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.
Mon Oncle is an attack of blistering docility on the generally unadmitted discomfort dealt out by house pride, contemporary design and high standards of dusting. Hulot’s sister, called Mme Arpel, who is seldom seen without a duster, lives in a balefully mechanised and hygienic house, where a speck of dirt would be like an oath in the Vatican. Her husband, who is in plastics, is a quail-shaped man who wears thick clothes however bright the sun. They live a life of unvarying merriness and pep. The front gates open by remote-control buzzer, and at the same time, if the company merits it, a sculptured fish in the middle of the unnatural little garden starts spouting water. For trade deliveries, and for her brother, the fountain subsides. The Arpels live in a world of ceremony but no actual fun, of regal fuss with two convoluted chairs that are placed in throne positions for the Arpels to watch mere television, of flavourless steaks cooked in two seconds by infra-red rays, of high heels clicking on polished floors. Clothes are like the poor in the New Testament – always with them, and quite a trial. A severe-looking guest whom Mme Arpel casts as a splendid possible wife for Hulot, and as a certain admirer of the house, is dressed in a sort of horse rug or table-runner. A dog leash then gets impossibly tangled in one of her long earrings. The women in the Arpels’ world are perpetually harassed by their bags and stoles and hobble skirts, and M. Arpel throws his wife into a panic by nearly forgetting his gloves when he drives to work.
Hulot, on the other hand, is curiously absented from his clothes, which regularly include the familiar short raincoat and ancient hat whatever the weather. He also seems agreeably unemployable. His natural allies are mongrel dogs and dirty children, who follow him in droves. His nephew, Gérard, adores him. Gérard’s chirpy mother tends to sterilise the boy out of existence; Hulot is a comrade, being muddle’s natural kin. The uncle lives on the top floor of a charming, ramshackle house in an old part of Paris, with windows that he arranges carefully before leaving every day so that his aged canary will get the sun’s reflection. Until the last shot of the film, one never sees the inside of this house. All one catches are glimpses through half-open stairways and hall windows of people’s heads and feet, or a segment of a girl lodger in a bath towel waiting to scuttle across a corridor when Hulot’s legs have disappeared downstairs. Tati is visually very interested in bits of people. If he were playing the game of pinning the tail on the donkey, he would tend to find the dissociated tail too engrossing to go any further.
Maybe all funniness has a tendency to throw settled things into doubt. Where most people will automatically complete an action, a great comedian will stop in the middle to have a think about the point of it, and the point will often vanish before our eyes. In Mon Oncle, Hulot has this effect very strongly about the importance of holding down a job. His sister, who is bothered by his life as if it were a piece of grit in her eye, has him put to work in her husband’s plastics factory. The place produces miles of red plastic piping, for some reason or other. Various machines pump out rivers of it. Hulot is mildly interested. ‘Keep an eye on number five,’ says a workmate mystifyingly, wrapped up in a piece of cellophane like a sandwich in an automat, and taking no notice of the fact that Hulot is slumped over a table and half-moribund because of a gas leak. Number five, a rebel machine, starts to produce piping with occasional strange swellings in it, like a furlong of boa constrictor that has slowly eaten its way through a flock of sheep. The thing then takes it into its head to start tying off the piping every few inches, as if it were a sausage machine. Hulot goes on manfully keeping an eye on it, which is all he has been told to do, and quite right. Care for plastic can go too far.
His sister is a living witness to that. For her wedding anniversary, she has given her husband an automatic and doubtless plastic garage door that opens when his car goes past an electric eye. M. Arpel is overjoyed in his plastic way. ‘No more keys. Happy?’ his wife chirrups. Their dachshund then sniffs the electric eye and shuts them in the garage, yapping amiably while they try to persuade him to sniff again. The new door, like the bedroom floor of the house, has two round windows near the top; the Arpels’ disembodied faces appear, yelling inaudibly for help, and bobbing about behind the windows like air bubbles in a bricklayer’s level.
Husband and wife in Tati’s films are content, mostly. They represent a new system of vapid happiness. Hulot represents the old disorder. The Arpels, who rather grow on you, are funny partly because they treat themselves as if they were machines and partly because they have lost the defining human sense of relative importances. Trotting around with their gadgets and their dusters and planning tea parties, they have no grasp of their scale in the universe; they are a counterpart of the endearing Great Danes who will try to fit all four legs onto a lap, deludedly thinking themselves the size of Pekes. These proud owners of this awful model house, tripping around on an artistic but farcically unwalkable pattern of paving-stones and being careful not to put a toe to the grass, conduct themselves with a sober sense of import and duty. When they entertain, they might be the President of the Republic and his wife welcoming the signatories of a peace treaty. The difference that they are only having some neighbours to a paralysingly difficult tea party at which everyone is spattered by a minor debacle with the spouting fish destroys no one’s aplomb and no one’s sense of occasion. It is part of Tati’s humour that the Arpels’ perception of things is fastidiously concentrated and only a trifle off the point. Who is to say, in fact, that their absorption is not the norm, even if it does screen out what seems more fascinating to the casual observer? They are in the same comic position as the plumbers in one of Robert Dhéry’s films, who stalk backstage through hordes of stark-naked showgirls without paying them the slightest heed while talking about nuts and bolts. In Jour de Fête, the postman played by Jacques Tati is entranced by the idea of Americanisation of the mails through speedier transport. Speedier transport means, to him, bicycling instead of walking. The bicycle suits Tati. He uses one in Mon Oncle – a rather dashing one, with a puttering little motor. The shape of the thing fits his legs, which are long enough to turn the bike at will into a quadruped. Bicycles also meet a certain stateliness in his style and a certain disinclination for any vehicle that outsizes the human frame. You feel that he much detests the shiny cars in Mon Oncle. He prefers doughnut carts and horse-drawn wagons. The failed plastic piping is hurriedly taken away in a cart drawn by a strong-minded grey horse that exerts a will of its own about going to the right when the driver wants the left: its mood is not so unlike the recalcitrance of the plastics machine, after all. Hulot has his own rules about mess. When he trips his way through the rubble of his part of Paris into the antiseptic modern quarter, he is careful to replace exactly a dislodged piece of wreckage as he goes.
Tati’s father originally wanted him to be a picture framer, in the family tradition. He riposted with Rugby football. Between games he filled in with what were, by all accounts, some marvellous mimes of athleticism. It would have been fine to see him on the field: six feet four of him, apparently always with a way of being able to lean alertly in any direction. The tilt is generally forward, exposing an eager five or six inches of striped sock, but it has been known to go just as far to the side. There is a sweet minute in Mon Oncle when, without interrupting the talk he is having with someone ahead of him, he keels neatly to the side to hear his four-foot nephew mutter something into his ear, and then quickly straightens up again to get some money out of his pocket so that the boy can buy a supply of crullers. The famous figure with the umbrella makes the stances of other and more ordinary people – and indeed, of other and more ordinary umbrellas – look rather peculiar after a time. The umbrella, which he sometimes holds like a low-slung rifle, can also suggest the upward pull of an invisible helium balloon or the company of a thin aunt sprinting ahead. Now and again, he will hold it by the ferrule and seem to have to tug against it, as if it were a leash with a hidden dog straining on the end. For himself, he seems to have learned nothing from the gait and posture of others. He is not one of the upright bipeds, because he slants; he doesn’t so much walk as get ready to dive. And he hardly ever seems to sit. There is too much leg around, perhaps. Or maybe his hip joints have never taken to the suggestion of the right angle. Sometimes – very occasionally – he will lie down, and the effect is spectacular. He tends to do it wearing his hat, with the jutting pipe remaining in the mouth. To my recollection, none of his films show him lying on anything so commonplace as a bed, although he has been seen supine on a road in Les Vacances de M. Hulot and curved amazingly along the serpentine front of a tormenting modern sofa tipped over onto its back in Mon Oncle. This was no ordinary man. He could make asphalt look quite like an air mattress; he could also make it clear that a modern piece of furniture feels uncommonly like asphalt.
Playtime, Tati’s last big film after Traffic, which cost him personally almost every franc he had, has not been honoured as much as it should. It is the apex of his attack on modern architecture and the way it ignores the scale of the human figure. The hero tries to keep an appointment in an immense office building. All he wants is a job. A small official announcer at the lift door – only moderately small – has to do his announcing into a voicebox at least seven feet high. Later on, the cheerless goons at play in this film are at a night-club only recently finished. The paint on the chairs is still tacky. Overdressed women stick to it. The prescribed festivity is glum. The harassed architect has not finished and rushes around with a ruler re-measuring a serving-hatch too small to take the ornately decorated fish on a pompous serving-dish that hapless cooks are trying to force through the gap. This film was made in 70 mm, most films being in 35 mm. Tati was not being difficult, just making his point. Curiously, the scale of the film, which might have seemed to minimise human beings, serves to dignify them in surroundings whose size Tati mistrusts as much as he mistrusts fish platters, fish fountains, and rulers in the hands of professional measurers. Tati understood the size of us; there is never a flaw of misjudgment about mortal dimension in his work. One of the many truisms that are untrue is that no one is indispensable. Tati is.