Mr. Hulot’s Holiday reminded me of a few things, mainly Buster Keaton for how the movie seems interested in nothing so much as making the audience laugh (and apparently strives to do so with as few words as possible), but it also got me thinking about being in middle school and having my best friend, Robert, tell me that he’d just discovered this hilarious movie, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, which he then proceeded to quote for days. I thought the quotes were funny because he told me they were funny and suddenly, without even seeing the movie, it was part of our inside humor. I started talking up Monty Python without having seen a single moment of their work.
Finally Robert invited me over and we watched Meaning of Life and…I think I laughed twice? I mean I was chuckling throughout because Robert was chuckling and I wanted not only to keep up but to show that I was cultured and that this British humor was very fine indeed. But I kinda hated it. Not so much because it was unenjoyable as because I was just really insecure, particularly about my intelligence, and I thought that, by not laughing, I wasn’t showing a disdain for the humor so much as an intellectual deficit. I didn’t think British humor was simply different, I thought it was better, smarter, the domain of the intellectual.
So when I say that I hated the movie what I really mean is that I hated myself for not being able to appreciate it.
It’s been like fifteen years now and so I’m eager to get back to Monty Python, which should be happening in virtually no time at all, but I experienced an echo of that I’m-not-good-enough-for-these-jokes vibe while watching Hulot (which I’m daunted to learn is the first of a series that’ll have several installments appear on the List).
Hulot’s Holiday is a French comedy about a guy named Hulot who’s going to some kind of beach resort for vacation and gets into a bunch of slip-ups.
It’s a long sequence of gags—which I admire. There’s no plot, no real story. It’s just a good time.
And the gags are pretty remarkable.I watched this YouTube video about “the art of the gag” in Buster Keaton’s work, as well as this terrific documentary about him by Peter Bogdanovich, and I forget which one mentions that Keaton’s humor, apart from being so remarkably physical, was also very interested in geometry, but that observation has been catching my eye more than usual. Squares and circles and triangles play a big role in how the viewer takes in the scene—I’m not sure how, exactly, but I know that I do get some weird pleasure out of seeing, for instance, the perfect framing of Hulot leaning out from a skylight in the foreground with a vast expanse of beach and ocean occupying the background—each sight occupying half of the screen.
This is a delight to go back and watch clips of on YouTube but, like with that first viewing of Monty Python, I felt kinda taxed and flustered when I watched it straight through. I was by myself in the apartment, it was a Friday night, and here I was watching a movie that seemed to be operating on some higher plane of consciousness—I got flustered.
Lately I’ve been listening to Conan O’Brien’s podcast and I love hearing him talk about comedy with other comics. What’s interesting is when he’s talking with TV writers, like former Saturday Night Live colleagues or Patton Oswalt, and they start talking about sketches and routines that weren’t particularly funny to other people but, for comedians, it was the funniest shit ever. And I’m wondering if that might be the case with these Hulot movies. The timing of the gags is brilliant, the coordination, the long flat shots where everything is positioned so that the camera doesn’t have to move for maybe a minute at a time but there’s such a ballet of gags unfolding that it doesn’t seem tiresome or slow.
This was written and directed by Jacques Tati, who also stars as Hulot, and in reading up on the movie I’m getting a vibe that he is what the List is trying to celebrate, more so than a particular movie. From what I’m reading online, it seems he was just a genius of his profession, of his genre, and that—like with Chaplin or Hitchcock or Welles—the man himself is greater than the sum of his achievements. (I kinda got that feeling with Cocteau, too.)
Which makes me think about how the List treats people. Like for instance the fact that there are so many Hitchcock movies (to date: Blackmail, 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train—and then we’ve got Rear Window and The Wrong Man and Vertigo and Psycho and The Birds and Marnie just around the corner), one wonders if it’s really necessary that we see all of these movies in order to really feel we’ve seen the 1,001 greatest.
We probably don’t. But what I think the List is striving for, when it comes to major figures in cinema, is to give us enough movies that we can see the full arc of their career, or the trajectory of their interests. I think that was definitely what they were aiming for with Chaplin, taking us all the way to Monsieur Verdoux—which I think is a good time at the movies but also mostly interesting within the context of Chaplin’s biography, seeing what happened when he broke away from his normal stripe of comedy and ventured into something risky (the results, as we can see 60 years later, are pretty solid—but audiences weren’t pleased). I think that’s also why we have to watch three of Sergei Eisenstein’s early films, and then Ivan the Terrible: he was hugely influential on crafting the language of cinema, so the List pays him the tribute of following him to the end of his career. I suspect that might be what’s going on here with the List’s inclusion of several Jacques Tati movies. I suspect they’ll all be very clear works of comedy genius and, while I might not be clutching my side throughout, Tati’ll be a figure to whom I’ll likely be devoting lotsa time over the next few months.