Thursday, May 10, 2007

Paris In Pictures: New Wave Visions of the Modern City pt.2

Mon Oncle & Forms of Comedy

“This is our very own corner… The vase… All of our house is air-conditioned… And I must tell you it was all designed at my husbands factory!” – Madame Arpel

With the release of Play Time in 1967, Jacques Tati completed his masterwork: a film so expertly handled, with so much precise attention to detail, that it took over ten years and required the construction of an entire city to complete. At first glance, Play Time may seem to be the perfect film to address when referring to visions of a modernized Paris. With its ultra-chic, hyper-stylized formations and startling empty spaces, Tatiland appears on screen as a futuristic version of the city, impersonal and indifferent to its inhabitants. But the critique in Play Time is not so much specific to Paris as it is to cities as a whole; as Tati historian Macha Makeieff points out, “Tatiland is not a vision of Paris, but of cities across the globe.” Despite a single scene in which a reflection of the Eiffel Tower is visible in a swinging glass door, Play Time offers much evidence that the city represented within is not specific to a singular location, but rather an amalgamation of multiple regions.

Rather, it is in Tati’s earlier picture, the less abstracted Mon Oncle, where one finds his most distinct representation of Paris. Released in 1958, Mon Oncle is in many ways Tati’s most straightforward film. Michel Chion writes: “Mon Oncle (1958) is, in the works of Tati, the film which most conforms to the classical narrative system, and even represents the only example of its creator’s efforts to unfold a genuine story till the end, starting from a succession of causes and consequences” (32). That story, which focuses on Madame Arpel’s attempts to ‘clean up’ her brother, the insufferable M. Hulot, is in it’s own right a direct representation of modernization. Tati’s Hulot, who lives a simple life in the old part of town, cannot seem to conform to his sister’s hyper-controlled, sterilized ways. While the humor and themes remain constructed through Tati’s dialogue-less, seemingly meandering style, the film is very much aware of its narrative focus, going so far as to make self-reflexive nods. “Listen, what my poor brother needs is an objective… a home… like all this!” proclaims the most determined Madame Arpel.

Tati divides his vision of the city into two halves: the quaint, cobblestone old town in which Hulot lives, and the homogenized modern section of the Arpels. The film sets up this division immediately in the opening credits. Beginning with a shot of a crane and the harsh jackhammer sounds of a construction site, the camera pans down across architect nameplates, which feature the credits. The main title, however, is scribbled in chalk on a building in the old world, and the flighty musical theme of the film begins. This theme becomes a crucial cue in distinguishing the two locations. While the music is prevalent throughout the old section, it is never heard in the modern one, except for in a single scene in which Monsieur Arpel telephones Hulot from his boss’ office to see if he would be interested in a position at the factory. Even then, the music is heard only through the telephone, and disappears when their conversations ends, further accenting the juxtaposition between the whimsical old town and the stuffy modern one. In fact, most of the sounds in the modern section are sharp, grating, or otherworldly; strange buzzes, odd bloops, and accented clanks. However, the pervading sonic mode is silence.

Further shots accent the division between the two sections of the city. The old section is notably characterized by its brick buildings and cobblestone streets, which give it a lively sense of color and human-like imperfections. Conversely, the new section features stark grey buildings that seem identical in form. When a character transitions between the two, Tati offers a shot of a crumbled brick gate, a figure of the old town, with the skyline of the grey modern section dominating the background. This shot, used multiple times in the film, is representative of the deteriorating old ways of Paris. Likewise, inhabitants of the old section seem free to walk as they please, harmonious with nature, while in the modern section, distinct pathways direct characters in motion. In the Arpel’s home, no one is allowed to step on the grass, for fear of ruining the perfect lawn.

Start this article at the beginning with Paris in Pictures pt. 1!

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