Blog Archives

Criterion: Parade, Jacques Tati, 1974

Tati_Parade_DVD

I wrapped up my discussion of Trafic by quoting Tati from an interview about why he made so few films. His answer was that he did not want to make something that failed to meet his standards. His quote was that, “in life, you only have so many ideas.” Parade is most certainly one of his big ideas. It is ultimately his lifelong idea, a culmination of all his years working in the entertainment industry, beginning in the music hall, continuing with his mime training, and to a lesser extent, his experience in films. This is Tati the showman, which was ultimately what he was all his life, even if that side of him was disguised in his most popular works because the real Tati was somewhere within the character of Hulot.

By that same token, ideas for a variety show on TV and a feature film are drastically different. Parade stands apart from all of Tati’s cinematic output because (and apologies to Jafar Panahi), this is not a film. This is a TV show that was later converted to film. As a TV, show it would be quality entertainment. As a stage show, it would be an experience one would never forget. As a film, it is a decent and fleeting experience. As a Tati film, it is the outlier, the movie that does not belong and cannot be measured or even categorized with all of his previous efforts. For that reason, Parade is a disappointment.

The show is a form of a circus with Tati as the host. There are acts of juggling, balloons, magic, animals, and musicians (especially during the latter third of the film). The acts that take place when Tati is not on the stage are at times enjoyable, at others trite and uninspired.

It is when Tati is on screen that the film shines. He does a few pantomimes. My favorite was his attempt at boxing. His act is coordinated with the drummer to register the punches and the end of the round. It is short, but absolutely hilarious. Other acts are also good. The soccer goalie is a joy, whereas the tennis match is a riot, especially when he performs his mime in slow motion and captures the anguish of the tennis player on every shot to comedic effect.

The audience participates in the escapades. During the tennis match, they look left and right using the sound effect of the ball as their cue. At times it is clear that they are plants, such as when an audience member does a magic act that upstages the amateur on stage who fails at his act. There is also a husband and wife couple in the audience during the mule sequence. The husband is tempted to walk onto the stage and try his hand at the mule, but his wife gets in the way. When he finally gets away from her and onto the stage, he manages to ride the mule. He follows it up with a couple pratfalls and we catch on that the joke is on us. He was part of the entertainment. There is another family with two small children who are given a great deal of reaction shots during the entirety of the film with no explanation as to why, but they come back into “play” at the end of the film. It was probably a blast for the children, but as a film finale, it was unsatisfying.

It begs to wonder why Tati brought this to screen in the first place. The simplest explanation is the lure of money. He had been critical of the idea of ‘selling out’ to get a paycheck, but after two failures in PlayTime and Traffic, he may have had no choice. He may have needed the cash. On the other hand, he is clearly proud of his background as a pantomime and entertainer, and what better way to exhibit such hidden talents than on a TV screen? Given that he shot it in video (and it shows), it also begs to wonder whether this is something he wanted to stand on the same footing as his artistic films. Whatever his reasoning, it is a disappointment that this is the final appearance on film for such a cinematic genius.

Film Rating: 3/10

Supplements:

In the Ring – This is Stéphane Goudet’s critical analysis. He has provided a lot of the better content on this box set. His commentary is useful here in pointing out some of the background of the production, such as the fact that this was the first French movie filmed on video that was shown in theaters. He points out that the cinematographer was Gunnar Fischer, the same DP who filmed many of Ingmar Bergman’s classics (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night). The filming style is different than Tati’s other works, not just because it is filmed on video, but it also has close-ups and zooms, which capture the action of the performance. Of course Tati’s traditional long shots would not work with this type of production.

He provides some background on what Tati brought to his performance. Many of the acts were developed 40 years earlier as he was a developing pantomime and comedic actor. Goudet is fond of this work because it shows that side of Tati, and he dismisses the argument from a Tati biographer that this was a tragic mistake. Goudet feels like this is an extension of Tati’s earlier work. I disagree with Goudet, as is clear in my write-up above.

“In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot” – This documentary is one of the better special features of the set. It was directed by his daughter Sophie Tatischeff, and separated into two parts. The first part is about Tati’s early life, how he developed his comic sensibilities, and through the filming and exhibition of Mon Oncle. It shows a lot of 1930s footage of Tati doing his mime acts in the music hall as a young man, and these are a treasure to see. There are interviews of Tati, and he discusses his move into short films, the first of which he considers to be terrible, but he learned from it, and eventually made features. He wrote Jour de Fete while in the war, stationed at Saint-Severe, and promised to return to film there. He kept his promise and that launched his film career. The whole town participated. He based Hulot on someone he had met in the military, someone good natured and goofy. From there, as we know, he made Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, the latter of which launched him to international stardom.

Part two follows the remainder of his career. He tours the world for Mon Oncle. He wins at Cannes and an Academy Award. He gets to meet the star of his choice after winning the Oscar, and chooses Buster Keaton, and eventually spends time with Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mack Sennett, and Stan Laurel. From there they cover PlayTime, with the construction and destruction of “Tativille,” and the economic failure of Tati. Traffic is glossed over, but Parade is cherished by Tati. He made it in Sweden because he felt they had supported him in his career, even during the bad times. It ends with him giving a parting quote: “If I’ve managed to bring a little smile to people’s everyday lives, in the end [ … ] I think I did well in choosing this marvelous means of expression.” You did well, Jacques.

“An Homage to Jacques Tati” – This is a 1982 episode of the French TV show Magazine. Artist and set designer Jacques Lagrange pays tribute to his friend. He talks about how he created the Arpel house from a sketch, and they received letters of outrage from architects, all of which they cherished. He talks about the process by which they would write their gags, which was carefully thought out and visualized.

Even if the film itself is not up to the quality of the rest of Tati’s work, the disc is worth watching for the supplements, especially Tatischeff’s feature length documentary.

Criterion Rating: 6/10

Criterion: Trafic, Jacques Tati, 1971

Tati_Trafic_DVD

As workers and mechanics are preparing to send their model car off to Amsterdam for a car show, we hear them whistle a number of familiar tunes. We hear snippets from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, and probably various others if you listen carefully. The trace of Hulot’s presence is immediately evident, even if we do not see him for a few minutes.

The shock of Hulot’s introduction in Traffic is that he is employed. Previously, he was nearly unemployable. In Mon Oncle, he bombed an interview and got fired from a job for incompetence, and in PlayTime, he could not even navigate the modern world to get time in the same room with a potential employer. Even in Jour de Fete, where Tati’s Francois could be seen as a prelude to Hulot, he has a job and is absolutely terrible at it.

In the years after PlayTime, Hulot has clearly had a change in ideals. Not only is he employed at an auto company, but he is an actual designer. The car that he ends up designing would be admired by the Arpels from Mon Oncle or by the invention expositioners in PlayTime. It is an entirely modern camper, a way of getting outdoors and enjoying life, but with a lot of clever, innovative and sometimes useless features that are the exact type of thing that baffled Hulot previously.

The fact that he obtained the job and designed something modern and silly is a mystery, but that’s not at the heart of the story. He and his team are responsible for transporting his model camper car to an auto show in Amsterdam. As can be expected, a lot of hijinks occur along the way that slow down and threaten to half the trip entirely.

In some ways Traffic is similar to the previous three films. They are mostly in long shot without close-ups, with sight gags that are easy to miss the first time through, not too much dialogue from the main characters, plenty of background noise, a mixture of languages, and of course, Monsieur Hulot is at the center of it all. Despite these similarities, this does not feel like the same type of Tati film. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it to the previous trio, which are arguable masterpieces, but everything seems a little more watered down this time out. The jokes are not quite as inventive. There are big laughs, such as when Hulot hangs upside down while trying to fix some ivy, but it feels like it has been done already. Previously Tati had been pushing his art a little further each time, and that resulted in PlayTime, his finest film. Traffic feels like a creative step back.

That is not to say this is a bad movie. Lesser Tati is still enjoyable and worth watching, and there are plenty of quality scenes. The traffic accident scene ranks up with the best of Tati’s scenes across his entire filmography. There are other lighter touches, such as the windshield wipers reflecting the look and personality of the drivers, and the mass of umbrellas at the end, that are full of the Tatiesque charm. Yet, for all of those, there are other scenes that don’t quite work. I could have done without the anonymous nose-picking in cars, which is too easy and not nearly as intelligent as most of Tati’s humor. There is also the cruel practical joke that makes Maria mistake her dog for dead, when the doppelganger is a mop with a button nose and far from realistic. Tati was probably trying to connect the children’s pranks from Mon Oncle, but those were organic and fun, whereas the dog prank is tired and transparent.

The ending is up to par with the rest of his work. When Maria is on the boat in the water, we see her appreciate the beauty of her surroundings, which is consistent with Tati’s typical arc of anti-technology and humanizing his characters. When they get away from the hustle and bustle, they find themselves refreshed and their personality changes for the better. Like with PlayTime, they go in circles rather than squares, only in Traffic they embrace quiet and solitude as opposed to the everlasting automobile congestion.

The end is bittersweet. Even though this film is not quite up to par with the remainder of Tati’s work, it is the final film for an endearing character. The outcome for Hulot is no surprise, but we’d like to know what awaits him next. We’ll miss him. It is not easy to say goodbye to Monsieur Hulot. Adieu, my friend!

Film Rating: 6.5

Supplements:

“Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” – This is a 1976 program from the British show Omnibus. It begins at the beach house of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Most of the special consists of interviews with Tati about his craft and his films, jumping backward and forward throughout his work. The one thing I have learned from this set is that Tati is not the greatest interview, which is perhaps because of the language barrier, but more likely because he is protective, defensive and not too revealing about his art. Nevertheless, he does say some interesting things about his work. Tati says he is not criticizing modernity, but is defending people who feel they have to change. This makes sense with Traffic because Hulot tried to assimilate into this new, high-tech society, only to fall on his face yet again. My favorite part of this special was his comparing himself with the old masters, specifically Chaplin. His comedy is passive rather than Chaplin’s active. He talks about the wreath and tire part from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and how differently Chaplin would have orchestrated the gag.

People ask him why he made so few films over the years, but he liked to do them in his own way with creative freedom, without making something that doesn’t live up to his style. He adds that “in life, you only have so many ideas.”

With only one major supplement and a film that doesn’t measure up to Tati’s filmography, this disc is the most disappointing, yet still worth a watch.

Criterion Rating: 5/10

Criterion: Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958

Tati_MonOncle_DVD

Jacques Tati can be an absolute riot at times, and in my opinion, Mon Oncle is his funniest effort. While he does not relax his recurrent theme of tradition versus modernity, he has more fun with these characters, and the material is ripe for comedy with big laughs. Playtime also has some scenes with big laughs, but is a little quieter, slower paced, and takes the theme a little further. The latter is my favorite of the two, yet Mon Oncle is one I could see myself watching more frequently just because it’s a lighter and more pleasurable experience.

The fact that the movie is bookended by dogs running around randomly without a care in the world is no accident. The dogs are contrasted by the silly adults who spend the majority of their effort on appearances, trying to show off their nifty little gadgets and elaborate architecture. The Arpel family are pre-occupied with exemplifying their higher class, while the dogs care less – and that includes the house weiner dog. Even though he wears clothing that would only come from an upper class family, the dogs are seen as equals. They run together where they wish and do not discriminate, nor do they care about such symbols.

The behavior and attitude of the dogs are similar to that of the children. The young Gerard Arpel is dressed in a fine suit representative of his class, yet when he goes out to play with the lower class children that wear patchwork sweaters, he is treated as an equal. Like the dogs, they collectively gallivant around, have fun, and engage in whatever mischief they can find. This can be doing cruel things to others, like pushing on cars to make people think they were in an accident, or whistling from hidden locations and placing bets whether people will hit the signpost. Gerard cares nothing of the technology back at home. He would prefer to eat a cruller with jam and sugar rather than a technologically advanced boiled egg.

mon_oncle1

Gerard looks to his uncle, Monsieur Hulot, as a mentor and influence. Hulot is from an older, traditional France. Like with Villa Arpel, his home is a maze of sorts, but his is out of necessity and not intent. His is run down and he has to go through a variety of different paths in order to reach his loft apartment. The path to his door is not aesthetically crafted and manufactured like the Arpels. He has no fish fountain. Instead he finds that a bird sings when he opens the window enough to let the sunlight shine on it’s cage. This he does for his own amusement, and not to impress others.

Villa Arpel Reproduction

Villa Arpel is another matter entirely. Their house is the height of design. They have a winding S-shaped pathway to get to the front door. There is a small pond with a gigantic fish standing vertically with mouth in the air, which will erupt with blue water when the correct button is pressed. The courtyard has small square pads for walking, surrounded by gravel, grass, or some other brand of landscaping, requiring people to walk carefully if they venture off the main path. The house is modern even for today, with two large portholes that can appear as eyes in some scenes (which Tati uses for great comic effect!).

The house is ostentatious if not completely ridiculous. It is actually quite nice. What is ridiculous is the behavior of the Arpels that inhabit it. They are only concerned with what the neighbors think. The most obvious example of this is that they wait for the doorbell before turning on the fish fountain. If the visitor is a deliveryman or anyone else from a lower class, including Hulot, they immediately turn it off. It is not meant for the lower classes. If it is for a neighbor, co-worker, or any other guest, then the fountain continues to flow as long as the guest is present – or if the fountain breaks, which is another hilarious scene.

There are two worlds in this movie: The Arpel’s world and Hulot’s world. In one of the supplements, Francois Truffault is quoted as saying that one world is 20 years in the past, while the other is 20 years in the future. The old France is the traditional France. The colors of the town are muted and drab, mostly earth colors, with clutter and disarray everywhere. There is one notable pile of garbage that remains in the middle of the street for the entire film. There’s even someone who is sweeping (a reference to the postman in Jour de Fete), but he is doing his job as slowly and inefficiently as possible. The Arpels, on the other hand, are immaculate and obsessed with cleanliness. Mrs. Arpel goes so far as to wipe off her husband’s car to make it as shiny as possible as he is departing for work.

A lot can be said about the contrast between old world, pre-war values and the coming modernization and Americanization. It is no secret that the shiny cars that Arpel and others of his class drive are all American. Mr. Arpel drives a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. By contrast, those in the old France usually walk or ride bicycles. The plastic factory is another statement of modernization and industrialization, and the film mocks how they are merely making plastic hoses. Hulot is so out of touch with this world that he cannot even make a simple hose, and ends up making what looks like sausage links.

Did I mention this movie was funny? There are a few scenes that had me roaring with laughter. The Arpels’ dinner party scene was a riot, and I loved that one of the guests (one from a lower class) couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness as it took place. Another funny scene was when they mistake a neighbor for a rug salesman, but she was just trying to impress them with flashy clothing.

After all of this poking fun of modernity and technology, the dogs are shown running around. The ending is perfect, and reminds us yet again that this artificial world, the high tech gadgets, and the attention means absolutely nothing in the big picture.

Film Rating: 9/10

Supplements:

Terry Jones Introduction. Jones was disappointed with the film at first, and then came around and it became his favorite Tati film. He thinks that the main titles speak to the primary theme just like anything else in the film with hand-created nameplates showing the production credits amid heavy industrial background.

My Uncle. This is the English-language version, which was filmed concurrently with the French version. There are English signs and dialog, which was dubbed in later. The background voices are still French, but that does not matter since the audio is unintelligible. The spoken language version does not make much of a difference because so much of the film is silent, at least not spoken, and the sound effects are all the same.

Once Upon a Time: My Uncle. This featurette talks about the production and puts it into historical context. There are many interviews, including some archived with Tati. Pierre Etaix speaks a great deal as his assistant. He talks about how well Tati choreographed each character’s movement down to the smallest detail.

“Lines, Signs and Designs.” This is a short feature about the architecture behind the house. They talk to different architects about the house, who give their opinions about the designs. Many of them agree that the design was a little much, but they do not overly criticize. Some of them get a little defensive. One architect says that Tati would have slammed his early work.

“Fashion.” This feature talks with a fashion designer about the outfits. She said the apparel was very 1950s. She singles out the rug lady that resulted in funny misunderstanding, all because she was trying to outdo Ms. Arpel. Back in the 1950s, there was a lot of attention to matching colors. One instance where this is seen in the film is with the dog’s vest matching Mr. Arpel’s scarf.

“Have a Seat.” Some designers reproduced the rocking chair, the “kidney” couch and the two cylinder couch. The latter is not very comfortable until people relax in it, and experiment with different ways to use it. This was not mentioned in the feature, but the entire house is reproduced here.

Everything’s Connected. Visual essay and critical analysis by Stephane Goudet. This is the most conventional plot of all his films.. Tati is not against modern archictecture, but the way people use it to show off. It is more of a class contrast. She compares it to other films, like in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday where Hulot becomes a role model for the kids, but not what the parents probably want. That’s the case with the Arpels. He is more of a role model for Gerard and the child adopts Hulot’s values more than his parents.

With walking on the water lilys into the pool, Tati’s character enters water just like in his two previous films, but this time he is not submerged because the water is not deep enough. This provides continuity between the films and his world, but this instance of water is distinctly artificial whereas the others are real.

This was subtle and probably not noticeable to non-French speakers, but the name Hulot is mixed up with “hublot” on at least one occasion. “Hublot” means means porthole. There are many portholes in this movie, such as the holes in the garage, the holes upstairs as windows (or eyes), and the porthole in the interview scene.

“Le Hasard de Jacques Tati.” In this TV special, Tati talks about all the dogs in the film and his relationship with them, including Chance the mutt, his own dog. The dogs for the film were obtained from the pound, and afterward he put out an ad for people to adopt the “stars” of the film. He wishes he had 30-40 dogs because he could have found homes for all of them.

Criteron Rating: 9.5/10

Criterion: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY, JACQUES TATI, 1953

Tati_Hulot_DVD

Summer vacation is a time to get away, to adventure, relax, and get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Jacques Tati plays with this logic, as some of his characters make the most of their vacation, while others bring their city lives with them. At the center is the theatrical debut of Monsieur Hulot, who aligns with and is arguably the catalyst for people enjoying themselves during their time off.

From his first appearance as he is driving his meager, sputtering and backfiring, tine Samdon A3, Hulot is introduced as a different type of character. He’s odd, clumsy, sometimes uncomfortable in his own skin, and his unconventional behavior and tastes make him an outlier compared with the traditional vacationers. He barely speaks, and is the center of the comedic gags that take place. He is also the embodiment of the central theme of Tati’s film (and those to come) of tradition versus modernity. Hulot initially seems not to belong because he awkwardly interacts modern technology, but he ends up belonging in his own way.

Holiday is ultimately a comedy, and bears a strong resemblance to the silent comedies that inspired him. He does pack in quite a lot of big gags, the type of which would be familiar in a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd picture. One example is the shark scene, which was added to the 1978 version in order to satire the recently released Jaws. There are other big laughs, like in his unconventional method of tennis playing, where he trounces his opponents by playing by a different set of standards and rules, not unlike how he behaves during personal interactions.

There are plenty of little laughs as well, like him painting a boat and the paint can rolls away from and towards him without his noticing. Or the older man who casually throws away seashells as his wife collects them. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless subtle oddities that Tati throws into the scene, many of which are humorous and sometimes are hidden. He rewards people for paying attention to the details.

There are plenty of other scenes that are not funny, nor are they intended to be, and this is what separates a Tati film from plenty of other comedies. He slows things down and lets the film breathe. This is, after all, a vacation, and he conveys the sense of getting away.

Not all of the characters participate in the vacation. The businessman is constantly taking calls about his stock purchases. A young political idealist is consumed by continually talking about intellectual matters. The characters who interact the moat with Hulot, however, appear to leave life’s trappings behind them. The children take to Hulot, and they are at home away from home, caring only for enjoyment, music and treats. A number of females also take to Hulot, although not so much in the romantic sense. One young, attractive lady finds herself a dancing partner that keeps a comfortable distance. Another older Englishwoman is delighted by the klutzy Frenchman, and she embraces his quirkiness. Even the older couple adore Hulot,and they spend most of their vacation walking around quietly and peacefully.

Those who accept and enjoy Hulot get the most out of their vacation, and that’s because they challenge their comfort zone. They don’t just follow the herd of modern trappings, but they embrace being outsiders and distant from this quagmire of a society.

Film Rating: 8/10

Supplements:

Terry Jones introduction. The Monty Python member gives a short introduction by Criterion standards and basically highlights his favorite scenes. His presence on the disc speaks more for the influence of Tati. His influence on people like Rowan Atkinson is obvious — the Pythons less so.

Clear Skies, Light Breeze: Critical essay. This is a French critical essay by Stéphane Goudet. She talks about Tati’s art and his comedy, how he embraces the middle class and ridicules bureaucracy and technology. One example is the untillegible speaker at the train station, which people follow blindly. She compares many of these same themes to Tati’s later films.

Sounds of Silence: Interview with Michael Chion. He talks about Tati’s use of sound. The sounds in the film do not fill up spaces, but they are used to complement the space. Tati uses sound to guide our eye to the object (like the swinging door in the restaurant). It enhances the silence. There’s actually quite a bit of sound in Tati films, like the sea in Hulot and the music, and there’s lots of dialogue, but it seems to be primarily in the background.

Cine Regard. This is a French TV program where Tati watches clips from his films and discusses them. He begins by telling a funny story about how he went to a screening of Holiday anonymously, entering in the dark so that nobody would recognize him. He sits next to a man who laughs throughout the film, nudges Tati and constantly calls the director an asshole, not realizing the object of his ridicule is sitting next to him. Tati shares a bit of insight into his films, but it is clear during the discussion that he is protective of their integrity. They are like his children.

1953 version of the film. This original version is not the primary version on the disc, because Tati was a proponent of adapting and improving his films over time, which in my opinion he succeeded with Holiday. Many of the changes are cosmetic, especially with the sound. The older version is busier and slightly more political. The older version is also about 10 minutes longer. Unlike a lot of directors, Tati didn’t mind cutting things out to increase the flow, and he did the same with Jour de Fete.

Criterion Rating: 9/10