SFIFF Report: Jacque Tati & Barbara Kopple

It’s been an unusual day at the festival. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Master Class: Malcolm Turvey: Tati, Chaplin and the Democratization of Comedy I started the day with professor Malcolm Turvey, lecturing on Jacque Tati and how his comedy related to what he described as the “classical comedy” of Chaplin, Keaton, and other silent clowns. Obviously, they inspired Tati considerably, but Tati, in his own words, “democratized” comedy. “Every man is entertaining,” Tati explained in interviews, and “There is no need to be a comic to perform a gag.”

He didn’t mean that it didn’t take talent and hard work. Tati knew that as well as anyone. He argued that Chaplin’s Tramp was an exceptional character, while Tati’s M. Hulot could be anyone.

This struck me as odd. Chaplin’s immense popularity came from the everyman aspect of the Tramp as much as anything. But he has exceptional abilities. And if the argument is that Hulot has no great gifts, he’s certainly more competent than Laurel & Hardy’s onscreen personas.

One difference he made was that Hulot never intentionally created something. He would never, for instance, eat a shoe as if it was a gourmet dinner.

Another difference: Tati is much more likely to fool the audience. He’ll place the camera in such a way as to fool us as well as the character’s onscreen. Chaplin almost never did this. Keaton and Lloyd did, but not as otten as Tati, who used this type of gag over and over.

Finally, Tati required the audience to pay attention. It’s easy to miss gags. He showed us clips from Playtime (a movie I’ve seen many times) that I had never noticed.

Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award
I next attended the Persistence of Vision Award ceremony honoring documentarian Barbara Kopple. After a brief introuction, they screened her first feature, which I hadn’t seen in a long time and had never seen theatrically.

A Harlan County, USA
What’s it really like to work in a coal mine? Or to live with a coal miner, wondering every day if they’ll come home alive or will die from black lung disease? Or to go onharlan_county_usa strike when your union doesn’t support you and hired goons are shooting at you?   In 1976, a very young and determined Barbara Kopple showed us exactly what it was like, filming an extended strike that threatened at any minute to succumb to violence (and occasionally did). She doesn’t ignore the history either, interviewing old timers and including old footage. Even the music is authentic–songs written and performed by members of the mining community. Harlan County’s reputation as a great documentary is richly deserved.

After the screening, Kopple came on stage along with former PoV winner Jon Else [4/23: text altered; spelling correction].

She talked about the physical threats and money problems she had making the film. How her father would mail raw stock to her when she ran out of film. How she won the miners’ trust by showing up at the picket lines at 4:00AM in the rain. How she was shot at, and how she couldn’t pay the lab bills. “I wasn’t going to make a little thing like money keep me from making this film.”

Unfortunately, the interview was interrupted by an emergency announcement. There had been a fire report, and everyone had to evacuate the building.

As I write this, less than an hour later, I don’t know what finally happened. I’m guessing it was a false alarm–presumably not created by a mining company.

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