Wednesday, October 26, 2011

David Bellos – ‘Jacques Tati’

From the book I’m reading now:
I’ve numbers of old clothes in my dirty clothes basket – scenes, I mean, tumbled pell mell into my receptacle of a mind, and not extracted till form and colour are almost lost.
So it is with this biography, which I finished last week, and didn’t get around to writing about properly. Which is annoying, because it’s very good, even if the criticism levelled at it in this Amazon review does stand up. It would have been more graceful of Bellos to have left his academic standing to one side, than to constantly express surprise at the achievements of a man with
a literary and political culture no richer than that of an average accountant’s clerk (p. 270)
Certain questions are begged here: what does Bellos have against accountant’s clerks? and, how narrow must his conception of culture be, if he thinks Tati didn’t have any? Only an institutionalised academic could think this way, but then, his linking of Playtime to Situationism is intriguing, and convincing. The way he tells it, the writers behind this movement were far too serious in their insistence that the over-convenient surface of modern life must be disrupted in order to make it human again; Tati made this point too, but he also made it fun.

Here, in any case, is what I wrote last week, when the blues were still blue:
‘Laughing together is easier than laughing alone,’ Tati explained in his dictated memoirs. ‘The oldest spring of comedy is simply the pleasure that a group of people feel on being together.’ (p. 31)
Two of Tati’s films struck me in exactly this way, years apart: Les Vacances de M. Hulot, and Trafic, watched on TV, alone, were both big disappointments. Their lack of dialogue, or story, were alienating; the jokes so slow and deliberate as to seem sub-normal. But watched in company – Trafic amongst a full and well-disposed cinema audience – both were utterly transformed on a second viewing. Longer ago still, I remember Mum’s enthusiasm for Mon Oncle, shown on TV, and a joke which consisted simply of an immaculately dressed secretary in a tight skirt and high heels trotting along, coming to a kerb, and skipping lightly up on to it, without breaking her rhythm. Can you even call that a joke? And yet it stuck. Or maybe Mum laughing at it stuck. Several times Bellos makes the point that Tati’s comedy has something democratic about it: whereas Charlie Chaplin, he argues, attracts attention and wants you to laugh at how clever his character is, M. Hulot is so self-effacing he seems to diffuse attention, and you laugh at situations in the round, joining them, almost, as a character yourself. Which may be why it is so important to experience Jacques Tati’s films as part of a crowd: so they can be met somewhat on their own expansive terms.


Footnote 1: this clip of Tati’s friend Borrah Minevitch is quite something.
Footnote 2: coincidence?

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