The Tragic Geometry of Every Day Life
In an essay accompanying a book on both Meredith's Essay on Comedy and Bergson's Laughter, Wylie Sypher writes: "Kafka transforms comedy of manners into pathos by looking, or feeling, from the angle of the alien soul. He treats comedy of manners from the point of view of Dostoevsky's "underground man", and his heroes are absurd because their efforts are all seen from below, and from within." This is an existential figure of absurdity, but what would a structural figure of the absurd look like? Perhaps like Jacques Tati's figures in Mon Oncle, Playtime and Traffic. Tati's heroes are the opposite of Kafka's or Dostoevsky's. The comedy of manners is viewed so far from the outside that dialogue is secondary to linguistic noise. Characters don't possess an inner life in Tati's work; they have a behavioural simplicity all the better to register a cinematic, audio-visual complexity. Tati's sound is not realistic; its purpose is to be comically inventive. As Michel Chion says in Audio Vision: "in Mon Oncle Tati drew on all kinds of noises for human footsteps, including ping-pong balls and glass objects." Near the beginning of the film as young Gerard Arpel (Alain Becourt) leaves the recently built, technologically new-fangled home, we hear him walking down the winding path. The noise is squeaky, as if foam rubber had been squeezed in an audio infidelity that of course sounds nothing like shoes on gravel. Yet it sounds strangely accurate nevertheless. Tati asks us to concentrate audiovisually on the image because the image is concentrated but somehow elusive. In one moment when Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) is leaving his apartment, Tati holds to a long shot from behind a table and chairs in the foreground, with Hulot exiting the gate in the background. We watch as the young female neighbour from the ground floor apartment fusses over him, helping lift the bike off the pavement, and taking a seat on the pannier rack. Farther in the background of the shot we notice two kids climbing a railing. In the foreground another man on a bike enters the shot and the young woman gets off the pannier rack and starts chasing after him.
This is a typical Tati composition: one that sees the image as a frame of perceptual possibilities rather than an image telling a story. What can we claim happens to be the story in this shot? In another film it might indicate a burgeoning relationship between an older man and a younger woman, and a man closer to her own age entering the scene and indicating rivalry. The scene would be shot with a clear emphasis on this potential story being built; with close-ups and point of view shots. Instead, Tati keeps his distance both narratively and perceptually. We don't follow the story here; we wonder about it.
Visual comedy, of course, has always been based on external characteristics: some of the best work of Keaton and Chaplin relies on aloof framing and the viewer understanding what is on a character's mind by seeing the results of their actions. But Tati seems to keep us from comprehending any ready thoughts and feelings on Hulot's part. Taking into account Sypher's comments on pathos and interiority, the pathos in Tati's work comes from a radical exteriority. Hulot is rarely seen in close-up and we don't get to see events from his point of view. He always wears the same clothes and he doesn't so much speak as make noises. This is consistent in many ways with silent comedy and the nature of the clown, but in a film made in the late fifties that makes the effect a lot stranger than in Chaplin and Keaton's work. Chaplin and Keaton's figures aren't unknown to us: we feel that any distance is a natural part of the aesthetic and the technology. In Tati's work the distance can appear much more like a parti pris.
The notion of the parti pris is useful to keep in mind when we can claim that any film works with a set of formal givens. But the parti pris is the degree to which these are singularly those of the artist: a way of working that seems to go beyond techniques and technologies of the day, goes beyond genre demands and viewer assumptions. Tati's films are 'silent' within the sound era, visual at a time when humour had become more based on wit than observation. Chaplin and Keaton were of their time (and could be placed alongside Laurel and Hardy, Frank Lloyd and others), but Tati is a man out of his time, and this is both a formal strategy and a narrative question. The film explores what happens when a man seems unable to fit in; someone living quite literally in a pre-modern era as we see him going up to his rickety apartment in the old part of town, and watch how he is expected to fit into modern mores. Again, we might think of Chaplin, and Modern Times: wasn't Chaplin making a film about a man out of place twenty years earlier? Yes, if we accept that Chaplin's film is a marvellous exploration of Fordist production values up against the solitary little man who can't find his place in such a world; no if we acknowledge that Chaplin's film was still working as if in the tail end of an era: working with silence in the mid-to-late thirties when comedy would have seemed to have moved on - to the screwball comedy and the Marx brothers' verbal virtuosity. But it was at least tail end: Chaplin's film was much more of its time than Tati's and could happily be called Modern Times.
Tati's is out of its time and takes as its title the notion of an uncle who can't easily conform, someone who has a lot to teach others but only as low-key wisdom and not high tech expertise. There is a lovely moment quite near the end of the film when Hulot returns to his sister (Adrienne Servantie) and brother- in-law's house (Jean-Pierre Zola) and falls asleep on a particularly useless piece of furniture that he makes practical use of. It is a couch that looks impossible to sit on, but turned on its side makes a wonderful hammock-like sleeping arrangement. The next day his sister fussing around the house tut -tuts, turns it back up and pushes it against the wall. It fits well into the house's design, but once again becomes a useless as opposed to useful object. In the Tati-esque universe high-tech is often low wisdom; high wisdom low-tech. After all, as Jean Baudrillard says in The Consumer Society: "if however, we agree to define the object of consumption by the relative disappearance of its objective function (as an implement) and a corresponding increase in its sign function, and if we accept that the object of consumption is characterized by a kind of functional uselessness...then the gadget is indeed the truth of the object in consumer society." Hulot's faux pas is to turn the useless into the useful: to find a function for the merely decorous.
In Laughter, Bergson suggests two things: one that comedy is midway between art and life: "it is not disinterested as genuine art is." The other is that in order to prevent us taking an action seriously in comedy there is a formula: "instead of concentrating our attention on actions, comedy directs it rather to gestures. By gestures we here mean the attitudes, the movements and even the language by which a mental state expresses itself outwardly without aim or profit..." When Bergson invokes the disinterested he will have in mind Kant's belief that one of the things that distinguishes art from life is that we don't have an interest in art as we do in life. We can stand back and contemplate an object of beauty. We don't have to engage with it as we would in 'reality'. The early apocryphal tale of people leaving their seats because they thought a train was coming towards them in The Great Train Robbery is a good example of misconstruing art's purpose. If a real train comes towards us we must escape; a fictional train we view. There are degrees of disinterest, however, and this is where Linda Williams in Hardcore talks about body genres that do elicit a strong response. We don't quite leave our chairs, but we aren't entirely disinterested either. A horror film makes us scream and a weepie makes us cry. We aren't usually going to run out of the room when the psycho breaks into someone's house in the film, but we might scream as if they had broken into our own. This is the halfway house between disinterest and interest: and no doubt central to the catharsis often involved in genre cinema.
When Bergson says that comedy is not disinterested enough to be genuine art, we might wish to disagree, but perhaps in relation to Tati, and Bergson's second point, it is easier than in most comedic films to do so. It is as if Tati took the comedic principle Bergson insists upon and turned it into a Kantian disinterest. Tati is rarely laugh-out-loud partly because he is so observationally remote. He pushes so far into this question of attending to gestures over actions; to the point that the character becomes secondary to the characteristic.
Comedy frequently wishes to make us laugh at events we wouldn't or shouldn't find funny in life: someone getting hit on the head by a brick; falling flat on their backside after slipping on ice. Comedy often creates a climate in which such actions are contained by some generic equivalent of a safety net, but Tati's gentle comedy asks us to accept less the climate of comedy, with its characters broad and stereotypical, than the observational acuity that turns characters not into stereotypes but archetypes. The stereotype in comedy will be seen close-up (the nagging wife; the oafish husband; the geeky son; the petulant daughter), but the archetype in Tati's films are usually seen from a distance. We see their characteristics, but they aren't quite characterised enough to become stereotypes. Tati's is very close to a comedy of disinterest as he shows behaviour that can never quite be seen, only observed. In a romantic comedy one reason its reputation is frequently quite low is because everything is seen and often telegraphed. We can usually see before the characters do how interested they are in each other: from the obviousness of French Kiss to the relative subtlety of Your Sister's Sister, their purpose is to engage us in what we could call anticipatory immediacy, as opposed to Tati's anticipatory distance. We often find that friendships are very important in romantic comedies, and it rests on their capacity to produce reaction shots: they are cutaway characters interested or concerned with how things are coming along or turning out. But often the romantic comedy will go further still and show how involved these friends etc. happen to be in the situation. In Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hank's widower is deciding whether to meet Meg Ryan at the top of the Empire State Building, and his brother's wife talks about how it resembles the fifties film An Affair to Remember. As she describes the plot, she becomes increasingly emotional in the telling and the film cuts back to Hanks (and his brother) as he is reduced to the reaction shot. The point here is that the film can register the maximum emotional force at any given moment: at this one it is the sentimental feelings of a very subsidiary character. This is a shift (to borrow Gerard Genette's term from Narrative Discourse) in the central focalisation (focusing on Hanks and Meg Ryan): where the film offers another perspective briefly to register the feelings of the sister-in-law. It is this very constant focalising of the maximum amount of feeling in the romantic comedy that leaves it very far from disinterest and close (many would insist) to manipulation. It refuses to leave a dry eye in the house. In Sleepless in Seattle, we might cut away to the men who look a bit bemused, and to the son who wonders what is wrong with his mum, but the film's tenor is with her.
To put it mildly, Tati avoids such sentimentality; doing so partly because he refuses ready focalisation. We usually feel in a Tati film that it is close to what Genette would call external focalisation, where in a novel there is no sense in which we can know the characters' thoughts, evident, Genette believes, in some of Hemingway's work. Film is very different from literature, but his term focalisation has entered into film theory and external focalisation is a useful way of describing our relationship with the figure of Monsieur Hulot, and indeed all the characters in Mon Oncle. Imagine the scene earlier described when Hulot leaves the house within the context of a romantic comedy and we would have clearly been focalised, with the film offering a strong characterisational and narrative perspective. The young woman would be interested in Hulot; Hulot would be bumbling and insecure, and the girl, feeling that he might lack interest, notices a hungry look on the face of the cyclist who passes by, and thinks he might be a better prospect. However, the external focalisation refuses these assumptions, or rather refuses to give us evidence that can allow us confidently to make them. If Bergson believes comedy gives us gestures over actions as a way of creating a distance that means we don't take the characters too seriously, then Tati turns those gestures into behaviour at one remove.
Two great examples of this humour at a distance are where we see Gerard and his school friends involved in pranks. In the first sequence they yank down a car bumper to give the impression that the car behind had pranged into it, but Tati presents the scene as a demonstration of youthful mischievousness rather than a sequence of identificatory fun. We see the boys in medium shot coming towards the car as they wait by the traffic lights, and we witness one of them pressing his foot down against the bumper. There is a loud prang, and the film cuts to the driver getting out of the car and confronting the person in the vehicle behind. The exchange between the two drivers is one shot, with the boys in the background looking on, and occasionally the driver in the front car looking across at them as he wonders whether they've been up to mischief. He notices his car is fine; that he has unfairly accused the driver behind him. In the next sequence, the same thing happens again, but the shot choice is quite different, and the boys' antics not shown at all. The film gives us a close up of a driver in his car; he hears what sounds like someone behind him crashing into his vehicle, and the film cuts to the boys walking along the street while the driver goes to the car behind and gives the woman seated a piece of his mind. As he lectures her about her brakes; we see the boys in the background of the shot looking both amused and shifty, before the film cuts to an elegant woman stepping out of her car and telling the man that it was the boys playing. In the same shot the boys climb over some railings and go off into the distance as the cars pull away at the traffic lights, and Hulot enters the frame.
This is an informationally rich moment of movement. The boys disappear into the distance while Tati enters the frame as the cars start to exit it. The problems seem to have gone away we might assume, but Hulot's gesture of disapproval at the boys' actions becomes part of the gag as the comedic sequence isn't over yet. As Hulot shakes his umbrella in the boys' direction, a rickety old car pulls up and the driver looks round as if wondering what happens to be the latest problem besetting the vehicle. He careers into the car in front, and the elegant woman whose car has now just been crashed into sees a studious young boy reading a paper coming towards the car and chides him lightly. The film cuts to the car in the foreground, the boy in the background, and as the car pulls away we notice the bemused look on the boy's face, and the damaged bumper of her motor. It is funny for several reasons. The gag has managed a reversal of expectation, and the actual accident has nothing to do with the boys at all. The woman who would seem the most concerned with appearances (both in the sense of observing actions and of personal vanity) fails to see her car has been damaged. Yet the scene remains for all the irritation evident on the drivers' part, to be one of comedic equanimity. There is always a place beyond the scene in Tati's films; it is perhaps why we can see his influence on numerous high-art directors who want to keep the audience at one remove from events. We can think of the traffic jam in Godard's Weekend and scenes of neighbourly tension in Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention. Talking of Tsai Ming-liang's Vive L'amour, Richard Brody in the New Yorker reckoned: it was as if "Jacques Tati had given free rein to his sexual fantasies." Tsai had easily absorbed Tati into his rigorous aesthetic. It is by focusing on gestures over actions, of feeling that we are witnessing a properly human comedy that is so much greater than the comic set-piece, that makes Tati an artist in Kantian and Bergsonian terms.
The second sequence we have in mind is where the boys are placing bets on whether someone will bump into a lamp post or not. They are sitting high perched on a hill behind a rickety fence and look down on the street and the passers-by. As one of them whistles they wonder if the person looking all around to see where the whistling is coming from will collide into the post. All of their victims are seen from a distance, from behind the boys' vantage position. One is in conversation, perhaps disputation, with what would seem to be a lover. She is at the ground floor window; he is on the pavement. He starts to walk away along the street. One of the boys whistles and he wonders where it might be coming from, looks around and then clangs into the lamp post. Whether it is an old man, the dapper dressed lover, or a chubby older woman, Tati offers their humiliation in equal doses and from an equal remove. There is little moral sense to Tati's comedy, none of the Roberto Benigni-like need to associate the accidental with the deserving, of the mischievous with the comeuppance. Another filmmaker might wish to show that the dapper man is a little too full of himself and so gets what he deserves even if the boys are randomly having fun. But all three victims are shown as equally undeserving of their fate; Tati doesn't attach a feeling to one that he removes from another: they are all victims of their circumstances, arbitrary figures in another's sense of fun. The actions might be deliberate, but the people at the mercy of the attacks have not been chosen.
In Benigni's Life is Beautiful, there is a moment where the central character (played by Benigni) is trying to persuade a bumptious official to help him out, but the official isn't for turning. The official leaves the building and Benigni, leaning against the window sill, pushes a plant pot out of the window which lands on the dignitary's head. Benigni runs down the stairs and out of the building. Profusely apologising as the man attends to his head, Benigni puts the eggs he has been carrying into the man's hat while he tries to make amends. Of course, the official then puts his hat back on and the eggs go splat. In both instances, Benigni hasn't set out to abuse and humiliate the man, but that is the result, as a deliberate comedic gap is generated out of the diegetic and the non-diegetic: out of the characters within the story and the audience's perspective beyond it. We are happy that the official has been maltreated; Benigni is horrified that he might have caused offence.
Part of Tati's distance thus comes not just from the proximity of his camera to a given situation; it also comes from refusing many of the moral assumptions comedy frequently works with. The laughter Tati elicits in Mon Oncle doesn't have the guttural assuredness of moral superiority. It has the gentle humour of the everyday, of pranks played, of mistakes made, of the bafflement involved in negotiating a world that is constantly changing. It is the latter of course that allows commentators to see the film as fine explorations of modernity: the tensions between self and society. Tati himself said of Mon Oncle: "the film conducts a defence of the individual. I don't like mechanization. I believe in the old quarter, the tranquil corner, rather than in highways, roads, aerodromes and all the organization in modern life. People aren't at their best with geometrical lines all around them." (Movies of the Fifties) Mon Oncle is halfway between Jour de fete which celebrates village life, and Playtime, which explores modern life in all its inexplicability. Yet there is nothing as damning in the film as there is in Tati's comment. The film's tone is quizzical rather than condemnatory; enquiring rather than satirically judgemental. Certainly, Hulot's sister's house is comically evident as Hulot's own happens not to be: where we have numerous scenes in the sister's home, Tati shows us only the exterior of Hulot's apartment. Clearly, for Tati much of the humour in the film comes from the newfangled and either the absurdity or difficulty of fitting into it. There is the scene where Hulot goes into the kitchen and negotiates with the gadgetry. After pressing various buttons in an attempt to open the cupboards, a pot encased in rubber pops out. It is so unbreakable that even bouncing it off the floor leaves it intact. He then tries it with a glass to see if everything in the kitchen is unbreakable: the glass smashes and Hulot sweeps it aside. It is a scene that captures well man at the mercy of his environment on a micro-level. When Tati talks of man not being made for the geometrical he could be echoing remarks made by Henri Lefebvre in Critique of Everyday Life. "The body appears to be a bundle of cyclical rhythms; contrariwise, many regulated activities - a sequence of productive gestures, for example, or social procedures - are clearly linear. In present daily life, the rhythmical is overwhelmed, suppressed by the linear." We could see that production lines, traffic jams, queues are all examples of this linearity. If Tati doesn't care for ready moral judgement of the characters we so often find in comedy, then it rests partly in his interest in critiquing society and defining the individual against the onslaught of anonymity. It is not the factory boss he would have problems with, but the factory; it is not the bourgeois wife he would condemn, but the structure of the life she leads. It is the false rhythms of our existence that he condemns; not the individuals living within these structures.
This also of, course, helps explain Tati's distance. Critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum have talked understandably a great deal about Tati's democratic approach to humour. (JR) But Tati is also someone who wants to suggest the absurdity evident in the constant need to renegotiate our relationship with rapidly changing technologies. In the scene at the factory where Hulot makes a hash of producing plastic items so that they end up looking like a chain of sausages, we fear less for Hulot's professional position, than our own place in a world where such absurdities are normalised. Tati's comedy is often based not only on the comedically democratic, but a version of what the Russian formalists would call 'ostranenie': defamiliarisation, or estrangement, where the familiar is made strange. In Tati's case what he does is make life strange through the comedic, through finding an angle on life that points up how unusual our world happens to be if we think about it in a certain way. This 'thinking' in Tati's case is obviously cinematic: it is about where to place the camera; how to utilise sound. In one scene we see Hulot's brother-in-law trying to arrange a job for Hulot. Hulot doesn't have a phone, so the way Arpel usually gets hold of him is by phoning the village phone box; this time from his boss's office. Telling Hulot he might have found work for him, Arpel leaves the office and another couple of people come in. Saying to them they won't be disturbed, the boss picks up the phone to inform his secretary that he will receive no more calls, only to receive the noise of the village: Hulot forgot to put the phone back on the hook. The whole sequence is shot from one camera angle: a fixed frame from the back of the room, with the president facing the camera behind his desk, and initially Arpel in one of the two chairs in front of the desk. It is a shot of rigour and order, an example of cinematic geometry suggesting life is elsewhere. When Arpel rings the phone box, we get the sounds of village life as an engaged tumult of music and noise. The sounds available in the office are distinct and sharp. Tati's purpose is to find a critique that isn't anthropocentric but geometric: as if to say how can anybody really be expected to live and work in such environments as the building Arpel is employed in and the house he lives in. The president isn't presented as a terrible person: it is the idea that there is almost no space for personality at all that is the problem; not individual traits and characteristics. We feel watching the sequence not the awfulness of people, but the strangeness of place.
This strangeness must come through a certain relationship with sound and image. As Tati says: I've been fighting all my life for my soundtracks. They're obliged to be magnetic one day; it's a joke for distributors to make them optical. With optical, beyond a certain point you get distortion; with magnetic you get all the range you want. It's so silly that distributors today don't imagine that magnetic will be the next step in sound. Each time we had a sound on magnetic and had to transfer it to optical, it became so hazy, with no dimension to it." (JR) Concerning the image, and talking specifically of the later Playtime, he believes: "The images are designed so that after you see the picture two or three times, it's no longer my film, it starts to be your film. You recognize the people, you know them, and you don't even know who directed the picture." "The dimension of the camera is the dimension of what your eyes see; I don't come close up or make tracking shots to show you what a good director I am. I want your eyes to put you in such a situation where you come to the opening of the restaurant, as though you were there that night." (JR)
Now plenty of films have suggested that cinema should capture something of life and its ambiguity. This can encompass theories of realism but also aspects of formalism, but it is rarely used to justify the comedic. This might be affiliated with the idea that comedy is a body genre, Williams' term that we invoked earlier. How can you expect that strong response from the viewer if you don't direct their attention categorically? Tati is perhaps saying that he isn't first and foremost interested in the comedy, but in the observation that can lead to the comedic. These can be quite distinct, and we might usefully again think of Bergson when he talks about humour as distinct from irony. For Bergson these are both dimensions of satire, but where "irony is oratorical in its nature...humour partakes of the scientific. Bergson sees that a humourist is usually concerned with "concrete terms, technical details, definite facts." Most interestingly Bergson believes "a humourist is a moralist disguised as a scientist". But if Bergson reckons a humourist is one who "practices dissection with the sole object of filling us with disgust", Tati is not interested in the dismissal of the human, but the rejection of the technological that doesn't give the human much space in the geometry of everyday life.
He wants us to comprehend not what is funny but what is observable, and expects us to observe partly to create our own sense of the funny. "I work more by observation: you see, when a president or a prime minister does a little something that's funny, that makes me laugh much more than a comic does. I can make Hulot do all the jokes, because I come from the music hall and I can do it quite well, but it's not my way." (JR) It is as though Tati didn't want to produce films to make us laugh in the cinema, but to make us laugh when we come out of the film too: to see small details in our daily reality that Tati's perspective has given to us. If Kafka could once say that cinema puts our perception in uniform as it restricts what we see, Tati not only insisted in his work that we can choose to some degree what we can look at, but also gives us a pair of perceptual glasses to view the world in a Tatiesque way when we exit the cinema. "Now the other day, when President Nixon came on, after he won the election with a very small detail he could have been very, very funny, not serious at all. He came on [Tati imitates Nixon's demeanor] with this big smile," Tati says, "and it wasn't natural at alland if he'd slipped on one of the steps, it would've been hilarious. The same thing happened with De Gaulle once when he did something on television: it was so funny, because it was the General who did it. A small detail, it wouldn't have been as good for Laurel and Hardy, but it was good for De Gaulle...." (JR) The Tatiesque asks us to see the humour not just in the cinematic, comedic set-piece, but to look for it beyond the frame also.
If we find ourselves quoting sociologist philosophers like Baudrillard and Lefebvre, it isn't to give credence to a comedy director: to elevate his status by reference to others in a more ostensibly intellectual field. It is instead to say that Tati is a sociological philosopher too, but in film form. His insistent need to view people from outside and not inside, his fascination with the objects of everyday life as obstacles, his desire to make us observe rather than laugh, to make us see that it isn't simply the film that is funny but the human caught in various situations that show up our absurdity in a structural rather than an existential way, makes his work of immense importance, and Mon Oncle one of the finest examples of it. Lefebvre says "domestic appliances have certainly altered daily life. By opening it out on to the world? Quite the reverse: they have aggravated its closure, by reinforcing repetitive everydayness and linear process - the same gestures around the same objects." It is a sociological remark in Lefebvre; an audio-visual exploration in Tati. We can say, finally, that Tati's radical exteriority is threefold. Firstly, we have characters that are observed through their behaviour. Secondly, we as viewers have to read into the image the humour that we find there: it is not always an intrinsic aspect of the comic, of the telegraphed gag. Thirdly, we can extend that exteriority to beyond the film: to seeing in life and not only the cinema, the Tatiesque. His is a properly modern vision, but far from comfortably so. He captures something of the geometrical tragedy of everyday modern life.
© Tony McKibbin