In 2013 Taschen commissioned Jonathan Rosenbaum to write an original essay on each of Jacques Tati’s features for a planned book on the director. Five years later and the book is nowhere in sight, so Rosenbaum has posted his typically thorough, insightful comments on his website: Delving into the color restoration of Jour de fete (“How adding colored elements and a new character could compensate for the absence of a full-color image is an intriguing puzzle. But Tati’s compositional strategy was an intrinsic part of his genius, making him a worthy grandson of van Gogh’s framer; he was an instinctive artist with an uncanny sense of how seemingly unconnected aspects of a film could connect with one another in aesthetic terms.”); noticing the experiments careening beneath Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’s seemingly slick, entertaining surface (“Hulot, in short, could just as well be anyone else for this gag to transpire—and the notion that everyone could be funny, and not just a talented mime who dominated every shot and sequence, was central to Tati’s comic philosophy.”); exploring the satire of Mon Oncle (“Because Mon Oncle is more explicitly a satire than any of Tati’s other films, one could argue that is correspondingly somewhat less poetic and more prosaic. But one kind of poetic vision that is threaded beautifully through the entire film might be described as the poetry of disorder, and this is represented above all by the roaming paths of dogs in both neighborhoods, which are explicitly contrasted with the strict, orderly procession of cars on the highway.”); offering his latest paean to the endlessly rewarding PlayTime (“In the case of PlayTime, this might say that this became a philosophical as well as a physical vision, practical as well as metaphysical, which essentially sprang from a conviction that everyone in the world was funny coupled with a regret that not everyone had discovered it yet. Becoming a man with a mission, he saw his job as showing some people how they might better appreciate the world they were living in.”); saluting art triumphing over economically mandated compromises in Trafic (“The film’s uncommon achievement, in other words, at least on many occasions, is to blend together fictional and non-fictional elements into a seamless whole, demonstrating the Tati’s genius in organizing his materials could be every bit as adroit as his genius for either finding or inventing them. All three processes are intricately interwoven in the film as a whole.”); and arguing there’s much more going on in Parade than the documentary recording of some circus acts (“And in fact, it could be argued that Parade does have a story, even if, like PlayTime, it doesn’t exactly have a hero — or, rather, its “hero”, as in PlayTime, consists of all the people in the movie and all the people watching the movie. And to accept that as a premise means rethinking a lot of things, including what we mean by a movie, what we mean by a circus, what we mean by a show, and what we mean by spectacle in general. And in its unpretentious way, Parade gets us to reconsider all of these things.”).
Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
The French celebration of Jerry Lewis as an American artist is a lazy punchline and a gross oversimplification of a genuine appreciation, but there is a telling truth to the cliché. Historically, French critics favored the visual over the verbal, and stylistic sensibility over plot and performance, in American movies; in the sixties and seventies, when Lewis was seen as little more than a crudely juvenile comic and a show-biz caricature, the French saw a particular cinematic ingenuity and innocence that was lacking in other American comedies. Plus, he seemed culturally kindred with a classic comic figure: the clown. Not the circus brand, but the kind that flourished in the cabarets and music halls of Europe.
That’s a rather longwinded introduction to a tradition that gave birth to a pair of great French filmmakers: Jacques Tati and Pierre Étaix, comic actors turned directors whose films draw from silent movies, mime, and cabaret performance, and carry on the traditions of Chaplin and Keaton. They were silent movie clowns in the contemporary world, and their movies presented a unique and elaborate comic universe that operated on its own skewed logic.
Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection
Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.
The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.
Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.