Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monsieur Hulot after the Holidays

The year's film festivals are now all in the rear-view mirror. This weekend marked the last of the 2009 film programming at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts and the Pacific Film Archive. Even the Castro Theatre turns its back on repertory for a few weeks after the end of its Alfred Hitchcock series this Wednesday. Yes, Frisco Bay's cinema screens are clearing room for moviegoers to focus on the year-end releases which angle for box office boosts from critical top ten lists and nominations from awards-giving bodies. If not for exceptions like the booking of a new print of Bicycle Thieves at the Roxie, Christmas-themed programming at the Stanford and San Jose's California Theatre, and the traditional booking of Baraka at the Red Vic, local cinema addicts would have no other option but to see a 2009 commercial release if they want to attend a movie. Of the new ones available, I highly recommend Frederick Wiseman's ballet documentary La Danse, perhaps his most musical film and thus one of his most accessible. It plays the Rafael and the Balboa and the Elmwood for a few more days before moving to the Little Roxie. Claire Denis's haunting 35 Shots of Rum is making its long-awaited return to Frisco Bay this week at the Lumiere and the Shattuck. And much to my surprise, I also liked Clint Eastwood's Invictus quite a bit; though not a perfect movie it has some truly remarkable scenes, and a smart self-awareness of both the facilities and the limitations of mass entertainment to motivate social change.

In January, Frisco Bay repertory will gear up again. Arguably the centerpiece of early 2010 is the newly-struck print of Jacques Tati's international breakthrough Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot a.k.a. Mr. Hulot's Holiday, which will appear at no fewer than four venues around the bay in the next couple of months. First, on January 14th, it kicks off the new semester at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the complete Tati retrospective it's holding (other PFA attractions in January and February include but are not limited to tributes to Val Lewton and the early work of Frank Capra, the annual African Film Festival, and screenings of films by Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Nathaniel Dorsky.) From January 15-21 Mr. Hulot's Holiday spends an entire week at the North Bay's Rafael Film Center (which has also announced its For Your Consideration series of international submissions for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award). Then on January 28th it stops at YBCA, which is also hosting the touring Tati retrospective, before taking up a two-day residence at the Red Vic on February 3rd and 4th.

The PFA and YBCA Tati retrospectives are particularly exciting: not only chances to see Mr. Hulot's Holiday in a restored print with an audience to laugh along with, but a chance to contextualize the 1953 film into this woefully misremembered filmmaker's career. If Tati is thought of by modern cinema audiences at all, he is too frequently considered an anachronistic kindred to silent-era clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Max Linder. It's true that like these gentlemen he developed his comedy in music halls before unleashing it on cinema screens, but unlike them his films exhibit a near-revolutionary understanding of the comedic potential of film sound. Sound effects, snatches of dialogue, and deceptively relaxing musical scores play as much a role in his peculiar brand of humor as do his physical gags and his democratic approach to mise-en-scene. Though my personal favorite of his films is Playtime (which plays the PFA Jan. 15 & 23, and the YBCA Feb. 11), it is Mr. Hulot's Holiday which introduced the character of Monsieur Hulot, and is likely the purest distillation of Tati's aesthetic. It's a film in tune with the elements: wind, water, sand, etc. The director gets great comic mileage out of the most seemingly insignificant things, like the sound a door makes when opening and closing, or a tennis swing, or the tide rolling onto the shore.

But don't take my word for it. Who better to talk about a French filmmaker than the most influential French film critic, André Bazin? Thankfully, his essay on Tati and Mr. Hulot's Holiday has been translated into English by Bert Cardullo and was published at Bright Lights Film Journal with a substantial introduction by Cardullo earlier this year.

The Evening Class has compiled the PFA and YBCA programs into one handy list. Though both venues will showcase shorts Tati directed and/or starred in as well as his features, and both include all four of the films featuring Tati's Hulot character as well as the barely-seen color version of his first feature Jour De Fete, only the PFA will be screening the director's swan song Parade. YBCA screened the latter twice earlier this month, and I attended one of the showings, never having seen Parade before. This final, post-Hulot work was shot on both film and video, showing off the advantages of both formats as they existed in 1974. It's a capturing of a circus performance filled with jugglers, animal acts, magicians and musicians, all of them doubling as clowns. Though in essence a non-narrative performance film, there are multiple micro-narratives to be found in Parade, many of them stemming out of the broken barriers between circus performers and audience members that Tati and his troupe have instigated. We follow one towheaded child from apparent boredom to full participation when he is invited to ride a mule around the circus ring, showing up animal-handling skills of the other audience volunteers attempting the task. It's one of many delights packed into this relatively brief, made-for-television feature.

The Criterion Collection DVDs of Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle feature introductions by a comic director of another sort, Terry Jones of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Jones directed, or co-directed with Terry Gilliam, each of the Pythons' feature films. He will be in town early next year as well, appearing at the Castro Theatre January 21st for a double feature of Monty Python and The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian as part of the SF Sketchfest film programs. (Other Sketchfest screenings include UHF with "Weird Al" Yankovic in attendance, Brain Candy with Dave Foley in attendance, Waiting For Guffman with Fred Willard in attendance, two screenings celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers, and a live heckling of Danger On Tiki Island from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 alums at the Castro.) I'm sure the Castro will have a massive turnout of generations of Monty Python fans eager to see the Knights Who Say 'Ni' and the Peoples' Front Of Judea on the largest possible screen, with one of the chief collaborators on hand with his perspectives. Wouldn't it be great if some who have never experienced a film by one of his chief comedic influences stepped outside the zone of 'comfort cinema' to enjoy the Tati screenings on offer as well?


  1. Don't miss Michael House's documentary The Magnificent Tati; it's a great intro and overview to Tati's career. If you do miss it, let me know, I have it on MP4. Had a wonderful conversation with House. He phoned me from Paris. SF360 has optioned at least a portion of that transcript and the rest, of course, will go up on my site. I have a whole rash of Tati posts I hope to accomplish before and after PSIFF.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Sketchfest. Bought my tickets for Monthy Python night and the MST night.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Michael! There are as many mediocre documentaries on auteurs as there are insightful ones, in my experience, so it's good to hear that this one comes with your stamp of approval (I should have guessed that YBCA wouldn't select a mediocre one). I look forward to your sf360 and Evening Class pieces on it.

    I must confess that of the Sketchfest screenings, I'm most intrigued by the appearance of my middle-school-age music idol "Weird Al" Yankovic, even if his appearance is alongside the film that more than any other factor turned me away from my fandom. Yank-heads who have kept the faith over the years keep urging me to revisit it though, so hopefully I will.

  3. The Red Vic is also screening Mr. Hulot's Holiday on Feb 3 and 4. It's quite a concerted effort by the Bay Area rep houses.

  4. Indeed, and I even mention it in paragraph 2 of this piece. I knew before the recent release of the Red Vic calendar because I periodically check playdates on the Janus website.

    It's the same reason why I know that the Japanese 1977 horror film House , which digitally screened the Rafael last Halloween, will come to the Castro Theatre April 17th.

  5. Sorry, I missed that at the end of that paragraph. I was still excited after watching silent era porn at the Red Vic.

  6. Dan, I keep meaning to see that when they bring it around every so often. I guess it plays for a couple more days, so maybe tomorrow or Monday.