Jacques Tati deserves his own special throne in the pantheon of comic star/auteurs–not quite beside Chaplin and Keaton, but not far behind them.
If you’re not familiar with Tati, now is your chance to make is acquaintance. His five features (six if you include the made-for-TV, shot-on-videotape Parade) will play this month at at the Pacific Film Archive, the Rafael, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, although not all of the films will play in all three venues.
Tati comes as close to being a silent comedian as anyone of the sound era. (One could argue that Jackie Chan is equally influenced by the silent clowns, yet Tati and Chan are as different as film comics can get.) Talking plays almost no role in his movies, while sight gags and stunts abound. I saw his first feature, Jour de fête dubbed into German and without subtitles (of course, I wouldn’t have understood the original French, either), and had little difficulty following it.
Like other great comedians, he found one great character and stuck with him for most of his career. That character, Mr. Hulot, is friendly, polite, yet oddly reserved. He gives me the impression that, even when he’s pursuing sport and company, he really wants to be alone. I’ve seen only two of the four Hulot movies (I hope to see the others soon), and I don’t recall ever hearing his first name.
Audiences don’t laugh uproariously at Tati the way they do at Chaplin or Keaton, although they definitely laugh. His work is subtle and requires your attention for full effect, and the jokes often seem more aimed at a chuckle then a belly laugh. Many jokes you simply won’t catch until a second viewing. And yet his best work—such as Playtime—work on levels that few other comedies even know exist.
I’ve only seen three of his movies. I hope to see the rest in the coming weeks.
The PFA series is the only one to contain all six of his features, and a few shorts. The YBCA program contains his five theatrical features, plus the documentary The Magnificent Tati. The Rafael doesn’t have a series, but will screen his first Hulot film, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, for a full week.