Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mon Oncle

I'm currently working my way through a paper-sized chunk of my ongoing Tati project. France underwent a process of remarkably rapid modernization in the postwar years. Reaching its peak in the late 50s, around the time Tati made Mon Oncle, France's modernization brought the basic necessities of modern living (electricity, indoor plumbing, etc) to the people, but was incredibly destructive. Massive rebuilding projects changed the overall structure of Paris while expelling workers and poor foreigners from the city's center. This neo-Hausmannization placed the great unwashed into modernist apartment blocks in the outskirts, luring them through affordable rents and the promise of modern amenites - mainly, though, the poorer classes had to relocate to the banlieus because it was the only alternative to the older apartment buildings the city was tearing down left and right. In short, between the rebuilding of France's rubble and the creation of new rubble, France was making drastic changes in how its people lived, how its cities were structured, how classes interacted, and how it looked.

In writing about Tati, I've been digging into the work of Henri Lefebvre. As Jameson points out, Lefebvre was a modernist (whose writings are first and foremost a response to the modernization of France), but as many have observed, he is (like, I would say, Tati) a forerunner of postmodern theory, even a transitional figure. He was fascinated with space and saw everything through that prism: how space is created, how it is utilized (and who controls it), how one kind of space differentiates itself from another, how it shapes and limits the behavior within it, what sorts of rhythms it contains or produces, etc. His writings on "everyday life" remain hugely influential, as does his Production of Space - little else, however, has received an adequate (i.e. grammatically coherent) translation into English. For the purposes of this paper, I wasn't able to get as deep into his writings (translated only - my French is serviceable but not up to the demands of sociological theory) as I would have liked, but what I did read indicated an intense sympathy between Tati and Lefebvre. Working at the same time, both obsessed with space and spatial practice, they seem to have looked on France's new way forward from a similar perspective. Both were acutely aware of what was being lost in France's modernization, and although one could accuse both (Tati more than Lefebvre) of indulging in sentimental nostalgia, to do is almost besides the point. Both worked with an eye towards the future, and both were explicit in their desire to change actual societal behavior with their work: Tati wanted to teach audiences how to look at spaces differently, how to recognize the human and organic in a mechanical/electrical world; Lefebvre, of course, wished to see results in actual city planning. While Lefebvre had to be aware of Tati's films - they were enormous successes and Tati was, after Mon Oncle, something of a national hero - hee never mentions Tati and hardly touches the cinema at all. It's conceivable (probable) that Tati never heard of Lefebvre. Tati once told a collaborator that books made his head hurt.

Anyway, much of my paper is (or, ahem, will be) a close reading of Mon Oncle with Lefebvre, along with Barthes, Kristin Ross's Fast Cars, Clean Bodies and a few others providing context, backup, inspiration, etc. It isn't a "Lefebvrian reading" per se; Lefebvre's writings offer theoretical articulation very similar to Tati's artistic one, and so are serving to highlight formal and diegetic details and their significance within the larger cultural context. Hopefully I'll post something more concrete in the next couple days. One thing that's clear is that everything I'd like to discuss won't make it into the paper.I think a major reception study needs to be done on the film. It was embraced wholeheartedly by the French public at a time in which modernization and loss of national identity was of huge cultural concern, a time in which the debate between the old ways and the new was a constant in the newspapers, magazines and literature of the time. The film's sympathies clearly lie with the artisanal village life of the old town rather than the loud and colorless existence of the Arpels and the new town, a position that fueled the sentimental self-regard in one (large) portion of the population, and was seen by another portion as a reactionary work that resisted modernization and modernity. Both sides have some truth to them, but neither can adequately encompass the density or specificity of the film's critique, nor its clear-eyed acknowledgement that the life of the old town has already passed. But I have done a little bit of digging, Chicago's sparse periodicals holdings notwithstanding. For now, I'd like to talk about sound and Tati's most eloquent, insightful interpreter, Andre Bazin.

Several Tati collaborators have mentioned in interviews that Tati was particularly sensitive to bad reviews (another reason why a reception study could be crucial). If you read the interview he did with Bazin and Truffaut in 1958 carefully, you notice two things: 1) it's clear at which point the admiring Bazin ceases to the the interviewer and the petulant Truffaut takes over; and, 2)Tati has read Bazin's review of Les Vacances de M. Hulot (when he says "you saw in Les Vacances" he doesn't mean the generic/hypothetical "you" but Bazin specifically, referring to a comment made in the essay "M. Hulot and Time"). I mention this because the sensitivity to criticism becomes apparent once again when Tati starts conducting interviews for Playtime. He claims that he lost his way with Mon Oncle, that the film is too narrative and has too traditional a message for his liking. This echoes the criticisms levelled at the film by its detractors and indicates (along with the exclusive use of long and medium-long shots, and the ideological rationale behind it) that Tati's conception of his art was perhaps shaped to some degree by the Cahiers critics and, especially, Bazin. The original title of "M. Hulot and Time" was, by the way, "Pas de scenario pour M. Hulot," referring to Bazin's description of Hulot as a character who could not exist in a traditional story, with a job and a normal life.

The interaction between Bazin and Tati is an essay in and of itself, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the soundtrack to Mon Oncle. One of the most beautiful passages in all of Bazin's work is the lengthy discussion of sound in Les Vacances that concludes:

"It’s the sound which gives M. Hulot’s universe its depth, its moral prominence. Ask yourself where that overwhelming sadness, that inordinate disenchantment comes from at the end of the film, and you may find that it comes from silence. Throughout the film, the playful cries of children inevitably accompany shots of the beach, and their abrupt silence signifies the end of the holiday."

Similarly, the sounds of a busy village square occupy the soundtrack of Mon Oncle during any visit to the old town. Heavy on children's voices and vendors hawking their wares, little is intelligible in this pleasant noise. However, there's a difference between the endless expanse of the beach and a small, largely enclosed village space. Although you can occasionally hear bits and pieces of a conversation between characters, most of the voices on the soundtrack in these crowd scenes are never attached to any specific mouth. There's a ghostlike quality to this free-floating jumbling of voices. And Tati again ends with the silencing of these voices, this time camouflaged somewhat by the umpteenth reprise of the film's main theme. However, without any diegetic motivation, the final shots of the old town are deserted (people-wise), and the very last shot of the film is taken, for some reason, from inside an unknown building overlooking the main square. The square can be seen through a window that's largely covered by a sheer curtain swaying in the breeze for a shroudlike effect in this portrait of the iconic and practical center of the village life.

What I'm getting at is that there's a similar melancholy at the end of Mon Oncle, and that again the soundtrack plays a central role, perhaps more pointedly this time. In Les Vacances it's the just-finished holiday being mourned, but Mon Oncle is an elegy for an era that may have already passed. That ghostly chorus of shouts and chatter in the background gives the whole community a slightly unreal quality. Sound behaves differently in the new town, where the sound of every little step or shift in a chair booms and machines emit all manner of abrasive squawks and squeaks. It's very concrete and literal minded - realistic in character if not volume. I don't hold the film's sentimentality against it: Tati isn't making a reactionary choice between "traditional" France and the onslaught of modernity, but rather paying tribute to a way of life that is dying out if it hasn't passed already.

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