Friday, 17 July 2009

"Everyone has their half an hour of Hulotism every day." Jacques Tati

A new exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française, in Paris, celebrates Jacques Tati as modernist and deconstructionist. The curators have taken a still from the pharmacy scene in Playtime, wherein the green light of the shop's sign gives its wares and its customers a sickly pallor, and captioned it with a reference to Derrida's famous analysis, in Dissemination, of the crucial ambiguity of the word, 'pharmakon' in Greek, and the role it plays in Plato's Phaedrus. In Socrates speech in the Phaedrus, writing is offered to the king by the god Thoth as a "remedy" (Pharmakon) for his ailing memory, but the word pharmakon is inherently slippery, meaning as much poison as cure. “If the pharmakon is ‘ambivalent,’ it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed," says Derrida, "the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.).…The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference. It is the différance of difference." 

Like middle period Chaplin, Tati's Monsieur Hulot is an (almost) silent man in a  world full of noises. Just as the little tramp in Modern Times, Hulot in Mon Oncle may sing and whisper in people's ears but almost never speaks out loud. In a scene early on in Les vacances  de Monsieur Hulot we discover why. Arriving in the hotel, laden with luggage, Hulot is unable to introduce himself until having the pipe pulled out of his mouth by the receptionist, like a baby's dummy. It is the pipe that has stolen his voice, one partial object effaced by what is, in a sense, another. Hulot's pipe, though not quite permanently between his lips, is none the less somehow in him more than himself, like Lacan's objet petit a, it is more a part of Hulot than his own body. Look at the famous silhouette on the poster for Mon Oncle, it is by the pipe that we recognise him, and by which he becomes a kind of phatic image. As his frame juts forward when he walks, once gets the sense it is the pipe leading the way, calling the shots.  John Towsen equates the removal of Tati's pipe for the exhibitions poster on the Paris metro (!) to the removal of Chaplin's cane.

Not that noise is threatening or disturbing to this quiet man, as they sometimes are to Chaplin, rather it is a source of endless wonder and amusement. In Mon Oncle he spends considerable time positioning his window just so to reflect a pool of light where a little bird is perched, encouraging it to sing. One thinks, also, of his seemingly endless fascination with the noises made by chairs in Playtime. Bazin speaks of Hulot's world as one of a "sonorous inanity" that is nonetheless "undeniably human," claiming it is the sound of Tati's films that give them their "weight" and "moral dimension." As such, it is through sound effects that Tati brings everyday objects to life, and by reducing speech to a meaningless chatter, makes objects of his cast. We find ourselves in the magical world of Disney's Fantasia, where each little individual noise that has been bestowed upon each individual object becomes its spirit. Tati's moral philosophy, then, as revealed by his sound world, is object-orientated.

Of course, if there was one country for whom the controversial personal life of Charles Chaplin could never besmirch the heroic status of his tramp, it was France, and Hulot is very close to Charlot. But it was Buster Keaton who named Tati as his heir. Like Keaton, Tati can be seen as a theorist of technology, somewhat in the mode of Paul Virilio. For Virilio, "The invention of the substance is also the invention of the “accident.” Seen this way, the shipwreck is indeed the “futuristic” invention of the ship, the air crash the invention of the supersonic plane, and the Chernobyl meltdown, the invention of the nuclear power station." In this sense, Hulot, in all his calamitousness, is revealing the truth of the objects he encounters. "You must learn to get along with modern technology," says his sister, Madame Arpel, "become more modern." But in his subtle détournement of the Arpel's lime green sofa, Hulot shows himself the true modernist by transforming it into the close cousin of a Le Corbusier chaise longue.

Unlike Keaton's hardworking young man, however, Tati seems to be permanently on vacation. In his use of the camera and in the editing suite, Tati is a very different director to both Keaton and Chaplin. In his long, still takes, and wide-angle framing, Tati is very much a post-Rosselini comedian, with the austerity of Robert Bresson. There is a stillness and calm to his frame, even as chaos reigns amidst its subjects. The impassive features of Monsieur Hulot are somehow reflected in his international style image of Paris. "The biggest star of all is the set," Tati once said, and his characters, especially the Arpels in Mon Oncle, frequently resemble nothing so much as cuckoo clocks announcing the time. Michel Chion credits Tati's films with a certain "awareness of the cosmos," citing a childhood memory of watching Mon Oncle, "what I really liked about it was that night fell, and you had the feeling you were breathing night air." This sense of space, of air, is complemented by the soundtrack - the ever-present tweeting of bird song in Les vacances, and the ebb and flow of traffic, coming almost to resemble the babbling of a stream, in Playtime. "But what would Mr. Hulot be without vacation?" Asks Bazin. "We can even imagine that Mr. Hulot himself disappears for ten months of the year and then reappears spontaneously, in a kind of jump cut, on the first of July, when the alarm clocks finally stop and, in certain privileged places on the French coast and in the countryside as well, a provisional time creates itself, between parentheses as it were — a duration softly whirling, closing in upon itself, like the cycle of oceanic tides."