November 11, 2010

Death House Comedy

This is another project I'll be developing further on The Moving Picture Writes and, I hope, eventually as a booklength study.
Fellas I'm Dying Out There!

The Death of M. Hulot

In the latter part of his career Jacques Tati increasingly found his most famous creation a burden he’d prefer to be free of. He described how he might kill off the bemused pipe smoker with the gangly frame and the fore...-tilted walk, without violating the form and logic that animated his films. (I’d hoped to quote this directly from Tati in a critical biography I read some years ago, but I don’t own it any longer, can’t find it in Toronto’s excellent library system, and find no trace of the passage through the magic of Google, so I’m obliged to reproduce the gist from memory and leave its full elaboration to readers luckier or more patient than I: M. Hulot is in the back kitchen of a restaurant where an incident of gunfire occurs in the dining room. A bullet passes through into the back and strikes Hulot, instantly killing him. The first concern of the restaurauteurs is to make certain this death doesn’t cast a shadow on the reputation of the restaurant, so they arrange to have him transported in a box disguised as goods being shipped out. He passes by the guests of the establishment unnoticed, and the story continues on.)

The instrumental point of this would have been to remove the Hulot millstone from around Tati’s neck, but the significance of the scene should he ever have filmed it—even of that bare description of the scene as here given—would have been much the same as Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus (as Auden described it):

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W H Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

But even people watching the never-to-be-realized film in which, as it happens, this tragicomic death did not occur, would have had another and sharper reaction. Hulot might well be easily dispensable to the people who hustle his body out of view, and of no account to the people who don’t even notice, in either sense, his passing, but he’s been the fulcrum of the film to this point—assuming Tati has followed the strategy of Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic—he has anchored the story in some sense and his sudden death must cast the narrative adrift. Therefore his death may impact little on the busy, personally preoccupied lives of the other characters, but it’s a powerful, deranging event for anyone who’s been taken up with the hilarious action to that point.

Astute reviewers—which is to say nobody—would have pointed out how this resembled Tolstoi’s The Death of Ivan Illich—equally profound, funnier of course, and with the added frisson that Tati hadn’t given away the shock of the ending in the title, and in fact hadn’t ended the film there—as in Breughel, death’s an episode, almost invisible—unless made prominently visible for an instant—in a movie whose tidal flow carries on for another full hour of hilarity, minutely observed, crowding every frame. What a moment, and what a film that would have been!

That film would certainly have had a place of honour in a festival of death house comedies. None of those Tati actually did make could—not because they never concerned themselves with death (what self-respecting comic artist could ignore it altogether?) but because they tend to concern themselves with everything, and death is never emphasized as it necessarily would be if Hulot died on camera.

This isn’t a criticism of Tati, merely an attempt to establish boundaries. Death house comedy is by no means the only style of film, or even of comedy, that is serious and engaged at the highest level—but if we’re going to talk about it as a viable category parameters (and other high sounding words) are going to be required. A film needn’t be exclusively about death, or funny all the time (neither of which is even possible) to be a death house comedy. But I think it can reasonably be required to be at least as much preoccupied with death as any subject, and at least as funny as it is anything else.

(I’ve discovered through online filmographies that this was intended as the opening scene of his last, unrealized project, Confusion. It would have taken place behind the scenes on a film set apparently—nice metacinematic touch. According to these commentators it would have been his first non-comedy, but I’m not so sure. I recall Tati’s description of it in an interview I read in the mid seventies—savage satire was what he envisioned, and that was certainly within his range—all his films have passages of that, never as the single dominating mood. And satire is a comic form, even if in the way described by Peter Barnes: “I’ve laughed a lot when I haven’t felt a lot like laughing.” Easy sell? I can imagine the typical response of the money men (les personnes d’argent):

“Let me get this straight Monsieur Hu—Monsieur Tati. You’ve made a number of highly successful comedies, one hugely expensive flop, and one film since that gave a modest return on a very modest budget. You want to reconnect with the huge international audience you once enjoyed how? By killing off one of the most beloved characters in the history of cinema while the virtual impression of the opening credits is still fading from your viewers’ eyeballs? With the promise that things can only get worse from there? I foresee rows and rows of bumless seats. Now a remake in colour of Les Vacances de M. Hulot—that I could slap together a finance package over half a lunch, everone says you’re a master of colour, a true impressionist. Maybe with a younger comic in the role of Hulot.”)

Oozing Life

I never got very far in my one shot at a career in standup. I don't project well and I'm not good at memorizing lines--too lazy really--or at improvising in high pressure situations. I do all right with a few friends in a bar--k...eep my end of the conversation up at least. Onstage I'd clam up, the pipes would shut tight as bivalves and even with the mike at maximum amp I couldn't always guarantee I'd be heard by the back tables--God help me if I'd ever played a hall. I've often wondered how my career might have progressed if I'd taken Idi Amin up on his friendly offer to lend me his bodyguards when I went out to do my five minutes. "I guarantee you'll soon be doing 15 minutes, 30 minutes, even whole nights to yourself."

"Myself and two burly men with loaded Uzis flanking me on either side. Wouldn't it be better to get ahead on my own natural talent?" I don't know why he laughed at that, but he laughed loud and long. Many others, not just me, have attested to how often he'd burst out laughing for no apparent reason at things nobody else could see the humour in.

It's not that none of my lines ever got laughs, and if you want to know the truth, to this very day I still resent that. Time and again I'd be sitting in the crowd watching a comic kill with lines I'd tossed off the night before in my cups. We were working for beer or beer money at best in those days so I could hardly ask 'em to pay for my material, but a word or two of acknowledgment would not have gone amiss. Some have gone on to greater success and throw me the odd buck out of shame, but regrettably the richest and most famous of them are completely shameless, my standard of living and position in the industry would be very different today if it were otherwise. What I wouldn't give for a second chance to take up Idi's offer of lead weighted muscle. I can't recall a single instance of any comic lifting one of his gags.

If you were unaware of Idi Amin's brief stab at making it in show biz, you're not alone. You could fill arenas with people who don't know that about the iconic figurehead who went on to become Uganda's strongman/funnyman/absolute leader. I couldn't tell you for certain when it was--around the time of the first village massacre? maybe as late as the expulsion of Uganda's entire Asian immigrant population?--but somewhere in there he quietly deleted those couple of years from his resume.

He didn't exactly fail as a standup, matter of fact he was steadily building a following before he abandoned it for greater, more terrible ambitions. The click of the safeties was easily as effective as a drum roll for punch line punctuation, particularly if you as an audience member knew or suspected these were not prop weapons clutched in those huge mitts. The laughs may have been nervous but they were plentiful and if by chance they weren't? "It's a sure fire thing with me," he'd chuckle. "One way or another, when I do a show, I kill."

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