In Praise of Tati

1. Each of Tati’s films marks at once (a) a moment in Jacques Tati’s oeuvre, (b) a moment in the history of French cinema and society, and (c) a moment in the history of cinema. Since 1948, the six films he has directed are the ones that have best kept pace with our history. Tati is not only a rare filmmaker, the director of few films (which all happen to be good); he is a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that extends from Mon Oncle (1958: one year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: one year before the events of May ’68). Since the beginning of sound film, only Chaplin has had the same privilege, that sovereignty of being present even when he wasn’t filming and, when he was filming, of being exactly on time, which is to say just a little early. Tati: a witness first and foremost.

2. A demanding witness, then an inconvenient one. Very quickly, Tati rejected the easy way. He doesn’t play on his public image, he doesn’t keep tight control of the characters he created: the postman in Jour de fête disappears and even Hulot winds up scattering himself – fake Hulots roam all over Playtime. Tati runs the ultimate risk for a comic: to lose his audience by taking them too far. But where? However admirable it may be, his artistic conscience would move us far less if it only consisted of aristocratic loftiness or the haughty retreat of a man angry with his era and with cinema. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If one considers as a group the six films Tati has made since Jour de fête (1948), one notices that they form a line of flight that is the line of flight of all of postwar French cinema. Perhaps because a comic is given less of a right to separate himself from his era than anyone else, even and especially to criticize it, it’s in Tati that one best perceives, from one film to the next, French cinema’s characteristic oscillation between populism and modern art. Who today is able to pick up and imitate the most quotidian gestures (a waiter serving a beverage, a cop moving traffic) and at the same time incorporate these gestures in a construction as abstract as a Mondrian canvas? Tati, obviously, the last of the theorist-mimes. Each of his films is also a marker of ‘how it’s going’ in French cinema. And it’s been this way for thirty years. While Jour de fête bears witness to postwar euphoria and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle maintain the continued existence of a very French genre (social satire) in the context of a ‘quality’ cinema, Playtime, a great anticipatory film, builds the La Défense business district before La Défense exists, but already says that French cinema can no longer deal with the gigantism of French society, that it’s no longer ‘up to it’. It says that French cinema will deteriorate by opening itself up to internationalization – in other words, the Americanization that already threatened the postman in Jour de fête. Sure enough, Tati’s two subsequent films are no longer entirely French (Trafic is a coproduction, a very European film), or entirely cinema (Parade is a commission from Swedish television).

3. Tati is not only the exemplary and disconsolate witness to the decline of French cinema and the degradation of the trade, he takes cinema in the technological state that he finds it. And curiously, though he has so often been accused of being backward-looking, all he thinks about is innovation. People are starting to realize that Tati didn’t wait for anyone’s permission to reimagine the film soundtrack starting with Jour de fête. It’s less well known that thirty years later, Parade is an extraordinary probe into the world of video. In fact, the major theme of Tati’s films is what we now call ‘the media’. Not in the restrictive sense of the ‘main means of mass communication’, but in the sense McLuhan gave the term: ‘specialized extensions of human mental and psychic faculties’, extensions of all or part of the human body. Jour de fête was already the story of a postman who keeps refining the delivery of the message to the point that he loses it. It’s a child who inherits the message (a mere letter) but who, distracted by a traveling circus, doesn’t pass it on: a beautiful metaphor for the intransitivity of modern art. But at that point, the viewer has understood that the real message is the medium – it’s the postman, Tati. The media is also the premature and accidental setting off of fireworks at the end of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, transforming Hulot into a luminous scarecrow, prefiguring the brilliant culmination of Parade where everyone – meaning anyone at all – becomes the luminous trail of a colour in an electronic landscape. And in Mon Oncle the media was also that surprising decision for the time to resist making spectators laugh at the expense of the programmes on the television set bought by the ‘modern’ couple, but to reduce this television to the abstract, nearly experimental spectacle of the sudden changes in intensity of the pale light irradiating the ridiculous garden. The list is endless, one could mention a hundred other examples. The most important thing is that at every moment and for all and sundry (in a kind of democratization-generalization of comedy that is the big gamble of Tati’s last three films, and probably the acknowledgement that we’ve all become comical), there’s a possible media becoming [devenir-média]. From the doorman in Playtime who becomes the entire door when the window pane is broken to the maid terrified at the idea of going through the electronic beam that opens the garage door behind which her bosses have foolishly locked themselves in (Mon Oncle), there’s the (threatening or comical) possibility that the human body will also become a limit, a threshold (and no longer, as is the case in burlesque comedy, a scatological depth). Modern art if ever there was one.

4. Tati doesn’t condemn the modern world (botch-ups and waste) by proving that the old world (economy and human warmth) is better. Other than in Mon Oncle, his films don’t praise what is old: one can even say, without being too paradoxical, that he’s interested in only one thing, which is how the world is being modernized. And if there’s a logic in his films, from the country roads in Jour de fête to the highways in Trafic, it’s the one that continues to irreversibly lead humans from the country to the city. Tati shows, in a way that’s in keeping with the recent (schizo-analytic) descriptions of capitalism, that the human body’s media-becoming works very well insofar as it doesn’t function. There are no burlesque catastrophes in Tati (the kind one can still see in American films such as Blake Edwards’s The Party) but rather a fatality of success that evokes Keaton. Everything that is undertaken, planned, or scheduled works, and when there’s comedy, it’s precisely in the fact that it works. Watching Playtime, one has a tendency to forget that all the actions one sees undertaken are ultimately relatively successful: Hulot finally meets the man with the Band-Aid on his nose whom he had an appointment with, he fixes the street light, is reconciled with the manufacturer of silent doors, and at the last moment even manages to get an admittedly piddling gift to the young American woman. Similarly, the opening of the royal garden is a success: the vast majority of customers dance, dine, and pay. Nothing really goes wrong in Playtime, though nothing works.

5. Cinema has made us so accustomed to laugh at failure and get off on ridicule that we wind up believing that we’re also laughing against something when we watch Playtime, though that isn’t the case at all. For in Tati there are no pratfalls or punchlines [chute]. Or else it’s the opposite: there’s a punchline but we haven’t seen the gag get set up. This isn’t a crafty and elegant way of making people laugh by playing with ellipses, it’s something far deeper: we’re in a world where the less things work, the more they work, therefore in a world where a punchline wouldn’t have the demystifying, awakening effect it has where failure is still conceivable. The same is true with the other meaning of the French word chute – ‘fall’. We’re dealing with bodies that aren’t made comical by the fact that they can fall. This is the nonhumanist side of Tati’s cinema. The ‘human’ part of comedy has always been to laugh at the one who falls. Laughter is only proper to man (the spectator) if falling is proper to the human body (as a spectacle). Chaplin is the archetype of the one who falls, gets up, and makes someone else fall, the king of the trip. In Tati, people practically never fall because there’s nothing ‘proper to man’ anymore. For me, one of the most beautiful moments in Playtime is when a woman customer, thinking that a waiter has held out a chair for her, goes to sit down without looking back (she’s a snob) and collapses in slow motion. A very funny gag, a beautiful ‘pratfall’ [‘chute’] but what exactly are we laughing at? And what are we laughing at in Parade, during the number when spectators are asked to mount an obdurate mule? Or the one where the clowns are constantly falling over each other as they stumble over a pommel horse? Here, falling is just one body movement among others. As a nonhumanist filmmaker, Tati is quite logically captivated by the human species, that animal which Giraudoux described as standing up ‘to get less rain on himself and to pin more medals on his chest’. The source of comedy for him is that it stands up and that it walks/works [marche], that it can walk/work [marche]. Infinite surprise, inexhaustible spectacle.

Rather than a dialectic of high and low, of what is erected and what collapses (a carnivalesque tradition and a situation that Buñuel illustrated: from the camera at insect level to Simon of the Desert at the top of his column), Tati would introduce another kind of comedy where it’s the fact of standing up that is funny and the fact of being unsteady (Hulot’s gait) that is human.

‘In Praise of Tati’, translated by Nicolas Elliott, appears in Footlights: Critical Notebook 1970-1982, published this month by Semiotext(e). The text was originally published in book form as ‘Éloge de Tati’ in La Rampe: Cahiers critique 1970-1982 published by Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard in 1983.