The following is as a short intro I gave before a screening of MON ONCLE at ACMI during the program “Honey, I'm Home: Visions Beyond the White Picket Fence” curated by Roberta Ciabarra
Saturday 2pm 27 October 2012
I‘ve been looking at Jacques Tati’s work for several years in terms of architecture and the city. There’s many ways to look at his work including, the uniqueness of the filmic structure, as discussed by Kirstin Thompson. The magic/fictiveness & realness as explored by people like Richard Combs and Andre Bazin.
Tati’s work has a magical quality and it also has a documentary feel. In a way Tati possesses some of Walter Benjamin’s storyteller. Tati doesn’t’ give us - the meaning of life. But in telling about his experiences – he does I believe provide - counsel, wisdom in Benjamin’s words.
Tati was born in a suburb of Paris in 1909. His first feature film, JOUR DE FETE, came out in 1949. Before this he had a career in as a comic mime in the music halls.
Tati made 5 feature films in total between the late 40s and early 70s.
This was a period of rapid modernization, in France – and elsewhere. It is a period of French history that has been summarized with words like – before the war no one had a bath room – after the war everyone had a washing machine, TV , a fridge and eventually a car.
A lot changed quickly. And this is something of the story that Tati shares with us.
Benjamin’s storyteller is a craftsperson and for him the re-telling of a story builds invisible layers which contribute to making it work – like the layers in the lacquering process.
While film replays – much the same each time – especially now with DVDs Tati in his life time (he died in 1982) constantly recut his films.
One thing that is missing of course from a film that is with Benjamin’s story teller (who is in the room with you) – is the sensual experience, the storyteller’s voice in your ears, their movement, smell etc….
Tati in a way did try to make these direct connections with his audience in at least two projects. One, JOUR DE FETE O’LYMPIA (in the 1960s) in which he uses a combination of the screened film and live action characters including Tati himself. The other project was the Swedish TV show PARADE (DATE) a circus like performance, harking back to, and using acts from his music hall days.
Another thing Benjamin suggests is that the storyteller’s story is open to interpretation.
And this is famously what Tati’s films give us, especially in what could be considered his masterpiece PLAY TIME (1967) - film without a strong narrative and diffuse main character. A film that each time you watch you find something new. A film that bankrupted Tati. And a film that for me does provide a little wisdom. Clearly in the film PLAYTIME we can see that Tati’s heart is breaking – Haussmann’s Boulevards of his childhood have vanished from the Paris of PLAY TIME - yet he finishes the film in the merry-go-round-about with colour, and children, the old, the unfashionable, all that’s been, for the most part, banished from the modern city – a joyful celebration…of life.
Tati’s last feature film TRAFFIC (1971) often is ignored in box sets and transfers to DVD – I believe though it is as strong as the first 4 films. It is though slightly darker.
It has a linear structure – unlike the circular structure of JOUR DE FETE & MON ONCLE or the roving intersecting structure of Mr Hulot’s Holiday & PLAY TIME.
It ends in a car park.
And it’s raining.
It’s a truly ridiculous story of a camping car, which is taken from Paris, in truck, to an auto show in Holland – they arrive after the show has been packed up – the camping car – with all its mod cons doesn’t do any camping – while those around it camp out on boats, in sheds, wherever, sharing meals spending time with each other and nature.
You could think of Tati’s career as starting in a small pedestrian village and finishing on a highway. It’s quite a strong comment, from a body of work, on modern society.
These films of Tati’s still have much to tell us. About five years ago I went to continuing education event on sustainable architecture a. Naturally by definition – continuing education – suggests the ideas presented are new…
But Tati with the film we’ll see today MON ONCLE was talking about the same ideas in 1958.
How does architecture and urbanism create sustainable communities & sustainable cities?
And what role does traffic play in this?
These are just a few of the questions asked, and to my mind pretty well answered with this magnificent film MON ONCLE.
But how you interpret the story is up to you…of course…Tati - as a great storyteller in a slightly augmented Benjamin-ian sense - would if anything, I believe, encourage us to take the stuff of the film away with us and make it our own.