THE first time I saw a Jacques Tati movie, I thought something had gone wrong with the sound system.
It was a student film society showing at the University of Chicago, and things like that go wrong all the time. I was on the verge of getting up to tell someone in the projection booth when I realized that there was nothing wrong with the sound at all — it was a silent movie! But a silent movie with sound.
The movie was ”Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (1953), still my favorite. Sound and sound effects are essential to Tati’s movies, dialogue is not. The character Hulot, who appears in four movies, never says anything but his name, and that only barely, past an ever-present pipe clenched in his teeth. Indistinct words and phrases in French can be heard from other characters from time to time, but they mean nothing. The story isn’t about words. In fact, the story isn’t about anything but what is going on on the screen, which is what makes it so much fun.
There is a tendency in modern criticism to find meaning in every gesture. A lingering look, a brush of the hand, a turn of the head is an expression not merely of annoyance or disapproval but of angst about society as a whole. I believe it was the painter Jackson Pollock who once remarked that he was always surprised to read what hidden levels of meaning he had supposedly put into his work. Tati himself rejected such analysis, even the accolade of artist. He was not an artist, he said, but an artisan.
Just so. The same can be said of every artist. It is not some gift of God, or, as the scientific view might have it, a lucky alignment of the genes that makes an artist; it is mastery of craft. All art is craft, and some people get darn good at it.
Tati was a master of it, and the craft was comedy. A retrospective of his work starts on Saturday at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
We can look at a film like ”Play Time” (1968), with its recurrent contrasts of old Paris and the new, and see it as an expression of wistful longing. There is the flash of seeing the Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur reflected in the plate glass window of a new office building, or the Eiffel Tower in an opening door, and we can see it as a cry of loss. But in fact, they are simply wistful moments. While much fun is to be had looking at the absurdities of modern architecture and its coldly overbearing ”less is more” construction, and even more fun to be had with the sounds and movements it forces people into, the truth is, Tati found old Paris as amusing as the new. A street sweeper endlessly pushes a small pile of debris back and forth while he pauses to harangue passers-by in ”Mon Oncle” (1958). Tumble-down walls and dogs overturning trash cans may be warmer images than the sterility of his sister’s ultramodern house, but he finds both amusing. ”Mon Oncle” won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1958.
Homage must be paid to Charlie Chaplin. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Tati’s Hulot is a misfit in every place and situation. As he moves, his wake is cluttered with the confusion of those he encounters and the debris of a world he rarely understands. For me there is no funnier example and moment than when his brother-in-law hands him his new car’s cigarette lighter for his pipe, which Tati uses, then shakes as if extinguishing a match and tosses from the window.
His amusing ungainly walk, the beat-up raincoat, too-short pants, pork pie hat, a rolled umbrella instead of a cane, all call to mind the unvarying costume of Chaplin’s tramp. Like Chaplin, Tati’s every attempt to hold down an ordinary job ends in disaster; technology is not so much a pressing problem to be solved as simply ignored. To say he marches to a different drummer greatly understates the situation.
That said, Tati’s films are not Chaplin remakes. There is new comedy here. While Chaplin is often violent in his films, Tati almost never is. What violence Tati displays, kicking the rump of a man he believes is a peeping Tom in ”Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” punching an innocent bystander in ”Mon Oncle,” is reluctant and, when that reluctance is overcome, quickly found to have been misplaced. This is a gentleman in the literal sense of the word. Chaplin’s films are filled with action sequences, Tati’s never. There are effects, sometimes even fireworks, but no one is ever slugging it out or brandishing weapons.
Of course, Tati had one thing that Chaplin’s Little Tramp did not — sound effects. And he makes the most of them. The rapid clicking of a woman’s heels on hard stone floors, the drawn-out sigh of a leather cushion as it adjusts to the rise and fall of its user’s weight become very funny moments. Chaplin was once asked how important he thought the background music was to his movies, and he answered that he thought it was about half. There’s no reason to believe he was being facetious, and indeed if you turn off the sound in a Chaplin movie the action is somewhat flat. If it was half the movie for Chaplin, music plus sound effects is more than half for Tati. The charming concertina theme of ”Mon Oncle” runs through my head to this day. The squelch of wet shoes, the spasmodic gurgle of a mechanical fountain, the sharp twang of a bent fishing rod released: these sounds at the right moment and in the right position are hilarious.
TATI was extremely careful about that right moment and right position. He is reputed to have shot some scenes 30 and 40 times, reaching ever for the perfect sequence. He shares this perfectionism not only with Chaplin, who would shoot a scene more than 100 times if he felt it was needed, but also with a few other directors. This, probably as much as anything else, doomed him to financial disaster. From 1949 to 1971, a period of 22 years, he made only six full-length films. (I’m discounting ”Parade,” his last, which was a made-for-television documentary.) The last film starring himself as Hulot was ”Traffic,” released in 1971. It was a commercial failure, and his studio and film rights were wiped out in the subsequent bankruptcy.
We could shed full tears over this, perhaps attempt to draw parallels with other artists, or rather ”artisans,” who demonstrated their mastery to the world but were never greatly rewarded for it. I don’t think there’s a need for any of that. Certainly Mr. Hulot would have shrugged, sucked on his pipe and, with a stiff-legged walk, moved on. Like Chaplin, who knew his Little Tramp would never speak, Tati took no advantage of the age of sound to say anything but Hulot’s name, and even that was shyly mumbled. He died in Paris in 1982, at the age of 74, not far from where he was born.
Tati’s comedies are still in print, as book dealers would put it, and like other classics their box office receipts may someday swamp the returns of the hits of fad and fashion. He occupies thinly populated ground in film history, having not only produced, directed and starred in his movies but also having often worked the camera. It’s not just a tough act to follow, it’s a tough act.