April 27, 2013

Tati Speaks

There are very few interviews with Jacques Tati in English or English translation, but one quite exceptional interview appears in - and mostly comprises - the short, forgotten, and lovely book Jacques Tati (The Entertainers) by Penelope Gilliat (1976). The following are excerpts —


*

When people don't know each other they follow right angles. When they are intimate they go in curves. 


You won't find another Chaplin, you won't find another Keaton, because the school is closed. 

Now, a new car: maybe the old one has more memories. Souvenirs. When my old car came back from the repair shop I was so happy. At the Benzie station well-modernized men throw away everything because it doesn't work. Our world becomes every day more anonymous. In other times, the butcher was a man with a colored shirt. Now he puts on a white overall like a male nurse. The world is in the process of becoming an enormous clinic.


But if, at the beginning, the inhabitants know themselves to be at sea and then force themselves to change their new city to suit their idiosyncrasies then they will come to arriving at humanizing modern decor, little by little. Accidents will happen. People will laugh. Chairs in the shape of Henry Moore sculptures will be felt to be uncomfortable for sitting in.



*

(Hulot) promenades, that's all. He takes a walk. Innocent and tranquil. He simply looks at things. Is it his fault if we have baptized him with our invented desires and needs? And if believing ourselves to be serious, we have insisted on being solemn? Hulot is not a reactionary, you understand. He is not against progress. And he is not funny himself, not at all. He conducts himself according to strict rules of courtesy that do not ever allow him to express surprise.

*

— (Tati's) luggage was lost on some flight in the American South. I saw him soberly struggling with something called an "irregularity report" that had on it a box saying firmly "Write nothing in this box".


*

I never went to church. We have agreed that it may be an ersatz show. We don't know, do we? Who does? It's stupid, at any rate, to give money to be blessed by God. If you believe in something you have to do it yourself, yes? You have to stop in a big forest and make your own mind up and decide about your own conscience in front of a tree.

*


— Showing Playtime in New Orleans, (Tati) found that the curtains wouldn't pull according to any signal from the projection booth. He said to the discouraged cinema staff before the showing, "This will be difficult for you, because the film has no end. It simply stops. So I shall pull the curtains myself. The electric mechanism for closing them has failed, you say? Never mind. I shall drag the curtains by hand very rapidly and no one will notice."


*

I am not a communist. I could have been, if communist history was not so sad. It makes me sound old-fashioned, but I think I am an anarchist. Great things were done by the historic anarchists... The students of May 1968 seemed very good at the beginning. But when they came to the workers at Renault, the workers say, what do you propose? They say, we have fought for years to have a bigger apartment. You see, revolution has always come from intellectuals, but it has to have a popular impulse. I would like to make films for everybody, though this doesn't mean that every film I make is alike. In the Hulot films or Playtime there is not a shot I have made that I can put in another picture. A film is like a person. Picasso has nothing to do with Renoir or Michel St Denis, and students want to see what is personal. They mostly don't like to live in a society where manufacturers make money by distributing electric guitars. This is true capitalist society. I am on the side of the students., I have to say. They ask, how can you be honest if a government stuffed with scientific people doesn't say that the water from the Seine is about to smell terrible? The government budget, for instance, is based on cars and petrol. Now, how can one speak nostalgically about trees if each day you bring into the city thousands of cars polluting the air? That's where the students are right. I feel sad for them that they weren't as successful in '68 as they are in taking dope. You can't have a good talk with a man who lies down and goes to sleep in the middle of a sentence. Finished. On the whole, though, as I said, I salute the students. They have proved that girls often have silly make-up. If they don't want to wear shoes, fine. Though they are unfortunately also showing that they live in a ghetto, and I don't like that. They have done something far more wonderful when they have managed to cross frontiers. In one American city, for instance, I asked why there was only one black in a thousand whites at college. I didn't mean to be asking a political question, because I am not American. I shall not judge. None of the professors answered me. It was the students who saw the point. They agreed, of course, and this was in the South, where it is not so easy. Students and children are interested in change and they give me courage to continue. The older people are not so good. I met a woman from Mississippi  She said, "No, the times have not much changed, and now we have these horrible machines." 

*

Hulot beings to disappear in Playtime because everyone is the hero. A lot of people think I am M. Hulot, but I am really quite different. I can't always walk with head in air. I'd crack up. The expression wouldn't stay. M. Hulot is out of the moon, as I said. But today there is no moon. 

*

Of course (Chaplin) didn't really alter anything. The Great Dictator didn't stop Hitler. But art can change things a little. The Great Dictator was one of the first underground pictures. Now the kids of ten say shit to the frigidaire. 

*

I should like to make films that are not lowering to the spirit.  A new building can be very harrowing, I should like to give people a chance to whistle. 

*

I mean decor that is self-important. That was the reason I wrote Playtime, which is maybe the smallest picture in 70mm ever made.

*

— We were in Paris when there was a garbage strike. (Tati) was on the side of the strikers, as one would expect, though not so silly as to ignore the complexity of the economic issues. "People are okay. They take time. That's what I like." He glared at a lorry full of the military who had come in as strike-breakers and then spread his hands, looking at the pile of mess outside every house and shop. "What's that?" I said, walking over to a heap of what seemed to be ticker-tape or blank film-strips. "Telex," he said, picking up a metre or two of it and pretending to read, shaking with laughter. "All those important messages. Gold is up! Gold is down! Buy into aluminum! I expect the office boy threw it all away before the vice-president had had a chance to read it. What a scandal!" He stirred the heap as if it were an enormous plate of noodles. Children gathered, watching solemnly, and then started to bounce in the tape as if it were a feather-bed. "You see, they are like engaged couples trying out mattresses, only they are having more fun than if you were a bed-salesman protecting the springs."


*


— He denies vivaciously that (Playtime) is an attack on modern architecture. "It is a comedy about our time. No one important notices that things have changed. For instance, dogs and children don't. Dogs are very natural. For dogs in New York, it is still the old New York."


*

I receive a lot of lessons from dogs. They don't have any lessons to receive from the new engineers. They always say hello to each other in their way... They didn't change. I want to follow and understand (them). And they are, for me, marvellous comedians.




*

About grown-ups, I would like to make a film called "Confusion". It would take place in the new tunnel in the Concorde and it would be about tourists and a guide. Every time the guide says "There is so-and-so," the tourists bus goes down another tunnel before the passengers see anything except the walls of the new tunnel. The idea of the film is that a lot of clever grown-ups don't know what they are doing." 

*

For the first time (with Parade), the audience itself is in an arena watching a circus. The glass is broken. People talk... I am happy if people talk in a cinema. I am happy if a little boy asks a question of his father. 

*

Music-hall is one of the reasons why I like to shoot from far away. On the legs, Keaton for me is Number One. You could have a sound-track through the means of his legs. A dialogue. Interrogation. Then decision. Finally fear. Chaplin, on the other hand, has been very clever all the time. He's a great comedian. He creates very good situations, but they are a little bit too much for me. Too much is done on purpose. He says too clearly, "I'm a poor man. I'm cold. I'm hungry." 

*

When Chaplin made The Gold Rush, people could actually go off into the mountains to look for gold. Now they go winter-sporting. Chaplin's boots and bowler would be unfortunately out of place in the snow..... Not that I don't like the new times, as I said. I'm saying nothing against the marvellous new sunny schools for children. I'm only trying to bring a little humor to - say - Orly Airport. People would have liked me to continue with Hulot in the old way, of course. 'Hulot goes Skiing , 'Hulot at St Tropez'. And if I had, I'd have all the money I need and my wife and children would be living in a castle. If I had continued to make small-budget successes in black-and-white, everyone would be happy. 

*

It's perhaps a good thing that Playtime didn't make much money because I am always in the position of a new director. I feel young inside, so I feel like a student when I start a new picture. I am not making money for banks, not killing myself for a mortgage repayment; I make films.



*
One of the reasons I don't like to shoot in close-up, I have no right to bang anyone's nose against the screen. I would like to give them an alternative. Something else to watch. In life outside, when people are told that they have to live in such and such a region to go to the factory to get work, they have no alternative and they get sad. 

*

I began with a copy of old slapstick. Mistake. Then I thought I should find a new sort of visual comedy. Not made by the ordinary kind of technicians, you see. They are like civil servants. It is not their fault. It is the fault of the studios and the backers. Left to themselves, all people are creative. You will get a certain genius from the men in the sound lorries, a certain genius in a moustache from the wardrobe, etcetera, etcetera. It's a big building, the cinema comique. Everyone has brought his stone. If people wonder why I made Playtime in 70mm, which is generally for super-productions of cavalry charges or undressed stars: well, the comic effect is the change of dimension. The comedy of observation is supported by stereophonic sound which adds to "le gag visuel" "le gag sonore". 

*

There was a school of bearing that said silently to the public, "I am the amazing star of the evening,  I can do a terrific number of things. I can juggle, I can dance, I'm a great man, I'm the gag man." That was the old school of the circus and music-hall, the one I came from. What I've been trying to show is that the whole world is funny. There's no need to be a comic to make a gag.



I want to show who's who. Not like in the book Who's Who. That says what school you went to, what club you belong to. I want to show who's who in other ways. What's what. Then I have a chance to look at the big businessman opposite me behind his enormous desk and his telephones, you know
(tie-straightening gesture, buzzing gesture, leaning back in expensive-chair gesture), and to let audiences say for themselves, "Well, maybe you're not so important." That's one of the the things I like about young people. They like to show what it is to be dressed or undressed. It is a good exercise to say to yourself, "What would those big businessmen be like nude?" When I see them travelling, I see them suffering for their expensive leather luggage. The conveyor belts throwing their cases as if they were hurling baskets of fruit at the fruit market. Except, of course, that actual men at the fruit market are more careful. I believe I like the secondary characters in a film best. They breathe the truth. 

*

I suppose it was all those years in music-hall that made me realize actors like to have their legs showing. To cut off an actor's legs is like cutting off a swan's neck." — I said that Buster Keaton had once told me that, when he was doing a leap across the stage, he treated his head at the rudder and his legs as the wind that filled the sails. Tati nodded, asked more, and spoke of Keaton's technical care. "I am trying to do something that I hope he would have liked with this knotty problem of sound-tracks in comedy. For instance, when people are in strange surroundings, natural sounds always sound louder. He would have understood that."


I have spent a fortune to have magnetic sound. No distributor wants it. But optical is out. I am not speaking about making a Chevrolet  That I can't do. But a man less happy than I am takes a salary. He is in charge of Sony, say. He is very important, but he is not allowed to have a small idea. He says, for instance, paint the lift blue. There is immediately a conference. If you want to have an idea, a better idea, it is not permitted....

*


— He likes films to be "about everybody but also about nobody big." Before he started Trafic, Tati went to a highway and just sat watching. "People going away for the weekend. Not a smile. A dog looked out of the back of one car, staring at a field where he could have run about."


*

You know what I should like to do, of course. I should like to film a little the differences individuals can make. Because, you understand, in this super-mechanized organization, there will always be a lad who will be fortified with a minute screwdriver and break down an elegant automatic lift that has Muzak playing in it as you go up to the thirty-second floor. In the meantime, the screwdriver is doing its work and the lad is whistling a tune of his own. There are two universes now, you see. That is what I am always trying to show.



April 21, 2013

INTOLERANCE

---------- --------- ----

One of my best memories on the relationship of cinema and politics was at (Adriano) Aprà's cine-club, called "Filmstudio", where Straub's The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968) was projected: Cohn-Bendit, surrounded by his friends, attacked the film. For him, war and capitalism at the cinema was seeing tanks in Vietnam, to show that in the shots, and he criticized Straub for showing nothing. Straub replied that he did not make the film for students, but for "Cineac" stations*, for prostitutes and pimps. The dialogue was cut short.

- Jean-Claude Biette, interview in Poétique des auteurs






*"Cineac" stations: small movie theaters in Paris or Amsterdam 
in the 60's and 70's, that screened cinema actualités, newsreels; 
often frequented by the homeless.



April 2, 2013

Jean-Claude Biette on SICILIA! (1999)

Sicilia! is a film that shines both in its own inherent vision and as a highlight in the work of the Straubs, a height we can reach without extra tools. If, according to the generous idea of Manoel de Oliveira, a film's true nationality is the country in which it is filmed, then a great deal of the Straubs' oeuvre is Italian, even if we hear a lot of German and French in it. Few of their films are about the modern world in a direct sense: they are rather elegant peplums from the theatre in which antiquity is always revived, brought alive into modern history. With Sicilia!, it is the Italy of the 20th century, when Mussolini was enacting his parody of the Empire of the Caesars. It is the exploitation of Sicily, the almost African earth, a South that tries for as long as it can to resist the North, and the film a black-and-white poem of the outraged world. Thanks to the voices of actors who have never before spoken Italian so amusingly, the Italy of today is physically represented. It is incomplete, with its empty spaces, intense: the lost soul of Italian cinema. When, as is here the case, it is about oranges that cannot be sold, fish grilled on coals, police suspicions, returns to the mother's house, nightly clandestine meetings in the valley that ultimately come to light, functional objects that no one buys anymore, the loss of manual thinking, what is taking place here is the excess or the insufficiency which, as is true in life, gives rise to a film.





(From the English translation reproduced in the 
Courtisane Festival 2013 Catalogue, here.)

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