Friday, July 17, 2009

Choreographed Car Crash

Born in France to Russian and Dutch parents, Jacques Tati is OWH's choice for Man of the (Twentieth) Century. His work casts a wistful eye to the Europe of warm neighborliness, although it stops short of the righteous, anti-establishment indignation of Godard (see Weekend) or the hallucinatory dreamscapes of Cortazar (though the latter was also inspired by French highways to create La Autopista del Sur and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute).

All of these artists explored the havoc that the automobile has wrought on the human psyche and the physical environment. Cars represent individual freedom, yet they trap their masters in steel cages on infinite expanses of concrete. Godard used cars to denote nihilisic hypercapitalism. To Cortazar they were portals into the infinite subconscious. Tati just finds them amusing: witness the hilarious and somehow delicate car crash an hour into his film Trafic.

Tati's first four films evince a nostalgia for the humanistic, sensuous and self-contradictory aspect of France. Trafic enlarges the auteur's scope to gently mock sterilized international business culture. The French term "le trafic" refers more to the exchange of commodities than it does to automotive congestion, but after viewing the film you're inclined to think that you can't have one without the other.

Tati's alter ego Monsieur Hulot, a doting sort of Bugs Bunny with highwater pants and an umbrella, designs a camper van and endeavors to transport it to a trade show in Amsterdam. His team is interrupted by countless ironic hijinks set off by precise sound effects and garbled, dubbed dialogue. It looks as vivid and radiant as a summer swimming pool, with less of the intensely organized spaces of his masterpiece Playtime. Hulot's oddball physicality is undiminished although he is over 60 in this film.