Jacques Tati: Magpie Collector of Foibles

Jacques Tati found the perfect setting for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, a cove with a stage-like beach next to a small hotel in a lovely quiet sea-side town. Before shooting he spent six days alone in the hotel, observing people and dogs; gathering the poignant, funny, ridiculously human moments that would become the story of the film. Tati is a sort of magpie of human (and canine) foibles; a collector of gestures and moments of absurdity. The films of Jacques Tati are pure pleasure from start to finish – visually beautiful, with lovely colors and graceful movements, and they’re thoughtfully, perfectly quiet, with just the right sounds at the right times. Watching them is a sort of mesmerizing, underwater experience. But the mood they invoke stays with you for hours and days afterwards, and the gentleness and light give way to a surprising depth of thoughts and questions, and to searching ideas that change the way you see the world around you, and the people in it.

These foibles connect us, and the act of noticing them makes every moment, and every movement, important.

In an interview with Jaques Tati from a television program that could have been called Showstoppers! the interviewer seemed nervous, and very sweetly kept on and on asking Tati about his favorite show-stoppers, in his films, or Chaplin’s films, or Keaton’s films. Tati’s films, of course, aren’t about the fine art of show-stopperism. The action comes gently, in wave after wave, swirling and swelling and falling. In this interview, Tati said that the purpose of his work is to bring a smile to ordinary life, to find the beauty and humor in things that we do everyday, and in everything that goes on around us. So if you’re sitting in traffic, you will have a smile thinking about the movie Trafic, and about the scene in which all the drivers are picking their noses. It could be a silly scene, but it’s so beautifully filmed and observed that it becomes a poem to our shared humanity, to the things that make us the same and the different ways that we approach them. He’s laughing at us, but kindly and generously, with warmth and fellowship, because he’s as foolish as any of us. These foibles connect us, and the act of noticing them makes every moment, and every movement, important.

What would he make of us now, with our heads bent looking at our phone. What would he make of our efforts to understand this new way of stylizing and understanding gestures and expressions?

Tati finds comedy in the moments and places that the characters don’t notice. They’re so caught up in what they’re supposed to see, that they miss the thing they really want to see. In Playtime, a gaggle of American tourists herd themselves into a thoroughly modern building, excited about what they’ll find within [It’s a set! Tati built it! Incredible! – ed]. As they pass through the highly polished glass doors we see a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, reflected in the door, swinging by unnoticed. Often, in Tati films, technology is the reason we forget to look around us. We spend so much time understanding and operating our labor-saving devices that we don’t have time to go and “whistle and put our hands in our pockets and be free.” What would he make of us now, with our heads bent constantly looking at our phones? What would he make of our efforts to understand this new way of stylizing and understanding gestures and expressions? What would he make of emojis? He would find the humor in it all, no doubt, and smile at the new opportunities for misunderstandings, and maybe be glad to be able to make a little movie whenever the mood or the situation inspired him.

Tati tells us that he learns many lessons from dogs. In their honesty and unselfconsciousness they are the greatest of comedians. He also speaks of his films as his children, he loves them all because he made them, and he had complete freedom to do so exactly as he felt they needed to be. They are perfectly, honestly strange in the way most humans are, under the veneer of polite conventional behavior. And there is something childlike about his films, though they’re not childish at all; in many ways they are incredibly sophisticated. It takes a great deal of work and planning and genius to pull off the intricate choreography that makes Tati’s films so pitch-perfect and seemingly simple. But, like a child, they ask questions. Why? Why do we do this? Why do we behave this way? Why do we say these things? And when you answer a child often you say, “I don’t know, we do these things because we do these things. Because everybody does these things.” But Tati gently pokes a hole in this logic, enough to let the absurdity creep in, enough to change the way we think about these questions we can’t really answer.

In another interview, not with Tati, but with the stars of Trafic, the actors were asked how working with Tati had changed their lives. They replied that they look at everything differently now, the movements of people on the street, in their homes, in their businesses, and they, too see patterns and humor. Tati speaks about the job of the spectator in his films–he says that in many ways the movie starts when you leave the cinema. He has shown you how to free yourself from convention and expectations, he has put you in the frame of mind to notice moments of connection or moments of loneliness, to see the beautiful and weighty fragility of human gesture and expression–so powerful and so silly at the same time. And now it’s up to you to go out into the world and collect these moments yourself, to set the world around you abuzz with humor and affection.

This is a quality I aspire to. I want to notice things, everyday things and the movements of the people all around me, and recognize the beauty and comedy of it all. This feels like a grand ambition to me, an important aspiration. Tati proves that a comic film, so light and warm and absurd, can have great weight and depth, with strong, far-reaching roots that connect us all.

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