• Flashback: Jacques Tati

    By Peter Cowie

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    Jacques Tati, in his midsixties when I encountered him, was at first intimidating. He gazed at you with an owl-like intensity. But he proved most affable, and light years away from one’s image of a movie director; rather, with his neatly groomed gray hair and suit and tie, he resembled a distinguished banker or diplomat on vacation (although his burly shoulders reminded you that he had played for fun a boxer, a wrestler, and a tennis player in his early short films).

    I was in Stockholm in January of 1974 to catch up with new Swedish films, and staying at the Hotell Diplomat on Strandvägen. In those days, the hotel’s lobby was on the second floor, and when I climbed the stairs at the end of an afternoon, there was Tati on the sofa in the lobby. Bumptious as always, I dared to introduce myself and tell him about the work I’d done to promote PlayTime back in 1967, producing a brochure for the Dutch premiere at the request of the local distributor.

     

    We chatted of this and that. “At the age of twenty-two,” he said, “I decided to go into films. I used to play rugger [rugby union football] every Sunday, and afterwards I would put on a little pantomime for our team.” He explained that he was in the process of making a film for Swedish TV entitled Parade, an homage to the circus world he had so adored in his childhood during the Great War. I asked him how he managed to capture the characteristics of a human being in a few deft strokes. At this, he unfurled those endless legs, stood erect at six feet three inches, and drew me to a large circular window that overlooked the street. “Look,” he ordered, and I looked, seeing a steady flow of people on their way home after the day’s work. “Now, see him,” he gestured, and I saw a man with a porkpie hat swinging his briefcase with aplomb. Tati then explained how he picked such figures from the crowd (“I don’t want actors you can recognize in life”), and then magnified their mannerisms so as both to amuse his audience and reveal a personality. “I can wait on the corner down there for two hours,” he said, “until comedy comes along.”

     

    PlayTime remained his favorite film. “We shot it in 70 mm,” recalled Tati, “because a man dropping his umbrella in a huge airport is more ‘drastic’ than it is in a tiny room.” Then someone arrived for a meeting with him. Like Monsieur Hulot, Tati stood poised on the balls of his feet as though ready to break into flight. It reminded me of what he had once said at a press conference in Cannes: “I’m the opposite of a Chaplin or a Keaton. In the old days, the comic used to come on and say, ‘I’m the funnyman in this film. I know how to dance, sing, juggle, do the lot.’ But Hulot—he’s life. He doesn’t need gags. He only has to walk.” He shook my hand formally in farewell, and vanished into the bowels of the hotel with his colleague.

     

    Peter Cowie has written more than thirty books on film and was the founding editor of the annual International Film Guide. He was international publishing director of Variety throughout the 1990s and now consults for the Berlin and Venice film festivals, and he is a longtime contributor of commentaries, supplements, and essays to the Criterion Collection.

    This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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