Posted by Charles Reece, March 1, 2009 08:31pm | Post a Comment
If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain't bought
-- Guy Clark, "L.A. Freeway"

There are few directors I rank up there with Hitchcock, but Jacques Tati is one of them. I finally got around to watching Criterion's release of Trafic, his final installment in the Monsieur Hulot series. If Playtime is his Vertigo, then that would make Trafic his North By Northwest, only it didn't put Tati back on top of the commerical foodchain. After the box-office failure of Playtime, Tati had to take a step backwards, at least production-wise. Maybe that's why the critics never gave his followup the same attention as all the other Hulot flicks, the artistry of each increasing at exponential rate over the last. And maybe the diminished role of the Hulot character in Trafic is the reason it didn't do much better than Playtime among the masses (that's the reason Jonathan Romney gives). I suspect it was due to the same brazen social critique condemning his former film to academic circles, resulting in the charge of pretension from newspaper reviewers and the like. Most people like to keep their seriousness and humor separate.

In the opening credit sequence, Tati looks straight down the maw of an automobile assembly line, creating an effect similar to the infinite regress of two mirrors facing each other. The men are as much like replicas as the parts they're pushing through the machine. After having spent a couple years doing register duty in retail, a musician buddy of mine commented the other night that if America spent as much time habituating its citizens to the piano keys as it does to menial tasks in the service of commerce, the creative possibilites would be limitless. As it stands, those guys in that shot don't stand much of a chance of doing anything else with the procedural knowledge they've acquired. Dan Lalande expresses a similar thought in his evaluation of the film in the latest Cineaction:

Trafic, Tati's underrated ideological road movie, quietly adds that man, now metallically sealed off from the capacity for genuine experience, barely feels the loss any more. [...] Yes, the still recognizable Hulot [...] remains the perpetual outsider, facilitating the classic comic formula of the bumbling innocent set loose against a stuffy, functionary backdrop, but his newfound servility serves as a telling comment on the diminished role of the artist in an increasingly deracinated society, devalued by the silently unstoppable energies of industrialization, commerce and crass commercialism (as does a choice running gag on the awarding of free busts of famous artists by a gas station).

Scene is accompanied by a radio announcement: "Commercials inform us."

Yet, there's beauty in ritualized movement itself, even though it registers a bit of comical sadness. Movement is always the saving grace in Tati's existentialism. He was not some simple-minded Marxist. The confining nature of Fordist assembly-line habitus didn't stifle his aesthetic appreciation of mechanized motion. In the extras accompanying the Criterion edition, Tati suggests that mime is the "purest form of expression" and that "a good comic learns to use his legs." Thus, it makes sense that he would follow his critique of the effects of modernist architecture on human movement with a similar critique of modernity's primary means of transportation, the car. Rather than being a luddite, as has oft-been claimed, Tati's Hulot is here a designer for Altra Automobiles, preparing his experimental camper model for an auto show in Amsterdam. The brunt of the Sisyphean comedy is carried by the surmounting obstacles preventing the Altra team from delivering the model on time.

As a former mime, Tati was adroit at physically articulating the movements of the culture around him, which he continually demonstrates in the aforementioned interviews. When he duplicates the bodily motions of traffic cops in Paris and London, the English audience laughs, recognizing the difference. As Tati explains, his comedy of movement comes about by its placement in a real setting, in situ. He cites as an example (through mimetic performance) an official delivering Legion of Honor medals to the wrong side of General de Gaulle during a televised event in front of many politicians, generals, soldiers and a viewing audience. Rather than having The General flip back to the other side, the official did one of those bureaucratic Monty Pythonesque steps to correct his mistake. As Tati explains, Laurel and Hardy would've had to add something else to make the official's movement funny for the movies, but the pomp and circumstance were enough for reality.

The interviews suggest two levels to Tati's use of movement. The first, more critical one, is as a cultural sign, the way society and its artifacts constrain, regulate and define our movements. The other, a pure pleasure in watching bodies in motion, isn't reducible to cultural encoding, and allows for something more personal (akin to what Barthes called the punctum in photography, if you're so inclined). I suggest that all of Tati's physical comedy begins with the latter, a joy at just watching humans move. It's this joy in the materiality of movement that keeps Trafic's social critique from being the mere pessimism expressed in Lalande's summation above. If there's something more to, say, basketball than merely scoring, then why isn't there more to men working a conveyor belt than the end product, such as a car? In other words, to quote the best poet Texas ever produced, "where you've been is good and gone; all you keep is the gettin' there."

As the perpetual hero of the gettin' there, Hulot never frets much about his ostensible goals. Even when working, he's more like a self-aware version of Kafka's numerous bureaucrats, resigned to the fact that whatever metaphorical boulder gets pushed up the hill will come down. That's probably why he was so popular with the general public: he finds fulfillment in quotidian existence, unlike the anxiety-ridden Kafkaesque heroes. Hulot, Tati's stand-in, is a native ethnographer -- a cultural insider who thinks like an outsider, a nonplussed observer as much as a participant. Whatever he might get paid for, distraction is his true vocation. Commerce isn't exactly his forte.

While one road block after another keeps him and his colleagues from meeting their deadline, Hulot strolls along.

Out of gas: it's the moments between plan and destination where humanity dwells.

If there's a protagonist in Trafic most deserving of the initial K, it's the means-to-an-end character, Maria. Suitably enough, she's an American hired by Altra as PR to ensure all the cars and trucks run on time. She embodies the Franglais double-meaning of the title:

The usual French term for traffic -- meaning the movement of motor vehicles -- is la circulation. The word trafic can be a synonym for it, but its primary meaning is traffic in the sense of commerce, the exchange of goods. -- Romney, ibid.

Maria begins the flick as an angst-ridden missle (cf. fourth photo) with one goal in mind: shepherding the truck carrying the test camper to the show, leaving little time for rituals or conversation that don't serve that end. She doesn't even have time for European traffic laws. It's hardly interpretative excess to draw a parallel between Maria's bumptious disregard for another's laws in the service of capital to that of American foreign policy, where the hedonic equation is weighted by narcissism (unilateralism when referring to the state). That is, satisfying her desire is taken as the good of the all. "Doing what needs to be done" seems more efficient when one doesn't have to bother with the constraints being imposed by the other's culture. Of course, to ignore such constraints isn't the same as there being no constraints. Thus, much like the unintended consequences from propping up a right-wing dictactor in the service of realpolitik, Maria's self-assertive expediency ultimately keeps the Altra team from reaching its destination on time. Blowing through a road-block gets the truck impounded. And, in the film's major set-piece, her ignoring a traffic cop's directions results in an arabesque of destruction that should bring a tear to the eye of most ardent monster truck enthusiast:

Since Hulot never really changes, the most interesting character arc is Maria's. With the seemingly endless barriers before her team, she comes to realize the auto show as quixotic, and begins to move more at Hulot's speed. As a fairly anxious guy, I'm not sure I'll ever get where she and Hulot end up, but there's a certain kind of freedom in learning to mime the ebb and flow of one's surrounding. Namely, the world ceases to be points on a map.

"Ah, fuck it! Let's have a picnic."

Altra's manager continues to fight the good fight, eating under artificial trees, waiting for his product to fulfill the
manufactured landscape.

Always going with the flow, Hulot returns for a chance at romance.

"The 'o' is upside down": the role of management in an administered society.

Technology in service of the goal-directed life.

Relevant Tags

Trafic (1), Jacques Tati (2), Existentialism (1), Franz Kafka (3), Dvd Criticism (26)