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Jacques Tati

Mention Charlie Chaplin or, maybe, Buster Keaton to someone under 40 and they've likely heard of one, or both. They may not know much about them but they've probably heard the name. However, I'd guess that not many Americans, of any age, has heard of Jacques Tati, let alone know what he's done. Jacques Tati (real surname, Tatischeff), was born in France, 1908. He attended a college of arts and engineering, and played a bit of rugby. He later toured on stage as a pantomimist and impressionist. In 1932, he filmed one of his routines, Oscar, the Tennis Champion (some of the tennis gags were repeated in one of his films). Obviously, that medium stuck with him because some years later (1949), he wrote, directed, and starred in his first feature, Jour de fête. In 1953, he again wrote, directed, and starred in Les Vacances de M. Hulot (known in English as Mr. Hulot's Holiday). This was the film where I was introduced into the world of Tati. I was working for the PBS affiliate (WHA-TV) in Madison, Wisconsin and was invited to watch a special showing during a film class. I didn't know what to expect. It didn't take many minutes into the film for me to be gobsmacked (as my English friends say). His subtle humor was intoxicating and surprisingly tender. Very little dialogue but loads of elegant, wide-shot visual gags. Half way through, I was nearly falling out of my folding chair with laughter (no, really). There's a scene where he manages to convince a young woman to go riding with him. As he waits for her in the hotel lobby, prancing back and forth to study the art on the walls, one of his riding spurs gets hooked in the mouth of a fox rug. He only notices this after a time. It's truly genius. So, I was hooked for life. I recently found his next film, Mon Oncle (1958), online and fell in love with his comedic sense all over again. His later films were Playtime (1967), Traffic (1971), and Parade (1973) made for Swedish television and really more of a review of his abilities than a feature story. These were his only full-length films, just six. In four of them, he repeated his 'Monsieur Hulot' character with his stiff-legged, mechanical walk (with high cuffed slacks), his wrinkled raincoat, a tiny flattened fedora, and his iconic unlit pipe. He was smart to retain that character. For Playtime, he spent millions of dollars building a modernist city on the outskirts of Paris. The buildings were shells but they looked plenty complete on film. This outlay of cash almost ruined his career, taking years to get the funding. For me, Tati is right up there with Chaplin and Keaton. He should be recognized for his genius just as they are. I remain a fan all these years later. He died in 1982.

This is a great intro to his comedic style.

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