By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
December 18, 2014
We screen a lot of films at the Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature, and in keeping with the “antique” in our name, a lot of the films are old. Modern cinema may be ok—some of the greatest actors and directors in film history are working even today—but there is a lot that was very fine in films of yore that one has to search for in films today. Unfortunately, we live in an era of remakes, reboots, and retreads. Many film-makers and their production companies or studios have forgotten about principles like character and story and originality, and seem compelled to re-make every old idea over and over again just to take advantage of a new generation of special effects. The desire to produce a blockbuster that appeals to the widest possible audience (and makes the greatest possible amount of money) has produced an endless string of forgettable flash-in-the-pan mega-hits targeted at the mindless rabble. Many films these days are too loud, with too many explosions, and too much sensory overload, yet with a total lack of character and story and sheer memorability. Gone are the days when film-makers could fashion a film to build suspense and atmosphere just to finally show the monster in the final reel or to wrap up the story with a single well-placed gunshot.
At the Dalenberg Library, we believe in special effects in the service of the story, not just as an end unto themselves. We believe in re-visiting the blind alleys and dark corners of film history, all the way back to the beginning (i.e. the Lumière Brothers in 1895.) And, as always, we believe that Context Is Everything (which you learned several months ago is the cornerstone of Dalenberg’s Context Theory of criticism—and that applies as much to the movies as to literature.)
The Sunday Film Series is a weekly delving into films that are just as likely to come from those blind alleys and dark corners as they are to come from the mainstream hits and blockbusters of the past. Generally, we will spotlight films from pre-1985. Why that year, exactly?—because, way back when the Dalenberg Library newsletter, later this antique popular literature blog, was originally conceived, it was as a way to educate Dr. Dalenberg’s children about arts that came from before they were born. Said chikldren happened to commence being born in 1985.
For Sunday Film Series #1 we have chosen the first feature length movie directed by Jacques Tati, the legendary French film comedian. Jour de Fete was the first of Tati’s 6 feature films, a small but legendary output in the realm of screen comedy. These films were released between 1949 and 1974. In Tati, the French gave us a figure as memorable as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, a physical comedian trained in mime and slapstick comedy, but one who brought an odd surrealism and wickedly subliminal social commentary to his movies. The later Tati (from 1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and onwards), with his jaunty, angular walk and gestures, sporting his signature raincoat and pipe, is as unmistakable as Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. In Jour de Fete, we are introduced to an earlier iteration of Tati, halfway between the music hall and Monsieur Hulot.
Jour de Fete has Tati as a bumbling village postman who struggles to keep up with his deliveries on his bicycle and occasionally falls victim to the townspeople who prey on his simplicity. The story takes place in a small French village on the day a carnival comes to town (the title, usually translated as “The Big Day,” might better be translated as “The Day of the Festival.”) Somewhere between getting too drunk at the party and watching a film about the wonders of America’s automated postal system, Tati’s postman character decides he is going to improve his deliveries with American-like speed and efficiency. The results are quite hilarious as he jets around town on his bicycle devising all kinds of shortcuts, throwing mail hither and yon, all to speed things up. One of the funniest moments occurs when Tati throws a package containing new boots to the meat-cutter who is in mid-swing with his butcher knife. The package falls under the knife and gets sliced in two, causing the butcher to declaim that he has no use for boots with the toes cut off. Tati tries to console him at first but then dismisses the problem as an inevitable outcome of American efficiency.
The film is a charming evocation of small town life in a French village with the hapless postman more or less playing the village idiot. It is a sweet film in the end, offering up a moral: news that comes in the mail is quite often bad news anyway, so we should let it take its own sweet time. At the end of the film, the postman slows down, stops to help his fellow villagers harvesting in a field, and one assumes he has learned that there is no reason to hurry the mail. The themes of attacking the modern obsession with progress and American-style consumerism are repeated often in Tati’s films. In that respect, they are somewhat related to Chaplin’s point of view in Modern Times, another film which depicts Modern Man overwhelmed by technology. Tati’s satire on the sterility of modern life and the emptiness of consumerism reached a peak later in his films Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967).
Tati might be frustrating to watch for a young, modern American audience jaded by vulgar comics and living many more decades beyond vaudeville and silent movie comedy than when these films were made. Tati sets up most of his jokes so predictably that you know what is going to happen. If there is a rake, you know he is going to step on the rake, and you know it is going to rise up and conk him in the head. But the hilarity comes in the physics of the slapstick. Most Tati slapstick scenes involve a series of set-up moments followed by a rapid-fire sequence of improbable events that you mostly knew were going to happen, but they make your head spin anyway. Tati stacks all the dominos first, and then he knocks them over all at once. Watching the dominos fall in a Tati stunt is like watching physics, like paying attention to the clockwork. Probably the finest scene in Jour de Fete is an extended scene where Tati tries to mount his bicycle while drunk. It is fascinating to watch him work his way through the physics of the slapstick as he does every possible permutation of man and bike, first with the bike on one side of the fence but the man on the other, then vice versa, then trying to go forward with the front wheel facing to the side, then trying to pedal while he is stuck in a hedge, and so on. Buster Keaton allegedly once said that Tati was the one who had carried on the true tradition of silent comedy in the sound era, and that is nowhere more evident than in the drunken bicycle business in Jour de Fete.
Finally, no discussion of Jour de Fete is complete without a discussion of color vs. black & white. While attacking modernism on the screen, Tati dreamed for this film to be the first French feature released in color. He actually had two cameras running on the set at all times, one shooting on black & white film, and one shooting on color film. The original intention was that the black & white only be a back-up, since the color film process being used was very new and had not yet resulted in a print being made for screening of any film. The process was something called Thomson-color, which was going to be a French rival to Technicolor. Unfortunately, the Thomson firm went bankrupt before the film could be processed, and the color version languished in the vaults for years because a screenable print could not be made. It took quite a bit of detective work and experimentation with the film before the processing necessary for the Thomson-color film could be reproduced. A full-color version of Jour de Fete was finally released in 1995 as Jacques Tati originally envisioned it. The new 2014 Criterion Collection edition of the film has three versions: the black & white 1949 release; the 1995 full-color re-release; and an interesting 1964 version. For the 1964 release, Tati hired an animator to hand paint splashes of color into the movie, an orange balloon here, a French flag there, some festoons at the festival. . .plus he introduced extra footage of an artist who has come to the village to sketch the folksy scenes. Frankly, the film works best in old-fashioned black & white, but while the movie makes a statement against giving up the old ways in favor of mindless progress, it is interesting to see Tati’s attempts to harness technology to bring color to his vision. Tati’s first full-color release had to wait until 1958 with his film Mon Oncle.