Tati’s Democracy: An Interview and Introduction

This article and interview was originally published in the May-June 1973 issue of Film Comment, roughly half a year after the interview took place. I went to work for Tati as a script consultant several weeks after I had the interview, but well before it appeared in print. A few years ago, this piece was reprinted online in the Southern arts magazine Drain. —J.R.

 

Tati’s Democracy
An Interview and Introduction

Jonathan Rosenbaum


Like all of the very great comics, before making us laugh, Tati creates a universe. A world arranges itself around his character, crystallizes like a supersaturated solution around a grain of salt. Certainly the character created by Tati is funny, but almost accessorily, and in any case always relative to the universe. He can be personally absent from the most comical gags, for M. Hulot is only the metaphysical incarnation of a disorder that is perpetuated long after his passing.

It is regrettable that André Bazin’s seminal essay on Jacques Tati (“M. Hulot et le temps,” 1953, in Qu’est-ce que Ie cinéma?, vol. I) has been omitted from both volumes of his criticism in English; regrettable, too, that Bazin didn’t live to see Tati’s masterpiece. To some degree, PLAYTIME can be regarded as an embodiment and extension of Bazin’s most cherished Ideas about deep focus, long takes, and the “democratic” freedoms that these techniques offer to the spectator.

It can be argued, of course, that Tati has offered his audience too much freedom, and overestimated the capacities of several spectators — one reason, perhaps, why five years after its Paris opening, PLAYTIME has yet to receive an American release. “An absolute masterpiece of a confounding and vertiginous beauty,” Jean-André Fieschi reported in Cahiers du cinéma shortly after it premiered. “Never, perhaps, has a film placed so much confidence in the intelligence and activity of the spectator: the challenge was too great to find a commensurate response.” Quite simply, the richness of PLAYTIME is not available to anyone on a single viewing. At best, one can discover that this richness is present; at worst, the viewer can become so bored by what he doesn’t see that he fails to notice that a radical change in the language of cinema is being proposed. (Something comparable happened to many critics when 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY opened in the U.S. less than four months later.) In any event, the film can seem funny or unfunny, empty or full, lively or dull, beautiful or ugly in one viewing; but it cannot come across in its entirety. As Noël Burch observes in Praxis du cinéma (Gallimard, 1969), “Tati’s film [is] the first in the history of cinema that must be seen not only several different times, but from several different distances. It is probably the first really ‘open’ film. Will it remain the only one?”

A group of female American tourists wander through a studio-built Paris of interchangeable steel and glass buildings; one girl, the youngest member of the group, searches for the “real” Paris. Meanwhile, M. Hulot wanders through the same buildings, mainly in search of a M. Giffard, occasionally crossing the paths of the Americans and various other groups. Midway through the film, Hulot finds Giffard, re-encounters an old army friend, and joins all the other characters at the premature opening of an expensive restaurant; as the awkwardly designed establishment gradually falls to pieces, everyone gets acquainted. In the morning, Hulot buys a going-away present for the American girl, which she opens on the bus ride back to Orly airport: a plastic bouquet of lilies of the valley that closely resemble the streetlamps on the autoroute.

Jacques Rivette has remarked that “PLAYTIME is a revolutionary film, despite Tati; the film has completely effaced the creator” — an idea echoed by Tati himself in the following interview, when he asserts that “PLAYTIME is nobody.” But how, exactly, is it revolutionary?

In conventional film narrative, there is always a clearly defined separation between “subject” and “background.” A character moves through a setting, and our attention is focused on the “action” — what the character does; when this setting figures in the action, it becomes a part of the subject. But in PLAYTIME, where every character has the status of an extra, every scene is filmed in long shot, and the surrounding décor is continually relevant to the action, the subject of a typical shot is everything that appears on the screen. Many shots, particularly in the restaurant sequence, become open forums where several potential points of interest compete independently for our attention. Whatever we choose to ignore automatically becomes “background,” but this arranging of priorities is often no more than a reflection of our own preferences, i.e., which movie we want to see this time around. If we sit tight and wait for gags to come, we won’t find very many. But if we let our eyes roam, wander and gambol about the screen, scanning the totality of the action, we’ll discover multiple relationships between people, people and objects, live moments and dead moments, real gags and potential gags that are hysterically funny: a geometric vaudeville. Viewed individually, details might be dull or interesting; seen together, they become cosmically funny — comic in a philosophical sense.

This vision is not merely revealed in the film, but formulated as a philosophical-aesthetic proposition. Indirectly, through a series of minor events, Hulot proposes this concept to the American girl. As Tati indicates in the interview, this lesson has a lot to do with human, accidental curves breaking the monotony of regimented straight lines. The opening of the film is oppressively linear in terms of the actions displayed. The initial gag, delineated in the second and third shots, is the sharp left turn taken by two nuns in the passageway of an anonymous building (which we subsequently discover is Orly); and all the various movements of the tourists being led around are equally rigid and unswerving.

Perhaps the first beautiful movement in PLAYTIME occurs when Hulot does an involuntary dance turn on the slippery floor of a waiting room, while the tip of his umbrella momentarily serves to anchor him. This little slide, which lasts only a second or two, is virtually the only instance of physical grace that Tati allows himself as an actor in the entire film: the whole legacy of his music hall experience is alluded to and dispensed with in a single fleeting gesture. (The extraordinary contrast between Tati’s directorial ambitions and his modesty as an actor, which crops up frequently in the interview, is basic to his ideas about comedy; in this respect, the larger role played by Hulot in TRAFIC is a conscious regression, undoubtedly dictated by commercial necessities.)

Later in the film, at a gadget exhibition, the American girl turns around — shifting her gaze in an arc away from the architecture’s linear dictates — to notice a “gag” (Hulot and some small mishap he has engendered) that makes her laugh. And in the restaurant, which theoretically collapses and comes to life because of the architect’s failure to take precise measurements, the regimented lines of movement increasingly turn into a whirlpool of dance curves. At the same time, in order to maintain any “global” sense of the entire action as we search out various details, it is virtually essential that we curve the trajectory of our gaze: if our eyes attempt to traverse the screen in straight lines, we simply miss too much. (Significantly, a neon arrow that is straight at one end, curved at the other, flashes over the restaurant’s entrance, and is the basis for several gags.) Pursuing the action in straight lines, we become victimized, imprisoned by the architecture, much in the way that Giffard, rushing directly towards one of the characters resembling Hulot (the film has several) in an early sequence, run smack into a glass door. An alternative method of looking is Tati’s “message.”


In the restaurant, the apparent conflicts between separate points of interest become resolved when we realize that all the wandering strands are bound up in the same fabric, and every detail on the screen is privileged in relation to the whole, which gradually assumes the shape of a turning circle. This concept culminates in a climactic “circus” vision of city traffic as an endlessly turning carousel, with all the surrounding action serving to complete, rather than deviate from, the commanding image: the raising and lowering of cars in an adjacent garage suggesting the vertical movements of merry-go-round horses, and the horizontal procession of pedestrians serving to “frame” the carousel.

Getting to Tati’s office from the center of Paris takes a little less than an hour. Arriving in a suburban neighborhood, one finds oneself in a disconcerting architectural mixture of new and old that inevitably suggests the landscape of MON ONCLE (1958). Tati resides in one of the newer structures, a trim office building with glass doors and a cafe-bistro down-stairs, where he often has lunch. Around the period of MON ONCLE, Tati’s film company occupied all of the second floor. Today, after the various expenses of PLAYTIME have caused his company to go bankrupt, his operations have been limited to two rooms on the same floor.

If Tati’s films tend to defy verbal transcription, some of the same problem exists with his conversation. While he talks, a remarkable flurry of explanatory gestures and expressions accompany his words like a continual subtext — the habitual motions of a skilled pantomimist accustomed to showing what he means more than saying it. Throughout our interview, his body and voice would continually slide from explanation into demonstration, illustrating a point by becoming a character or even an object in one of his films, and reproducing part of the dialogue or sound effects with uncanny precision. I had no sense of Tati clowning to amuse me: when he converted a letter opener into a screwdriver to represent the efforts of a modest mechanic, or imitated a car going into second gear with his voice, it always seemed less like a performance than an automatic expedient for explaining something.

Although we spoke for nearly two hours, I regret that we never got around to any detailed discussion of his first three features, and that Tati tended to resist giving more technical information about the composition of his soundtracks.  On the latter subject, however, his assistant, Marie France Siegler, was particularly helpful. She spoke to me about his prolonged efforts to get the precise sound he wanted for the splitting of a waiter’s trousers in PLAYTIME, tearing every kind of conceivable material in the recording studio until the right noise emerged; occasionally using his voice to achieve certain other sound effects; and in general, highlighting parts of the sound to direct the audience — visually and conceptually — in various subtle, almost subliminal ways.

Our interview took place in late November, two weeks before TRAFIC began its commercial run in New York. Tati had just returned from an extensive tour of the United States, and I began by asking him for some of his reactions.

JACQUES TATI:  It’s very difficult to explain. When you live in another country, like I do, it’s so pretentious to give advice about what people must or mustn’t do, to say “That is right” or “That is wrong.” My reactions to New York, for instance: of course it’s a little bit tough, of course it’s a little bit difficult; but it’s also very true. I mean, in all other big cities, the reality is a little bit hidden, they try to show more of what is good than what is bad. In New York, with all this competition, with everything going on there, it’s open, you see it. There’s every situation, and I like in a way this absolutely important life (I don’t say creation, maybe that is too much). It’s real, and when you come to another city afterwards, it’s as if you’re going on a holiday.

The states are different: San Francisco is another life, and so is New Orleans. Dallas is a lot of money, so the people there show that they have a lot — because they have it. But most of the time, I’ve been in touch with students at the universities, and what impressed me was how much they’re learning about film: they know what a picture is, they know old pictures, they discover old talent. I think it’s a very important move, and that Mr. Langlois was right to say to the major companies, “Don’t throw those old pictures out, because one day you may find that artistically they are sometimes important.”

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM:  At the universities you visited, did you generally show PLAYTIME as well as TRAFIC?

JT: Not always. In San Francisco, they devoted two days to all my features. I showed PLAYTIME last — I always show PLAYTIME after TRAFIC. On the basis of my intentions, TRAFIC could have been shot before PLAYTIME. PLAYTIME will always be my last picture because of the dimension on the decor, regarding the people. There’s no star, no one person is important, everybody is; you are as important as I can be. It’s a democracy of gags and comics — the personality of people regarding an architecture that people have decided for us to live in, without asking us whether we agree or not. In the end, we all win in the sense that we still talk to each other; if anything goes wrong, we’re still partners, and some small people are still allowed to be important.

The construction is very strong. When people say that there’s no construction in PLAYTIME it makes me laugh, because the moment you take two shots out of the picture . . . It’s a little bit like a ballet. At the beginning, the people’s movements always follow the architecture, they never make a curve [with his hands, Tati traces an elaborate series of straight lines and right angles], they go from one line to another. The more the picture continues, the more the people dance, and start to make curves, and turn around, and start to be absolutely round — because we have decided that we’re still there. That’s what I like. Some people may not understand because they’re always putting a mark on somebody; they say, “Oh, that’s Mr. So-and-so and he is going to be funny for the whole evening.”

playtime-curving-arrow

The images are designed so that after you see the picture two or three times, it’s no longer my film, it starts to be your film. You recognize the people, you know them, and you don’t even know who directed the picture. It’s not a film you sign like FELLINI’S ROMA. PLAYTIME is nobody. I don’t say that it’s easy to do. The dimension of the camera is the dimension of what your eyes see; I don’t come close up or make tracking shots to show you what a good director I am. I want your eyes to put you in such a situation where you come to the opening of the restaurant, as though you were there that night.

A lot of people don’t like PLAYTIME; they don’t even stay to the end. But some who please me, particularly very important directors, like it very much. . . . The star is the decor. We are all — French, English, American, Canadian, everywhere — starting to live in this same international décor. That’s why I shot it in 70mm. In 70mm, you have the right dimension on the New York airport, Orly, the expressways. Of course, you can do it now even in 35mm.

I’ve been fighting all my life for my sound tracks. They’re obliged to be magnetic one day; it’s a joke for distributors to make them optical. With optical, beyond a certain point you get distortion; with magnetic you get all the range you want. It’s so silly that distributors today don’t imagine that magnetic will be the next step in sound. Each time we had a sound on magnetic and had to transfer it to optical, it became so hazy, with no dimension to it. Even in 35mm today, if you have stereo — when a car comes on the right of a screen, you’re obliged to hear it on the right; when it’s in the middle, you have to hear it there; and when it leaves on the left, you have to hear it on the left. But nobody wants to fight, because it’s too much work for the projectionists and distributors. So what are they doing for cinema today?  Nothing.  They just sell it like they sell spaghetti or Danish beer. They don’t care about what we’re trying to do, or respect artistic control.

JR: Could you describe some of the methods you use in composing your soundtracks?

JT: Well, first, I can do it because my dialogue isn’t important; the visual situation is for me number one. The dialogue is background sound as you hear it when you’re in the street, in Paris or New York — a brouhaha of voices. [Tati demonstrates by appearing to mumble several things at once.] People say, “Where are we going?” and you don’t exactly know where they’re going. I also like to push my visual effect a little on the sound track. In MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, the sound of the car is as important as the shape of the car, because even when the car isn’t visible, the sound of the motor shows that it’s coming—it’s the personality of that car by sound effect. In PLAYTIME, when Hulot sits in the modern chair, it is a visual effect, but the sound’s as interesting as the shape of the chair: whoooosh. . . . The time will come when a young director will use sound creatively; you’ll have a very simple image with very little movement, and the sound will add a new dimension, like putting sound in a painting — whoooosh.

JR: Your films are always shot silently, and the sound composed separately?

JT: Yes, I’m obliged to do that, because when you’re composing something visually, you have to talk all the time.  If you have a professional actor, that’s different, because you give him a line and he has to say it as well as he can. Now in my case, I play very much with objects — chairs, dogs — you’re obliged to talk to a dog: “Come here — sit.” Now you can’t keep that sound (“Attention! Restez-là. Don’t move. Please: stop!”), and I talk very often with my actors to make them feel more at home.  It’s more like life if you play with them and joke with them.

JR: I’ve heard that PLAYTIME was cut by fifteen minutes after its Paris premiere.. . .

JT: That was for the distributor. There was so much money involved in the picture, they thought that if it was shorter it would do better. Of course it didn’t help any. Either you accept it or you don’t; if it’s not your visual idea of yourself, you leave the cinema after a quarter of an hour. If you like it, understand it, it’s like impressionist painting, you find more in it to interest you — sound, movement, people — when you go back to it. I’m like you: I like it. I’m proud of PLAYTIME; it’s exactly the picture I wanted to make. With all my other films, I could make changes, shoot things differently if I was doing it now. Not with PLAYTIME — I did it and it’s done. I’ve suffered a lot because of it, physically and financially, but it’s really the film I wanted to do. And the original version, the long version, is the only one that I believe in. In Los Angeles, I showed it to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in a cinema seating seven or eight hundred people, although only two hundred were there. The reaction was amazing; everybody came and kissed me afterwards, it was such a warm situation. It wasn’t just politeness. Something did happen.

JR: How did you create the restaurant sequence? It looks like it must have been extraordinarily difficult.

JT: I had to work out each part and direct each character separately. It took me seven weeks to shoot it. First I’d set up all the different movements in the background, then I’d set up each action in the foreground, looking through the lens while composing each shot so I could see everything at once. I had to shoot it all in sequence; there was no other way.  A lot of people think that the camera doesn’t move at all; actually it does move, but always to show what your eye would naturally follow, so you don’t notice it.

JR: How did the décor of PLAYTIME — the city set constructed on the outskirts of Paris — come to be built?

JT: For my construction, we couldn’t go to the Drugstore and Orly and stop work there, it would’ve been impossible. And I wanted this uniformity: all the chairs, for instance, in the restaurant, in the bank — they’re all the same. The floor’s the same, the paint’s the same. It cost a lot of money, of course, but it’s there — and it’s not more expensive than Sophia Loren.

JR: How do you feel about the buildings in the film? You make a lot of jokes about them, yet in the night sequences they often look quite beautiful.

JT: It depends. In New York sometimes, when you’re very high up and look out the window, you have a marvelous vista of lights — it’s very impressive. But if you go down the elevator at say, six in the morning, what you see isn’t so impressive. It looks like you’re not allowed to laugh or whistle or be yourself: you have to push the button where it says “push,” there’s not much way of expressing yourself. But when you see all those lights at night, you want to create music, paint, express yourself, because it’s another dimension on the reality, it’s like a dream. You don’t see who’s living in the buildings or what’s happening there. When you arrive on the plane at night in New York, and see all those marvelous lights and shapes, you think that it must be a dream to live there: you’re sure that the food must be wonderful, the girls must be lovely. But then when you arrive there, the food isn’t all that good, and the girls aren’t as nice-looking as you expected. It’s all that way. The lights always change the dimension on reality at night.

JR: In TRAFIC, the camping car seems to function much like the restaurant in PLAYTIME — something that stands between people, so that they’re not able to get together until it breaks down. If this isn’t too presumptuous a question, what is your attitude towards cars?

JT: Well, first of all, they change the personality of people. Take a very nice gentleman whom you’ll meet in a bar: as soon as he gets in his car, he changes absolutely; he has to be very strong not to change. Secondly, the more the engineers work for us, the less we have to do when we drive a car, . . before, people participated in the driving; they knew by the sound of the motor how to change gears—rmrmrm, into second, and so forth. You participated, and you had to be a good driver. Now, with the new American car, it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re a bad or good driver. What they call comfort and new techniques have become so exaggerated that I tried to create a car that was absolutely ridiculous, where you can take a shower, make coffee, shave — but it’s not practical at all, it’s the worst possible car to take on a holiday, because it brings you so many problems. And when you become so remote from what’s designed for you, the human connections between people start to go — like with the police in the film. I’m always — in each shot, each moment — trying to defend the simple man, who tries to fix something with his hands.

JR: I was wondering about the references to Apollo II in TRAFIC, which the characters watch on television ….

JT: To copy and make a joke about what they see on television, the people start to work more slowly. For them, the moon flight isn’t a great achievement; in relation to their private lives, it’s a flop.

JR: Do you go to films often?

JT: Yes. I always go to learn — I’m not a professor, I’m more a student, even at my age. There’s so much in cinema now — it’s a big garden. Of course, I’m touched more by comedy, but that’s a big garden too.

JR: How do you feel about the comedies of, say, Jerry Lewis? Or Woody Alien?

JT: I liked BANANAS very much. I laughed, and it’s difficult for a film to make me laugh. I recognize it’s good, but it’s not the way I want to express myself. I work more by observation: you see, when a president or a prime minister does a little something that’s funny, that makes me laugh much more than a comic does. I can make Hulot do all the jokes, because I come from the music hall and I can do it quite well, but it’s not my way. I’d rather show an important man doing something funny, because then people will look around and say, “Why is he speaking so loud? He isn’t really that important.” I mean, comedy can put a lot of people down. Now the other day, when President Nixon came on, after he won the election — with a very small detail he could have been very, very funny, not serious at all. He came on [Tati imitates Nixon's demeanor] with this big smile, and it wasn’t natural at all—and if he’d slipped on one of the steps, it would’ve been hilarious. The same thing happened with De Gaulle once when he did something on television: it was so funny, because it was the General who did it. A small detail, it wouldn’t have been as good for Laurel and Hardy, but it was good for De Gaulle…. In comedy, even if people still laugh when a comic comes on and does a lot of clowning, I don’t believe it too much now. I mean, it wouldn’t be very important fifteen or twenty years from now. The pictures that are still really great today are Keaton’s, because he didn’t exaggerate at all: he had a face, no smile — a very modern adaptation. I saw the other day the real people who played in the restaurant in PLAYTIME, and I’m sure that ten years from now, a waiter will be the same; he’ll argue the same way, make the same  gestures. I think PLAYTIME will be better a few years from now, when more and more people have received that new décor in their lives. People don’t change as much as other people imagine. They change by publicity, commercials, but not inside. A great doctor once told me, “Tati,” he said, “you’re 100 per cent right to defend the people, because the moment you enter a hospital, whether you’re badly sick or not, your personality comes out, whether you’re strong or afraid. Advertisements, a Frigidaire, a new car, that’s all art. . . . Each personality becomes clear to anyone who’s visiting a hospital. Every human comes back to being human when he realizes that it’s something important.”

JR: The behavior that you show in your films is always public behavior — you nearly always show/people in crowds, rarely in a private situation. Have you ever thought of making a psychological film?

JT: Maybe I’m not strong enough to do it. Maybe, if I could help, if somebody will. . . . Chaplin didn’t do anything in making THE GREAT DICTATOR: he had a joke on Hitler, so what? To educate the people — I don’t educate them, I try to place them in a situation where they laugh for a reason. I always have to respect the public; I figure if it makes me laugh, maybe it will also make you laugh. But to go on and do something more — of course we could, but it’s not just one man who must do it, it’s a group. We have to talk to other generations — people from my generation, those behind me, and even the generation behind you: then maybe we could create something.

JR: Coming back to Paris last week, I noticed all the construction along the Seine. The superhighway that’s going to be built next to Notre Dame and the skyscraper going up in Montparnasse both seem to come out of PLAYTIME. The funny thing is, I don’t know anybody who wants that autoroute there.

JT: No, nobody. Yes, it’ll be faster and very practical — that’s all the planners care about. But the people who’ve got the money make the decision. I don’t know what the next move will be in the elections, but there isn’t one party strong enough today to really change policy. An independent group can argue a little bit like you, but there has to be more and more. Because they’ll never be more clever than the people in charge — the ones in charge will saturate us, they’ll do more and more each time. The more they speak on television, the more ridiculous they are. Pompidou is worse now than he was at the beginning. You hear him on television, he says everything and nothing — he doesn’t say anything. He says, “Okay, it’ll be good,” but you know it won’t be good. We’re always having to accept — that’s why the new generation has said no. They want the truth; you can’t lie to them. They’re against war because they find it silly that so much money is spent on destruction when most of the people need food, and there they have such an important argument. But they have to be very strong. I give you my opinion, which isn’t more important than any other. But if people take drugs and then don’t see the reality, or forget about it, it’s no help. They’re making a little bit of a ghetto for themselves.

JR: Maybe a lot of these problems are the problem with democracy, which in another way may not be the problem that PLAYTIME has had — because comedy has conventionally meant everybody laughing at the same things at the same time; whereas in PLAYTIME, for an audience really to respond to it, different people have to laugh at different things at different times.

JT: That’s how I felt. And I feel it very strongly. If we accept a new shaving cream without realizing it isn’t a good one, and we accept a comic picture to be constructed a certain way because that’s the way people will laugh, and if we accept everything, we’re going to be part of a regiment. Because the people who have a lot of money have very strong arguments. When you see people on American television, the way they speak and move and wear their clothes, their wigs — they all have wigs, you can see them — nothing is real.  That’s why what they create isn’t warm, or natural.  When you see all that cream they put in the commercials — I watched from 9 A.M. to 11:30 and I saw only cream, everywhere: cream on the bread, cream on the shoes, cream on the face, cream on the potatoes, cream to be dirty — chocolate cream, that looks like I don’t know what. At 12:30 I had an appointment for lunch and I said, “Really, I’m not joking, I  can’t eat.”

JR: If one wants to protest, say, the highway.going up next to Notre Dame, what does one do?

JT: Yeah, we tried — we went, my assistant went to make a demonstration, nobody cared for it.  Making an autoroute there is the silliest thing you can imagine. In thirty or forty-five years they’ll find it was so wrong, because it’s so well-built and arranged now. Boys play guitars there and the girls go and have little love affairs with them. That’s Paris. That’s why I did PLAYTIME.

Film Comment, May-June 1973

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