either. 

5. The cinema has so accustomed us to laugh at failure, to enjoy mockery, that we end up believing that, watching Playtime, we are still laughing against something even though it is nothing of the sort. No “punchline” [chute] with Tati. The gags are always amputated of their punchline, of the moment for laughs. Or it’s the opposite: there is a punchline but we haven’t seen the gag being set up. This is not a crafty and elegant way to generate laughter by playing with ellipses, it’s something deeper: we are in a world where the less it works the more it works, so in a world where a punchline does not have the demystifying or awakening effect that it would have had if failure was still a possibility. The same goes with the other meaning of the word chute [fall]. We are dealing with bodies that are not made comical because they can fall. This is the non-humanist side of Tati’s cinema. What has always been “human” in comedy is to laugh at the one who falls. Laughter is only unique to man (to the spectator) if falling is unique to the human body (on spectacle). Chaplin is the archetype of the one who falls, who gets back up and who makes others fall, the king of tripping. In Tati’s film, one rarely falls because there is nothing “uniquely human” anymore. For me, one of the most beautiful moments of Playtime is when a client of Royal Garden, thinking that a waiter is offering a chair, sits down without looking back (she’s a snob) and falls in slow motion. Funny gag, very beautiful fall, but what are we exactly laughing about? And what are we laughing about in Parade when the audience is asked to mount an uncontrollable mule? Or when the clowns keep falling on top of each other after jumping over a pommel horse? Falling in these instances is merely a movement of the body like any other. As a non-humanist filmmaker, Tati is logically fascinated by the human species, this animal described by Giraudoux as standing upright “to receive less rain and pin more medals to his chest”. What is comical for Tati, is that it stands upright and that it works, and that it can work. Infinite surprise, inexhaustible spectacle. 

To the dialectics of the up and down, of what is erected or collapses (the carnivalesque tradition, a situation illustrated by Buñuel: from the insect-level camera to Simon of the desert on top of his column), Tati would be substituting another comedy where it is the act of standing upright which is funny and the act of wobbling (how Hulot walks) which is human.   

* La Defense:  Europe's largest purpose-built business district, located on the outskirts of Paris. 

First published in Cahiers du Cinéma, issue 303, September 1979. Re-printed in La rampe, cahiers critiques 1970-1982, Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector.