Audiences in the old Northern variety halls were notoriously unforgiving. ‘I suppose he’s all right,’ a departing punter is supposed to have said of one hapless comedian, ‘if you like laughing.’ It’s a comment which, like most of the best Northern humour, throbs with multiple ironies. On one level it parodies the supposed miserabilism of its own culture; but on another, it implies just the opposite, because you cannot get the joke, or savour its rueful tang, unless you recognise the assumption on which it rests: that the need for laughter is universal and absolute.
Hermann Hesse mulled over this need in Journey to Nuremberg. ‘How people love to laugh!’ he wrote. ‘They flock from the suburbs in the bitter cold, they stand in line, pay money, and stay out until past midnight, only in order to laugh a while … And the greater a comedian is, the more gruesomely and helplessly he reduces our stupidity to the comic formula, the more we have to laugh!’ And as Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton gear up to present a special version of Blackadder as the centrepiece (apparently) of the treats on offer in the Millennium Dome, we must face up to the fact that no one seems to be more important to a nation than its most famous and beloved clowns.
It’s surprising, then, that there is such a dearth of good writing about comic heroes; and that throughout the small number of worthwhile books devoted to these figures, there should run such a noticeable vein of anxiety. In Roger Lewis’s extraordinary biography of Peter Sellers, for instance, proper celebration of comic genius goes hand in hand with character assassination. Every version of Tony Hancock’s life zooms in on his alcoholism and depression. David Bellos does not, in the case of Jacques Tati, have a ruthless control freak or incurable melancholic on his hands, although even his book contains one or two tales of debts unpaid, employees exploited and lapses into despair. (A very small price to pay for getting to write and direct six feature films.) And yet, for all of its subject’s seeming level-headedness, and for all of the praise Bellos is careful to award him, a nervousness animates the book: a nagging embarrassment that although Tati’s comic gifts obviously place him among the most important figures in postwar French culture, this status isn’t backed up by the intellectual credentials that his biographer might have hoped for.
To take a couple of examples: in a chapter sensibly dealing with the affinities between Tati’s work – especially Mon Oncle – and the ideas of the Situationists, Bellos’s analysis is full of worried asides. Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle is, he is at pains to point out, ‘a book that Tati certainly never read’; in Mon Oncle, Tati ‘is turning détournement into a comedy gag that can be seen by those with a revolutionary mindset as an implicitly subversive act’, despite the fact – and this is the key thing – that ‘he probably did not know it.’ Earlier, Bellos speculates about Tati’s surprise at ‘his sudden promotion to high rank in a cultural universe of which he had, for the most part, no more than a vague idea’, although he ‘probably knew the names of Sartre and Saint-Exupéry’. And this triggers an even more overt display of neurosis, when Bellos simultaneously praises and condemns the critic Geneviève Agel for her ‘pertinence’ and ‘pretentiousness’ in writing a book-length study of Tati which invokes Rilke, Cervantes, Cocteau, La Bruyère, Desnos, Eluard, Gogol, Beckett, Kafka and St Francis. ‘It’s not that these are inappropriate or misleading points of cultural reference in a serious attempt to explain the place and importance of M. Hulot,’ he explains. ‘It’s just that Tati had never read any of them, and never would.’ (One of Bellos’s own chapters, by the way, is called ‘Waiting for Hulot’.)
These anxieties are central to the meaning of Bellos’s book in two ways, one general and one local. They make it clear, first of all, that even after a century of academic writing on the subject, the connection between comedy and intellectualism remains fraught with tension. A joke is an action of incredible mental agility and complexity. Intellectuals have known this ever since Freud (and Bergson and Baudelaire) started investigating the matter. Comedians know it as well: hence the increasingly destructive self-importance of, say, Tony Hancock, with his futile efforts to get to grips with Bertrand Russell, both on screen and off. (Hence, too, the bizarre comic erudition of Ken Dodd, who has an enormous collection of theoretical writings about humour, and is fond of quoting long chunks of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious to his audience before gleefully debunking it: ‘Of course, Freud never had to play the Glasgow Empire on a Friday night.’) There is, however, an absolute incompatibility between the two discourses: put plainly, it remains impossible to write about comedy in an attentive or analytical way without coming across as a humourless plonker. Bellos’s book is symptomatic of this problem: one chapter, ‘Gags, Jokes and Switches’, attempts to reduce some of Tati’s favourite gags to a series of algebraic formulae involving protagonists X, Y and Z, and succeeds only in squeezing every drop of life out of them. Elsewhere he is more laid-back and agile, and the least you can say is that he seems to be thoroughly aware of the contradictions he has to negotiate.
These concerns acquire their more local urgency because of the subject at hand: because Jacques Tati is, par excellence, the intellectuals’ comedian, and because Playtime, the film which all devotees (including Bellos) acknowledge as his masterpiece, is the quintessential intellectuals’ film. Each of Tati’s movies, starting with the early, ramshackle shorts – some of them now lost – up to and including Playtime itself, seems like a quantum leap forward in ambition and accomplishment. Jour de Fête is thoroughly charming, full of local colour and graceful mime. Les Vacances de M. Hulot, imperishable favourite of a generation of film-goers who were young in the Fifties, makes us ache with nostalgia for a kind of seaside holiday we have never experienced, and at the same time shows Tati beginning to acquire a view of the world: curious, beady-eyed, at times politely scathing. In Mon Oncle, he attempts something like satire, and the result is interesting, if somehow stiff and unattractive. (As are Tati’s own movements in the film: something which has always puzzled me, but which is usefully explained by Bellos as the result not of stylistic choice but of a serious car crash shortly before shooting.) And then there was Playtime.
How do you explain this film to somebody who has never seen it? Has anybody seen it, in fact, in the last ten or fifteen years, except on one of its (very occasional) showings on television, where its wide-screen compositions get panned and scanned so that almost a third of the image is lost? As Bellos sadly observes, ‘the original Playtime, into which Tati poured all he had in order to raise a lasting monument in film, has all but disappeared.’ Like many great directors’ folies de grandeur it was widely misunderstood on release, by a hostile press made all the more antagonistic by Tati’s standoffish and over-protective attitude during the protracted shoot. The public, too, had been expecting another straightforward Monsieur Hulot vehicle, packed with well-signposted sight gags. What they got instead was an almost abstract exercise, in which the enormous screen was packed with beautifully choreographed action while Tati as Hulot wandered ineffectually at the edges of the frame, his presence rendered all the more vaporous by the inclusion of a number of false Hulots, all sporting the trademark raincoat and pipe, drifting in and out of enveloping crowds. (This idea had first been floated by Tati in 1961, when he mounted an event called Jour de fête à l’Olympia, which involved a screening of his first feature preceded by live acts, the whole spectacle being periodically disrupted by the appearance of several false Hulots in the audience. Viewers were confused, even then. He should have seen the writing on the wall.)
Playtime is neither a satire on modern life nor an uncritical celebration of it. A comedy without dialogue – although there is a continuous soundtrack of babbling, multilingual speech – it’s a work of fathomless invention which sets itself the task of finding humour, beauty and humanity in the most brutal and sterile of environments. You don’t laugh aloud when watching Playtime, or at least not very often: you sit there with an immovable smile on your face, buoyed up by the film’s impossibly sustained ingenuity and high spirits. A party of American tourists wanders through Paris, glimpsing its most famous sights only in the occasional random reflection from a plate-glass window. They arrive at an airport which seems as hushed and antiseptic as a hospital. They attend a trade convention where the gadgets on display seem to vie with each other to see which can be simultaneously the most preposterous and most useful. They dine at an appallingly clinical new restaurant (highly prophetic, this, of the Conran revolution) which is gradually transformed, through a chain of accidents, into an acceptably chaotic and convivial bistro. Finally, a series of cinematic miracles made possible by trick photography and selective framing gives their coach journey through the clogged up Parisian traffic the ecstatic, heart-stopping aspect of a child’s carousel ride.
Playtime is that rare phenomenon, a film targeted squarely at a popular audience which was nevertheless made with the loving, manic perfectionism we associate with the greatest works of art. The fact that it missed that audience completely, that its breezy lack of interest in narrative and characterisation (those comfort blankets of the mainstream cinema) propelled it straight out of the movie-houses and into the columns of Cahiers du cinéma, is, frankly, a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Having been obliged to construct a whole miniature city on a patch of wasteland in south-eastern Paris, Tati bankrupted himself making the film. After this experience, he was never the same man. David Bellos has been amazingly assiduous in teasing out the complex history of Playtime’s financing; and, indeed, in tracing the progress of Tati’s business fortunes generally. This book could become a set text on the gruesome fallout which attends any head-on collision between commerce and art.
And yet Tati himself never quite emerges from these pages. Readers may feel that they get closer to him in the book-length interview conducted by Penelope Gilliatt in the Seventies (now long out of print). But even there he remains elusive, a purveyor of rehearsed anecdotes – many of them now exhumed by Bellos, and expertly unmasked. Perhaps there can be no getting close to the man whose works are among the most stylised in cinema history, whose preferred method of working was to cast amateur performers, watch them in action, produce his own imitation of their gestures and movements, and then get them to imitate his imitation, rehearsing them over and over until they could become perfect simulacra of themselves, at two steps removed. As Bellos points out, Tati was the very opposite of a realist. His artistic aim was ‘the recomposition of the world through mime’. It’s no wonder that his own personality should prove ungraspable, evanescent.
All the same, this book is full of insight as well as information, and when he’s not using the sledge-hammer of practical criticism to pin down Tati’s butterfly humour, Bellos proves a lucid commentator on the meaning of this strange body of work. He is right to observe that in Playtime Tati shows himself to be ‘not a reactionary critic of modern life, but a sentimental celebrant of its potential for beauty and joy’. And he scores another bull’s-eye, as well as composing something like an epitaph, when he writes that ‘Tati was not out to change the world, but to help us look at it with less horror.’ Playtime (and to a lesser extent Trafic) certainly does that; but sadly, for Tati and for us, it does it with a diffidence and patient artistry that makes it wildly out of kilter with today’s cinematic fashions. The thought that a piece of slipshod, invention-free, self-satisfied garbage like Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me can clean up at the box office while Playtime remains unreleased in the US and all but forgotten in Europe … Well, not even Tati’s work, nor Bellos’s measured and affectionate tribute to it, can reconcile me to the horror of that.