Jacques Tati’s TRAFIC

30 07 2008

It is as though the automobile has also driven us all crazy. Not to speak of pollution, continual movement, fumes, troubles with parking, the General Motors economy, the society of the superhighway, fast food, Howard Johnson’s, the Interstate, toll booths . . . but on top of all this, or rather, prior to it, our love affair with the box on wheels, with rolling along, with believing ourselves to the masters of our destiny on the road, our conviction that going somewhere matters, our speeding ahead, our sense of empowerment as we glare through the windshield at other drivers, our fastidiousness about keeping these vehicle-friends in pristine condition: all this removes us from other people in a way, from the civilized world of relationships to nature and to one another. Tati has seen this, and his film, a pure comedy, reveals again and again the world of driving gone to extremes, cars having overtaken us like so many aliens who invaded the earth.

No scene by Jacques Tati is exactly like any other scene by him, and yet they could none of them have been filmed by anyone else. Relentless choreography of persons, objects, fragements, colors, shapes, forms, in a space that is absolutely conventional and perfunctory: an intersection with a policeman signaling passing vehicles; a truck that does not stop; a collision; the car that is hit spinning away at angles and hitting another car that rotates, as though on a perfect turntable, inscribing a circular trench with its wheels; hubcabs coming off and rattling away down the road at precarious angles; a door swinging open; a red Volkswagen or Peugeot chuttling slowly after a tire, its hood opening and closing like the jaw of some great beast, and through all of this the omnipresent Monsieur Hulot, trenchcoat flapping, hat at a tilt, pipe always clenched between the teeth, stumbling and striding and sliding and waving his arms like a great blue heron ready to take off. He says a few words in English, some in French, he blurts, he babbles: not a syllable of it has any import.

Hulot: Neither Chaplin nor Keaton, who were eccentric in a world almost always normative. For Tati, the eccentricity of the person has leaked into the world, which jitters and sways in perfect metricality to accompany him. Fifty people at a car show opening car doors, trunks, hoods, without being aware of one another, for example. Or drivers slowed on a road–male drivers–each one surreptitiously fiddling with his nose and oblivious to the rest of the universe.

The Altra car company has designed a camping vehicle that you can live in, in the wilderness. They load it on a truck and drive it to Amsterdam for the great international car show. It never gets there. What can go wrong? You must see this film to know the full catalogue of possibilities. The publicity agent is an American girl who wants to pretend she is from France. She drives a spanking little yellow Triumph. She has a pouli who resembles a flokati rug (just a little too much). She can’t manage to do much beyond announcing that she is the publicity girl, but she keeps following the action, or leading it, and finally has a happy ending with our gangling hero.

Early in the film there is a fantastic little moment that is pure Tati: that is, the absoluteness of purity that we find in Tati is purely given here. The convention center in Amsterdam, empty, seen from high up in a long shot. A few officials have marked off the spaces that the various exhibits will occupy with string attached to little sticks, all this laid out in a labyrinth on the floor but invisible from way up here where we are. People march around with clipboards, but every few steps they must lift their legs to step over something we cannot see. Step step step LIFT. Step LIFT. Step step step step step LIFT LIFT. LIFT step LIFT LIFT step step. And so on. All of them wearing black suits, marching in twos and threes like so many markers on a huge game board. At the end of the film, a crowd of eager drivers moves through a parking lot jam-packed with cars, cars of every color, cars parked facing every possible way, so that there is no hope anyone will ever get out of this spot alive. It’s raining. Everybody has a black umbrella. Step step step step step step.

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