Where Have You Gone, Monsieur Hulot?

Jacques Tati

Persistent themes of Jacques Tati’s films were work and play, two forces in conflicting or complementary relationships, always inspiring creativity regardless of configuration.

The Complete Jacques Tati

Director: Jacques Tati
Cast: Jacques Tati
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Rated: NA
Year: Various
US DVD release date: 2014-10-28

The films of Jacques Tati have been part of the Criterion Collection for years, but the DVDs have gone out of print for periods of time. That Tati’s films would drift in and out of availability is consistent with the persona of his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot, a man whose presence signifies various types of absence. In frame but out of place and out of time, Hulot shares many qualities with his creator. Tati is said to have died a “bitter man”, unappreciated in his place and time. The celebration of Tati in the decades since his death in 1982 includes recent home video releases by BFI and Studiocanal, culminating in Criterion’s The Complete Jacques Tati on DVD and Blu-ray. The box set contains reissues of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon Oncle (1958), PlayTime (1967), and Trafic (1971), as well as debut editions of Jour de fête (1949), Parade (1974), and several short films.

Tati’s first feature, Jour de fête, was shot in Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre with an all-hands-on-deck spirit and included townspeople as actors. Tati was eager to improve on his earlier efforts in cinema, specifically short films that marked a significant change of form compared with the mime/music hall stylings of his early career as a performer. As a writer and the director and star of the film, Tati brought to his first major feature a sense of control that would become characteristic of his approach and arguably responsible for his career highs and lows.

The plots of Tati’s films were minimal, and Jour de fête is no exception. An event (the arrival of a traveling fair) and a character (a postman) are the engines that power the film. Tati’s themes, however, were potent enough to poke up through the slapstick; volleys that would stay aloft through decades of filmmaking. Jour de fête is about work that is never quite finished, including that related to life’s leisurely moments, which are, by contrast, fleeting. It’s also a film about progress that questions popular postwar conceptions of progress.

Jour de fête (1949)

In Jour de fête, animals are able to sense human folly and/or force humans to slow down. Tati’s “François” is a productive postman, but the chaos he creates counteracts his progress. He helps to erect a flagpole, but the story of the pole overtakes the fact of its implantation. Paint is never entirely dry. Letters are never entirely delivered. The motion picture show that functions as a main attraction of the fair allows Tati the director to comment in some way on the coming of sound to film -- a technological innovation Tati used to perfect the aims of silent film. In his book on Tati, writer David Bellos recounts that silent cinema comedy master Buster Keaton “reportedly said that Tati’s work with sound had carried on the true tradition of silent cinema.”

The motion picture show within the fair of Jour de fête also introduces another commentary on the theme of progress that compares and contrasts national approaches to service. “Yes, the Americans are turning postmen into acrobats,” boasts the newsreel that showcases the efficiency of the American postal service. François, who allows a goat to eat a telegram and who spends much of the film carrying around a busted tire, compares unfavorably to this impossible new American standard. His “American style” delivery in the film’s third act is one of frenzied speed. Suddenly, there’s no time to reflect on the job done (as with the flagpole of the first act). In the end, a child replaces him as the would-be postman. It’s a funny switcheroo, but also one that carries a slight caution of growing up too quickly.

In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati has retired François and taken on Hulot, who is introduced to audiences while on vacation. This is to say Hulot is specifically not working, unlike the vacationers surrounding him. They remain connected to their labors and other distractions despite the gorgeous scenery of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. The opening minutes of the film feature families in a mad rush to reach a destination. The speed with which they switch train platforms is impossibly fast, but Tati proves their movement with his directorial hand. Their movement is an evolution of a similar technique Tati used to speed François along in Jour de fête. The director would continue to focus on groups in motion throughout his filmography.

A frequently occurring interaction in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is that of other holidaymakers reacting to Hulot’s distracting or disrupting presence, or to different representations of the man himself. He is his car that makes too much noise. He is the wind that blows the sitting room into disarray. When Hulot passes by, anyone who takes their eyes off of a present activity to observe him returns to a ruined activity. His own luck with objects is no better. His suitcase and backpack antics are physical comedy reminiscent of Billy Bevan. He repeatedly fails to mount a horse. He splits a boat in half.

Again, however, this slapstick combines with technique and theme to raise the film to the highest ranks of comic film art. Two of the funniest and strangest moments in the film involve characters reduced to frozen objects. One of these scenes features a man, Schmutz, who is taking a family photograph when a business call intervenes. The family is left standing, posing for a picture that will never be taken. The second instance finds Hulot distracting an exercise instructor at the precise time the exercisers are all standing with knees bent. Their workout is suspended in some tendon-testing purgatory while Hulot commands the instructor's attention.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Tati also avoids the tendency of some silent and sound film comedians to extend a gag beyond its point of maximum effectiveness. Several times within the film, he cuts to another shot, action, or scene at the comedic apex of one joke or another. The most effective of these edits takes place within a tennis sequence that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Tati’s mime routines involving sports. There’s a short sequence of a girl whose polite conversation with others is cruelly repaid with a tennis ball’s direct hit to the head. There is no doubt Tati could have gotten more laughs out of the scene, but he lets the impact and immediate falling action determine the timing of the cut and then he’s quickly on to the next routine.

Throughout, Tati frames activities, days, and nights with more contemplative views of the setting that invite deeper thought about why some people cannot turn off the busyness and seriousness while away on vacation. Schmutz is too concerned for his business to enjoy the sea. A young man (the sort that will populate the films of Richard Linklater) also misses out by using his time at the beach to criticize the progress of the bourgeoisie. Tati called Hulot “shy” and “sweet,” but the irate vacationers inconvenienced by his loud jazz music and explosive fireworks would characterize him as anything but. The truth is that he’s simply incompatible. To borrow a quotation from Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, Hulot “just wasn’t made for these times.”

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday offers the zaniness of Hulot sharing a single common location with others. However, Tati’s next film Mon oncle sees Hulot in his little space on the fringe of a disappearing way of life before letting him loose among his family members within modern, suburbanized, domestic, and industrial work spaces. He’s not lost, but he is ill-equipped, like an interplanetary traveler trying to survive a hostile atmosphere. His only ally is a child.

The distance between Hulot and the Arpel family (his sister, her husband, and their child Gérard) is marked by decay. Hulot’s home is awkward, but its pulse is warm. The place and its people move to the beat of tradition. Yet he is in a district that will soon be overtaken by the construction and a newer, ostensibly better way of living. Tati associates the period of renovation with images like dogs eating trash. The results, like modern houses and structures, do not seem to justify the costs of modernity.

Mr. and Mrs. Arpel are adherents of this new way of living. Mrs. Arpel, in particular, never tires of showing off her home and its bells and whistles. The most frequently occurring sight gag in the film is a fish fountain that spews blue water into the air. Mrs. Arpel reveals her judgment of the social status of her guests by her selective activation of the fountain. Concerning the house, her mantra is, “It’s very practical. Everything’s connected.” Given Hulot’s penchant for causing chaos, his introduction into an environment in which everything is connected creates the possibility that he’ll bring the whole house down. His encounter with the fish fountain creates a series of domestic catastrophes.

Tati styles much of the Arpel’s world at home and at work (Mr. Arpel’s plastics manufacturing factory) as being drained of color or infused with unnatural color. The presentation of factory and office settings could nearly be mistaken for black and white photography, were it not for a few sources of chrominance like skin tones. Because of the film’s attention to industrial alienation, sections of Mon oncle play like a comedic variation on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Hulot’s visit to his family and short tenure as an employee of the factory are also memorable for their unforgiving soundscapes. The factory and the kitchen assault one’s sense of hearing. A classic routine from the film finds Hulot in the kitchen, testing its state of the art appliances. He finds out that even in a futuristic kitchen, sometimes a glass is just a glass.

Despite his failure to fit in with the adult worlds of the Arpels, Hulot is a hero of sorts to young Gérard. Mon oncle is not a dramatic film. But its scenario of a father resenting his son’s attachment to another father figure (in this case, Gérard’s affection for his uncle Hulot) does inject the film with the appearance of a dramatic plot. It also sets up a bit of momentary but moving father-son bonding at the film’s conclusion.

Gérard and his friends escape to the messier part of the city, where the dogs run as they wish and there’s still dust to kick around. Whereas Gérard looks imprisoned in his modern home with his parents’ ridiculous affectations, he is free and happy outside of the suburbs. A game involving whistling at passersby to distract them and force an encounter with a lamppost is particularly characteristic of Tati’s humor. Tati was known to come up with script ideas by observing the behavior of everyday people. The lamppost routine is a game of observation. Its repetitions and variations within the plot of Mon oncle are numerous and every single one earns a laugh.

Mon Oncle (1958)

Once Upon a Time … “Mon oncle”, a documentary included in the supplementary features on the disc, features interviews and footage that illuminate the complexities of Hulot. One point of discussion is that though Hulot is the title or central character of these films, he remains indistinct. His face is often obscured. Another observation is that his own solitary life is rather sad or unhealthy in some respects, which is at odds with the his comedic function when in the presence of others.

The most interesting theory explored in the documentary is the idea of Hulot is a sort of angel. This idea seems true to some extent, though Tati himself cautioned against forcing the comparison. There is evidence of this angel theory in Mon oncle, as Hulot is present in a crucial manner in the life of young Gérard, and yet otherwise incompatible with his environment. He’s unable to share in the privileges and the position of most of the adults around him.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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