Monday, June 21, 2010

Mon oncle (1958)

Father's Day is over, and I was having too much fun to write--so I guess it makes sense that for a (post-)Father's Day Pick of the Moment I should choose a film that sidesteps fathers in favor of an uncle. Jacques Tati's Mon oncle features every child's dream relative: an indulgent uncle who remembers what it means to be a child--if only because in many ways he remains one. In three pictures, Tati molds his own version of Chaplin's Little Tramp: M. Hulot, tall and quiet, a solemn stork in a trench coat who seems always to be leaning in a slight breeze, his hat still firm but his pipe a bit off-center in his mouth, while his umbrella stays tucked under his arm, safe from stray winds. He lives in a corner of Paris that may exist only in his mind, where the year is inexact and beautifully pale and streaked, an old photograph one can live in.

Hulot's Paris fits him, this silent-movie character otherwise stuck in The Paris of Tomorrow, screeching gadgets in a house as bright and flat and cold as poured concrete and plastic. His sister and husband see life from the comfort of an Eames chair--except without the comfort. And Hulot flees from this as quickly as he can, taking with him his young nephew, who can't wait to climb over the low crumbling wall with his oncle to get to the Old Paris, where scruffy bushes and ramshackle houses sit in soft dust, while the noisy neighbors argue without rancor.

There's a nice bit at chez Hulot: He swings open his window, hears a bird burst into song; he swings the window in and hears the twitter abruptly end; opens it again, hears the song--and notices that his open window reflects the sun onto a bird in a cage. He leaves it open so that the overjoyed little fellow can make his noise. It seems an image of Hulot himself, in a small world getting smaller--a cage he does not notice, except when he travels to his well-to-do suburbanite relatives and sees with some concern that they, too, are trapped, by their own excess.

But Hulot still has a little time left, a small corner where he can jaunt along, part owl, part stork--a bird himself. Tati has lovingly crafted a fantasy-memory, a Paris any child (or I) could live in right now, as long as it holds the real world at bay, umbrella raised like a sword, pipe jutting in half-smiling defiance.

By the way, the other full-length Hulot films are M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and his masterpiece, Playtime (1967)--both also available on Instant Play. And the French animator, Sylvain Chomet, who directed 2003's The Triplets of Belleville (not on Instant Play, but available through Netflix), this year is releasing The Illusionist, based on an unproduced Tati script. It is gaining attention because of its autobiographical nature--but whether or not you know the inside story, it's sure to be another welcome addition to both Chomet's and Tati's bodies of work.

(NOTE: This post is adapted from a diary entry in The Constant Viewer. Just keepin' me honest.)

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