Sons of the Desert (1933)

sons of the desert 1Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. 

When I was a kid Laurel & Hardy were a mainstay of the local lending libraries and I viewed many of their pictures from Bonnie Scotland to Flying Deuces to Saps at Sea.  I’m not sure if I can make that point enough. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy and a lot of Road Movies with Hope and Crosby. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed those comedies which got played over and over in my household. But the point is you only see a limited number. That being said, I never got the opportunity to see of Sons of the Desert until a few years back and it’s yet another quality comedy in the Laurel & Hardy hall of fame.

The film opens with a powwow of the Sons of the Desert society with its many members waiting with baited breath for the proceedings before they are rudely interrupted by two malcontents. None other than our lovable heroes who sheepishly wade through the crowds. They’ve made their presence known and never let up from thenceforward.

But more importantly than their entrance is the solemn oath they take along with the legions of others, resolving to show up at the annual convention in Chicago no matter the obstacles in the way. For Stan and Ollie that’s means getting their wives to let them attend or better yet pulling the wool over their eyes because that’s a lot more entertaining from a comedic perspective.

Chance events like meeting relatives and sinking ocean liners are really inconsequential insertions into the already nonsensical storyline. After all, if something’s already absurd what’s the difference if it gets even crazier? The bottom line is that Sons of the Desert keeps Stan and Ollie at its center and they don’t disappoint getting into mess after mess as they always do.

In this particular iteration, a bit of the battle of the sexes is going on although there’s no way either of these men can dominate their wives and that’s the funny part. Ollie’s the instigator, blustering his way into the scenario with his typical overconfident ways, dragging Stan along with him and getting them both into a heap of trouble. They’re up on the roof in the rain without a paddle or any prayer of keeping dry. And in precisely these types of moments, you see the irony of Ollie’s catchphrase. Stan might unwittingly add to the chaos but Ollie is the instigator of every mess.

They try and exert their dominance and when that doesn’t work they try deception, putting on a false front for their spouses. And when that doesn’t work they run and hide, snivel and beg for forgiveness. Either that or get all the contents of the kitchen cabinets hurled their way. In the end, Stan has a fairly amiable homecoming but Ollie can’t say quite the same thing.

Some memorable moments involve Stan snacking on wax fruit and trying to string along some flimsy lies about how they “ship hiked” across the ocean, highlighting his perpetual struggle with the English language. Meanwhile, Ollie is trying his darndest to fake an illness with Stan’s help and the boys end up hiding out in the attic away from their wives before they’re forced to sneak down the drainpipe in the pouring rain. They can be conniving buffoons but there’s also very rarely a moment when we’re not on their sides.

As if having each other was not enough already, they always have the backing of the audience. They give us that same gift of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or The Marx Brothers or Tati or any of the other great comics. They give us laughter in droves. The mode isn’t all that important. It’s simply the fact that they too have a timeless ability for evoking giggles.

3.5/5 Stars

Trafic (1971)

TraficWatching films with French treasure Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) is a wonderful experience because, in some respects, it feels like he brings out the child in me. And if history is any indication — I’m not the only one — others feel this sensation too.

It’s not sophisticated humor. The laughs are not dependent on any amount wit or mature understanding, but it’s universal. Everyone, whatever age, language or temperament, can laugh along with Monsieur Hulot.

Once more it’s easy to see his debt to the great silent stars and his use of sound is always impeccable yet still outrageous in the same breath. It accentuates anything on the screen with auditory hyperbole that is absolutely brilliant. Any sound imaginable is amplified in Tati’s memorable everyday comedic symphony of noise.

If you wanted a plot Trafic, as expected, has very little. Mr. Hulot, for a reason not explained to us, is now working for an automobile company named Altra that is preparing for a big car show in Amsterdam. He along with a truck driver named Marcel and Ms. “Public Relations” (American model Maria Kimberly) must weather the roads and every hiccup imaginable to make it to the show on time. She streaking in her bright yellow convertible and they riding in their truck cursed with flat tires and an empty gas tank among other ailments. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that they don’t quite make it there on schedule.

Jacques Tati was always one to playfully nudge at our modern culture obsessed with technology, expedience and, of course, automobiles. However, there’s nothing terribly vindictive about the way he goes about it. In contrast to the images of hustle and bustle and “progress,” there are also a great many that take comfort in the tranquility of farm life or quaint cottages. Everyday people and their mundane lives that, while idiosyncratic, are in no way inconsequential. He is a director who makes us appreciate people more. Mechanics, old couples, even cats, and dogs.

Many viewers undoubtedly will remember the crazy traffic jam with cars careening everywhere, hubcaps and tires rolling every which way and so on. It’s comedic madness. In fact, for numerous reasons, it’s easy to juxtapose Trafic with an earlier French film of a very different sort, Jean-Luc Godard’s political satire Weekend, which has some massive traffic of its own. And Tati creates comparable chaos, mischief and so on but I prefer his method of execution. Because he finds the charm and humor in every situation — even a car accident (with the multitudes simultaneously relieving the cricks in their joints). There’s no spite, cynicism or anything of that sort. He doesn’t feign pretentiousness, choosing instead to remain comically genuine right to the end.

That’s why there’s something so endearing and satisfying about Mr. Hulot. He remains unchanged and unmarred by the world around him. We can count on him to be the same as he ever was — the same hat, the same coat, the same pipe and the same hesitant gate. Maybe his adventures are not the most titillating. Some people admittedly will not like Trafic. It’s either too meandering like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or too jumbled compared to the exquisite patchwork ballet that makes up Tati’s earlier masterwork Playtime.

But, no matter, Tati is still a joy for what he brings to the screen, for those who are acquainted with his work and those who are willing to join an ambling adventure full of small nuggets of humor. Here is a film that through inconspicuous nose picking, windshield wipers, and road rage tells us more about humanity than many other more ostentatious films are able to manage. Trafic is certainly worthwhile.

4/5 Stars

Bed and Board (1970)

bedandboard1Arguably the greatest French comic was Jacques Tati and like Chaplin or Keaton he seemed to have an impeccable handle on physical comedy, combining the human body with the visual landscape to develop truly wonderful bits of humor. Bed and Board is a hardly a comparable film, but it pays some homage to the likes of Mon Oncle and Playtime. There’s a Hulot doppelganger at the train station, while Antoine also ends up getting hired by an American Hydraulics company led by a loud-mouthed American (Billy Kearns) who closely resembles one of Hulot’s pals from Playtime. Furthermore, there are supporting cast members with a plethora of comic quirks. The man who won’t leave his second story apartment until Petain is dead and buried at Verdun. No one seems to have told him that the old warhorse has been dead nearly 20 years. The couple next door that is constantly running late, the husband pacing in the hallway as his wife rushes to make it to his opera in time. There’s the local strangler who is kept at arm’s length until the locals learn something about him. The rest is a smattering of characters who pop up here and there at no particular moment. Their purpose is anyone’s guess, and yet they certainly do entertain.

In other ways, Francois Truffaut is a very different director than Tati when it comes to his filmmaking. His protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a bit autobiographical, but he still seemingly functions outside of normal time and space as he continues to float easily in between jobs and doesn’t seem to worry much about anything. First, it’s a flower shop that doesn’t get much traffic and then the American company where Doniel hardly does anything but pilot remote control boats. But like before in Stolen Kisses (1968), it is Christine (Claude Jade) who still gives him the edge of humanity. Early on we notice that they go to the cellar — the same cellar he made advances on her two years prior — except now things are a little different. They are married now and happily so. He experiments with dying flowers while she takes on a violinist pupil. Soon enough follows a baby boy with his loving parents dueling on what to name him. They even have a dinner of baby food, because who wants to go to the store like a grown-up? At night they cuddle up and read together in bed.

bedandboard2But as Truffaut usually does, he digs into his character’s flaws that suspiciously look like they might be his own. Antoine easily gets swayed by the demure attractiveness of a Japanese beauty (Hiroko Berghauer), and he begins spending more time with her.  Thus the marital turbulence sets in thanks in part to Antoine’s needless infidelity –revealed to Christine through a troubling bouquet of flowers. It’s hard to keep up pretenses when the parent’s come over again and Doinel even ends up calling on a prostitute one more. It’s as if he always reverts back to the same self-destructive habits. He never quite learns.

Christine doesn’t deserve a cad such as him, but then again perhaps many people aren’t deserving of love, but we willingly give it to them anyways. The bottom line is that Antoine and Christine still love each other to the end, but that doesn’t make married life with a small child any less difficult. As is his proclivity, Truffaut gracefully touches on what it means to progress from adolescence to adulthood, singleness to married life. He does it with comedic touches that are forever underlined by searing romantic drama. It’s continually engaging just as Antoine Doinel continues to captivate us. Would I ever want to know him personally? Probably not, but I am intrigued by his character. If nothing else it’s a worthy continuation of Antoine and Christine’s life story. Antoine is not the only one smitten with Christine. She wins over the audience as well.

“I’m not like you. I don’t like things fuzzy and vague and ambiguous. I like things to be clear.” – Christine talking to Antoine

4/5 Stars


Jour de Fete (1949)

220px-Jour_de_fete-posterJacques Tati’s film seems like the perfect mode of expression in the post-war world. It’s boosted by lively, accordion-laden carnival music, with wry commentary from the old lady, and a bicycling postman, the mustachioed Francois (Tati himself). Use of sound becomes so integral to the comedy and the comedy is so important to the story because there isn’t much of a story. It’s populated by every type of livestock imaginable and you’re not quick to forget it because they’re constantly being heard and causing havoc, whether it’s a billy goat or a brood of chickens.  It’s a little different feel, but Tati makes me think of Britain’s own quaint Postman Pat. He’s a little more humble than the U.S. Postal Service and his customers are a simpler sort of folk. Although he becomes obsessed with the American-style of mail delivery complete with helicopters and motorbikes. This leads to a frantic race to deliver the mail with the speed of Americans. But the French countryside was not meant to function like urban America. This is Tati’s critique of not simply American culture, but more so it’s reliance on technology. But he takes off any of the edge by delivering it through his charming, bumbling brand of humor.

Amid this meager plot, Francois finds time to help put up a flagpole and enjoy the local carnival that enters the small town. Not to mention being accosted by a very industrious fly. Fittingly, Tati seems to pull off the Buster Keaton sliding stop, giving the illusion of being out of control, when in reality he was a wonderful physical comedian. Much lengthier than his predecessor, but still memorable in his own right. His bike riding antics feel reminiscent of Keaton in Sherlock Jr.

Jour de Fete is not quite as enchanting as Tati’s later works, but part of that might be due to the absence of the Mr. Hulot persona. It’s his saga that we want to be a part of, and he’s the man we want to get to know. Right now the director is still exploring the world that would become more pronounced in his later films. However, Francois does not have quite the aura that Hulot could build. Truth be told, I was slightly thrown off by the colorization. I probably would have appreciated the straight black and white of M. Hulot’s Holiday or the vibrant color of Mon Oncle. But that is not to say that Jour de Fete is not at least a mildly fun romp.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Playtime (1967)

playtime1Playtime is a film that really can be broken into a number of set pieces elaborately constructed by director Jacques Tati. The vignettes begin, surprisingly enough, in an airport terminal, and a group of excited Americans are getting ready for a Parisian vacation. Mr. Hulot (Tati himself) is waiting to have a meeting in a glass office building, however, he soon gets lost in a maze of cubicles, playing cat and mouse with his contact.

Quite by accident, he wanders into an international trade exhibition and the tourists just happen to be there too. While there they are introduced to the latest gizmos, gadgets, and inventions to move society forward. They include silently slamming doors and retractable glasses. In typical Tati fashion, he gives us a glimpse of the old world from Mon Oncle. All that is left is one meager flower stand and a brief reflection of the Eiffel Tower.

Bumping into an old war buddy, M. Hulot is invited over and thus begins a long sequence in an apartment building. What makes it unusual is that the audience is left out on the street, but we can see multiple interiors through the glass. Thus, the conversation becomes unimportant, and the charades inside paired with the street noise is all we notice.

One of the most substantial sequences takes place in a place called The Golden Corkscrew. It is a packed house and the nightclub barely seems prepared for such an evening. Tiles are loose, food runs out, a band member comes late, the chairs leave marks on the backs of patrons, and much much more. Hulot stumbles in and comes in contact with several previous acquaintances. He also makes a few new friends including a boisterous American and a friendly female tourist.

After the crazy night, the morning comes and Hulot says goodbye to his new American friend but not before leaving her with a parting gift to remember her memorable time in Paris. It may not be the Paris of old, but it is still a cheery place made by its people who still remain the same even when the times change.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime took numerous years to complete and it was the most expensive French production at the time. It makes sense though because it truly is a magnificent piece of cinema. It is full of beautifully choreographed sequences and elaborate sets. Mr. Hulot often finds himself wandering through this labyrinth of modern Parisian humanity. Tati teases us, however, filling his world with Hulot doppelgangers.

Even when the gangly protagonist is on screen, he often pops off and on for minutes on end. He is no longer the primary focus of the film. Tati also takes great interest in the sterile modern society of glass, steel, and technology. The screen is filled with a wide array of individuals, which makes it fascinating to simply people watch. Furthermore, Tati almost refuses to use closeups, thus allowing the camera to capture more.

Playtime is slightly slower, to begin with than I remember, but it has wonderfully subdued humor paired with social commentary. Tati’s film may not have a lot of decipherable dialogue, but there sure is a great deal of noise. His sound effects seem to rival The Three Stooges in comical impact, often filling the void usually devoted to talking. It is moments like these where you see similarities to the old silent comics like Chaplin and Keaton.

Playtime is all about the minutiae and these moments are probably exhibited best at the nightclub. So much happens and much of it goes unnoticed, but oftentimes when you pick up on something the payoff is great because you slowly begin to notice more and more. Tati does not have to announce it, but he puts it there to be seen. For instance, there is the fish that is never served but is constantly being seasoned. Then, the doorman who opens the door without any glass. Finally, there is the waiter who gets all the ripped, torn and otherwise ruined articles of clothing. Together all these moments create some immensely funny sequences.

Another thing about Tati’s film. There is really no conflict. He is addressing the changing times, but at its heart, Playtime is just that. Light-hearted recreation.

5/5 Stars

Playtime (1967)

67d66-playtimeoriginalposterStarring and directed by Jacques Tati, this film is his most ambitious work yet. The film opens in a Parisian airport with droves of tourists. Then the audience ends up looking into an office high rise full of glass, cubicles, elevators, and escalators. All throughout we observe many characters including Mr. Hulot who seems strangely out of place in this modern, suburban city. He ends up at an international expo, visits a friend’s home in the evening, and then ends up taking part in the disastrous opening of a night club. Hulot becomes acquainted with an American tourist before she returns home from her Parisian adventure. At times this film is almost like a giant ballet, with often subtle humor, and a stream of events only connected by the characters they involve. The architecture picks up where Mon Oncle left off, the sets are on a grand scale, and even the clothing of  most of the people seem to fade into this world. This film is also international as well as universal because it is more about the image and sound than dialogue. After it all I was left with a satisfied smile. It may not be for everyone but for me personally it was a joy to watch.

5/5 Stars

Mon Oncle (1958)

32cfb-mononcle_posterStarring and directed by Jacques Tati, the film revolves around the bumbling but kind-hearted Monsieur Hulot, as he interacts with his relations and young nephew. We follow Hulot as he navigates through his life in France. His sister and brother-in-law live in an ultra modern home complete with automated machines, a fish-shaped fountain, and cold-looking furniture. In contrast, there’s the carefree Hulot whose only possessions seem to be his ever present pipe and umbrella. He struggles to cope with everything modern and bungles in his brother-in-law’s factory. However, most importantly he seems to enjoy life and he is liked by all including Gerard, his nephew. This film is enjoyable because of the little things. You have the often repeated theme that brings to mind Parisian cafes. There is satire, odd architecture, little dogs, the use of or the lack of sound, many caricatures, and most importantly of all Hulot himself. It would seem to me he bridged the gap between Chaplin and Keaton with Mr. Bean. Too bad more people do not know about him.

4.5/5 Stars

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

01c54-les_vacances_de_m_hulotDirected by and starring Jacques Tati, this is the original film that introduced the bumbling but kindly Mr. Hulot. He finds himself staying at a beach side hotel full of various different tourists. The film is not so much about plot but instead it focuses mostly on Hulot’s many antics. Whether he is paddling a kayak, playing tennis, changing a tire on his beat up car, trying to mount a horse, or accidentally setting off fireworks, Hulot is bound to cause laughs. This film is unique because as with Tati’s other works the pacing is not fast. That means we are able to relax and enjoy this vacation along with Mr. Hulot. We can take in the many sounds and images while we also watch this likable bumbler. Maybe Tati did not know it at the time but he created a memorable persona in Hulot who has his own distinct movement and attire. Without talking at all he leaves such a tremendous mark. If there was ever an influence on Mr. Bean I think the origins would definitely start with Monsieur Hulot.

4/5 Stars