Modernism for Kids: Jacques Tati

Dean Duncan

We’re going to talk about movies in a minute, but we’re starting with a detour. The subject here is the possible reconciliation between pleasing, accessible popular art and the hard stuff that we sometime find at museums or in graduate programs at universities. Which do you prefer? Cultural and political conversations sometimes tend toward an unfortunate polarization: good guys and bad guys, right and wrong and no in betweens. That means that we are tempted, because of ample example from all over the place, to decide on one course and forever forego the other. This might not always be the best idea. Neither pole tends to be complete, while on the other hand both sides of a binary or opposition will usually contain things that will be of use and pleasure to us. I’ll try to illustrate.

There’s a kind of painting that recognizably renders the physical world, giving us things more or less as they look in real life. This might be and has been called representational painting (Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Cassatt, Rockwell). There’s another option, equally valid, though maybe less familiar to, or less comfortable for many, that breaks down or foregrounds the components of that representation (colour, line, shape, texture, etc.). These elements can still be combined to give some idea or make some reference to real physical objects (Monet, Cezanne or Van Gogh, Picasso or Matisse), or they can forego imitation, making colour and line and such the explicit subject of the painting (for names, see below). Art like this, that concentrates on component parts as much as or more than on how those parts are means to a representational end, art that calls attention to the process of art-making and even makes that process the explicit subject, is Modern. A subcategory of modern art also pertains: art that makes colour and line and such its exclusive subject can be and has been called Abstract.

Across the spectrum of the arts—though not in philosophy, which uses the word quite distinctly—Modernism is interested in processes and properties, in form (as well as in issues of power and ideology, which is the subject for another conversation). Conversely, modernists may not be as interested in, and they may even be dismissive of some the more simple and straightforward pleasures that many of us find in the arts. They are after bigger, or maybe more miniscule fish, concerned with more particular, more specialized, and as often as not more complicated matters. Risking reductiveness to make a fair point, we might say that regular people often stand in opposition to this method and mindset. They patronize the arts when and how they can, out of a whole bunch of interests and obligations. The stringent theoretical concerns of the specialists require grounding, thinking and doing that these regular people may not have, or take time for.

This not having, or taking the time to be informed, bothers a lot of moderns. Don’t the insights and the skills that bring substantial pleasure to our lives require effort? Herein lies the cultural paradox, the cultural dilemma. Too easy/too hard; one can see how a tension, informed by and resulting in a certain hostility, has been formed. Both sides are probably right, both sides certainly wrong, which is to say incomplete. There’s not much advantage in or excuse for contempt in the trained for the untrained, the expert for the casually pre-interested. On the other hand, lay people have been inclined, at times, to unfairly denigrate the modern, to dismiss hard-won expertise. They perhaps make reference to naked emperors, or even resort to a particularly unfortunate put down, “My kid could paint like that!” Out of the mouth of dismissive big people come many almost-truths, if we would only take the time to think through the issues.

There’s a way out. Have you ever noticed how very beautiful the art of your four to eight year olds can be? This impression is more than just indulgence, or your making allowances because of your affection for them. It is simply true that many children of this age draw or paint very prettily, very sweetly, very charmingly. Their eyes are keen, their hands are firm, their pleasure in the task of representation—or abstraction—is palpable. That’s what I said: children are often quite comfortable with, qualified to and capable of producing abstract art. One key to this surprising fact, and to the other admirable artistic kid qualities cited, is that children are quite often open to, even enraptured by things that we either reject or take for granted. That means that for many children a colour or a shape (or a seemingly undramatic detail) are beautiful and interesting in their own right. Whether creating their own work or appreciating the work of others, to a child drawings need not necessarily look like something to engage attention or inspire appreciation. This is why our youngsters may understand great and challenging modern artists like Piet Mondrian, Vasily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko (the list goes very much on) more, or at least more easily than we do. A big reason for this is that the great and challenging modern artists are also, from another perfectly valid perspective, quite easy.

I have mentioned the grumpy cultural exchanges that can take place, but not everyone on the beginner/expert axis has felt to lob invective at those who don’t agree with them. Kids have helped here. Many painters, and some of the scholars that mediate between the artist and the public, have paid profitable attention to this happy enthusiasm, as well as to the things we might be inclined to criticize in children’s art (perceptual naiveté, mechanical shortcomings, or primitiveness). Instead of inadequacy or unsophistication, these open minded observers have found in kids an exemplary attitude, one which informs their exemplary work. Modern artists have taken note and followed suit. (Jonathan Fineberg’s The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist, published in 1997 by the Princeton University Press, very helpfully tells part of this story.)

These kinds of expert insights can be helpful to the rest of us. They show that the difficult modernist principles and preoccupations of the erudite are also, in a wonderful coincidence, the first principles of the artistic child. Or vice versa. Representation and abstraction, simple pleasure and theoretical complexity can be and have been connected and enjoyed. Here, in an attitude, in a childlike spirit of curiosity/generosity, is where we find that reconciliation between simplicity and difficulty with which our conversation began. And a little child shall lead them: modernism either requires post-secondary education to understand it, or it requires the clarity, the directness and the open-hearted simplicity of the very young.

This connection opens up a helpful possibility which rejects both elitism, or scorn for the popular, and philistinism, or scorn for the substantially and edifyingly complicated. Isn’t it possible to be both stringent and accessible? Many artists in many media have managed, whether consciously or by some chance combination of factors, to please the neophyte at the same time that they have pushed the boundaries and explored the limits. In painting for instance, Paul Cezanne accomplishes this trick, and he does it in a way mentioned back at the beginning of this discussion. Cezanne provocatively and pleasingly straddles that seemingly unbridgeable gulf, being simultaneously representational and abstract, rendering things that we recognize as well as concentrating on their component parts. In film there are many such straddlers. (There are also a number of high modernists who are, in my experience, directly appealing to very young people. Satyajit Ray and Theo Angelopolous are among them. We’ll postpone that conversation too.) There is no better example in film of this reconciliation than Jacques Tati, a great entertainer and a severe master who, like Cezanne, successfully combines utter childlike simplicity and the most stringent modernism.

Like painting, movies can be representational, with all the elements, and all the artisans working with them, subordinated to the telling of a tale, to referring to the world outside the film. As in painting, a naive reliance on this mode, a faith in its seemingly untroubled surfaces, might be a bit perilous. So, a modernist alternative arises: like paintings, movies can also be broken down into their component parts: time and its passage, space, the illusion of depth, movement. Jacques Tati’s cinema, a mere six precious feature films made between 1947 and 1974, beautifully explores a great number of these stylistic and theoretical possibilities. The first features (Jour de Fete [1947], M. Hulot’s Holiday [1953], in part Mon Oncle [1958]) are at a certain level representational, realist films. The stories are made up of small incident and tiny details, so that a world is rendered, our attentions engaged, not so much by sweeping narrative as by careful and affectionate accumulation. We find here the usual characteristics of realist filmmaking: long takes, action played out across various planes of action (foreground, mid-ground, background), democratic framing, all allowing the viewer to take her time, choosing and making her own connections and conclusions among the many that lay before her.

Mon Oncle also marks a shift, though there are strong traces in the earlier films. There is a contradiction here, in that the film’s story dramatizes the conflict between dehumanizing modernity (technology, gadgets, industrialization, hard lines and cold surfaces) and disorganized, delightful humanity. Tati’s opposition, his conceptual conflict is a bit facile, and it’s wonderfully undercut but what he does with these lines and surfaces. Here and onwards we see Tati as modernist, composing stupendously complex polycentral frames (which is to say that he creates, without being sloppy or chaotic,
multiple points and centres of meaning and interest), creating a geometric or architectural cinema that is as much or more interested in pure space and line and perspective as it is in character psychology or a convincing picture of the world. With Mon Oncle and Playtime (1967, his masterpiece, and a monumental flop that more or less crippled his career) there are vestiges of realist cinema, of the exploration of space and duration, but now he is exploring to the point of near abstraction. A painterly comparison might be that Tati has combined Canaletto and Mondrian, which is about as hard and wonderful as it sounds.

(Tati’s last, less known films, Traffic (1971) and Parade (1974), more or less equally combine these realist and abstract impulses. Other pertinent reference points, though it is probable the Tati was not consciously echoing them, can be found in the cubist, modernist cinema of 1920s film artists like Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttman and Fernand Leger. For other filmmakers who can speak simultaneously to the extremely erudite and to the extremely young, consider Buster Keaton, Norman McLaren and Jerry Lewis.)

Does all this sound kind of frightening? Well hold on. Remember that part about children and modern artists? Tati’s cinema, each or all of his films, are dissertation worthy, rewarding, even requiring the closest and most informed kind of attention. Or, and, they are songs of innocence, completely and joyously accessible to little children—and discerning big people—who take pleasure in the simplest, sunshiningest ideas or vistas.

Here are some of those bright perceptions: the challenging joys of community, of cross-cultural meeting and the exhilaration of being alive (1947); the poignant impermanence of human relations and the beauty of the connections we manage to make (1953); the necessity of naughty children and the possibilities of family misrecognition and reconciliation (1958); the dangers of modernity and the ability of clumsy humans to counteract its negative effects (1967); the appeal and alienation of the road, and the fact that no traveler is more important than any other (1971); the communal nature of arts exchanges, the equality of audience and entertainers and the beauty of the earth and all things in it (1974). These are heady combinations, and it is well to warn viewers that, as has already been indicated, your patience, attention and effort will be rewarded, and they are required. But with along with the stringent, there is much that is delightfully easy. Tati’s is a genial, melancholy, friendly, and finally very moving cinema. His is the kind of world that you want to visit, one which will return you, reinvigorated and seeing more clearly, to your own.

Now to end, as we began, with a tangent. (When you watch Tati’s films, you will see how structurally central the idea of digression, or tangent, is.) Another figure pertinent to our discussion, and the artist that for me Tati most resembles, is the Japanese author and illustrator Mitsumasa Anno. Like Tati, Anno also explores space and time, cause and effect, duration and stasis in the most rigourous and challenging fashion. His work rewards and requires the closest consideration. Also, like Tati, children may be his ideal audience. In fact, Anno is a children’s author, though one (cf. David Macauley) who complicates the easy divisions we make between grown up and young audiences, and the pleasures that they derive from a work. For his part Tati basically, for the most part, sought the general, which is to say the mostly grown up audiences. And, notwithstanding the great success of his second and third features, he ultimately failed in finding that audience, in part because of the factional squabbling referred to at the beginning of this article. We can do better; now, this long after the fact, we needn’t choose sides. We will be presently posting reviews on the individual works, but for now I wish only to urge this clear connection, this quite common, if we’ll allow it, reconciliation. In Tati, and in many other places, experts, elitists, and sharp-eyed, warm-hearted children, can sit in happy communion. Parents would do well to join in.

Note: For more modernism in children’s films, we refer the reader to the following list:

Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Cameraman (1929), Duck Soup (1933), Modern Times (1936), The Red Shoes (1948), Neighbours (1952), One Froggy Evening (1956), What’s Opera Doc (1957), The Bellboy (1960), Baron Munchausen (1961), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), The Yellow Submarine (1968), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Alice in the Cities (1974), Bugsy Malone (1976), The Sweater (1980), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), The Man Who Planted Trees (1987), Alice (Svankmajer, 1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Dick Tracy (1990), Gremlins 2 (1992), Addams Family Values (1993), The Mirror (1997), Mystery Men (1999), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)