Film buffs, a new mutant breed that can see only in the dark and that arranges unlike things in even rows of bestness, have collared the word ‘pantheon’. They have in mind – this species that seems to have learnt English by German gramophone record in an igloo – a holy order of film directors. This word is easily confused with Parthenon, of which the Goons said that it would be nice when it was finished, so it seems best to say ‘favourite film directors’ instead – Renoir, Gance, Eisenstein, Ray, Truffaut, Keaton, Vigo, Tati. Tati has lately died after a career triumphant beyond compare in comic quality, apart perhaps from Keaton. Both could have made films in broom cupboards. Keaton used his august and stoic profile as a sort of mainsail, braced against great winds in search of the compass direction of a moral order. Tati seemed to regard his own face as a trodden-on mishmash of which he was not on the side, because it belonged to him and he was not particularly in favour of himself, though otherwise his loyalty was indeed to mess. Apart from Renoir, he is about the only man I have ever known who has not complained about the calibre of busy women’s washing-up.
Like Mozart, whose prodigality and character he shared, he died a pauper. Keaton, too, died at the edge, unlike Chaplin. Perhaps the yapping-dog sentimentality of some of Chaplin’s work has to do with his canniness about lucre and the fine print of contracts. The world has not repaid Tati for the present of his work. The pirates of film-buffery made money out of showing his films and gave him nothing. He mortgaged his house outside Paris and lost it, but never lost a friend or his own delight in perfection.
To go back to washing-up, he expressed from the beginning a hatred of fuss. He was on the side of bikes, mongrels, tramps, children, muddle, canaries in need of a suntan, ill-fitting clothes, jokes played in defiance of bureaucracy, whistling, neat solutions to the rule of any generalised discipline. In his early Jour de Fête, when he plays a postman on a bicycle, a cross-eyed man is hammering in the tent-peg of a circus tent; on account of the eyes, sometimes his hammer hits the target and sometimes it misses. Tati is on the side of both hits and misses.
And among the things his films despise: cruelty about individuality (like that of the cross-eyed); furious hygiene; small people put at a loss by tall gadgets; fuss; empty merriments almost; all social gatherings of more than two.
There is a particular mutinous mumble in the ordinary course of events which can suddenly sound like W.C. Fields; there are debonair acts of stoicism which evoke Keaton; and there is an overweening electronic buzz which reminds you of the films of Jacques Tati as strongly as a particular kind of starched lope summons up Tati himself. When M. Hulot’s author balances a soundtrack, the human voice plays a small and outclassed part in the din of the inanimate. A while ago, at some stiff dinner party on the beach in California, where the outdoor ping-pong table was made of marble (‘Because marble doesn’t warp in the sea air,’ said the owner gravely), I remember a nearly unnegotiable ten minutes when the roar of 24 people’s chicken bones being ground up by the garbage disposal in the grandly enlightened open-plan living-room was entirely victorious over the 24 brave souls who went on pretending to be able to hear each other. The soundtrack was unmistakably Tati’s, and so was the politely-programmed lunacy of the people ignoring the racket. No other director has ever pitted the still, small voice of human contact so delicately against the nerveless dominion of modern conveniences. Some noisy hot-water pipes become a major character in Jour de Fête. In Mon Oncle the buzzings and hissings and gulpings of peremptory gadgets are prodigious.