"I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see"- Dziga Vertov
Guy Debord’s ventures into a self-negating cinema revealed an uncomfortable truth that cinema has yet to accept- in a society of spectacle, every image is a crime; every shot is an emblem of complicity. Cinema, as a populist medium, merely reproduces the abstractions that petrify class relations, reifying the symbolic associations that reinforce our habits of perception. Entrenched in a network of power, cinema transmits and disseminates signals that encode and overwrite perception. In this sense, popular cinema is intrinsically demagogical. Radical cinema, following the early example of the Surrealists, operates as an intervention, destabilizing and re-arranging the significative webs that structure reality. A political cinema is possible when the act of perception itself is called into question, when the eye is revealed to be a relay in an ideological circuit.
How does one begin to extract oneself from a system of signs, to file one’s way through the prison bars of meaning? The social realist solution, exemplified in the films of Eisenstein, the early Dziga Vertov and the Italian neo-realists, is to create a parallel structure of signs, one which inverts capitalist relations. Film, in this instance, mirrors a reductively Manichean weltanschauung. The fetishized object here is reality, and the right to represent it. Cinema is reduced to a struggle between competing claims on truth, each declaiming the other as a falsehood. There is also the danger that the formal specificity of cinema will be subordinated to ideology, the cinematic image reduced to a mirror of the party line. This vulgar approach to art treats all aesthetic media as subsidiary organs of the party, adjuncts of a political mythology. This is to risk the conflation of cinema and propaganda, as though film were the visual supplement of the pamphlet.
The Situationist and Deconstructive (Godard’s Le Gai Savoir) solution is, in this regard, more sensitive to the aesthetic possibilities and the irreducible singularity of cinema. It conceives of cinema as a critical enterprise where reality itself is placed on trial. The film-maker is no longer interested in representing an objective fact, but in removing an object from the field of meaning, creating holes and ruptures in the fabric of sense. Ossified conjunctions between images and sounds are dissolved; signs are freed from their accepted referents. It is a relentlessly negative maneuver, one that attempts to reconfigure the primary coordinates of perception by attacking the very foundations of signification. Effective as such tactics have been in demystifying the cinematic image, they offer little in the way of an affirmative praxis. ‘Anti-cinema’ is not a cinema, it is merely a running critique on it, a visual polemic. There is also the issue of its worrying insularity- in making films about the impossible fallacy of film-making, the anti-auteur retreats into a purely semiotic space, where images and signs are the sole subjects of interest.
It is my belief that cinema is worthless if it does not prescribe a new angle of vision. Cinema is a vast experiment on the sensory system, a means to re-calibrate the affective mechanism. Both the social realist solution and its negation are, in this regard, politically limited- the former for its willful naïvete and the latter for its failure to propose a viable alternative. Political cinema, as Debord proposes, is a psychogeographical intervention- it must concern itself with the most immediate exigencies of corporeal existence, the dynamic interaction between a body and the space in which it is situated. When Godard famously asserted that a tracking shot is an ethical act, he affirmed its ability to re-orient the viewer’s relationship to space, to engineer a new awareness. The film camera captures complexity and depth; it can render the totality of a situation palpable and display a multiplicity of relations simultaneously. In this regard, cinema is perhaps the foremost geopolitical weapon.
Jacques Tati, to my mind, did more than any other director to formulate a template for a new political cinema. Beyond this, he knew that laughter remains the most subversive, iconoclastic force at our disposal. His innovation lies in synthesizing the picaresque tradition, one which begins with Cervantes and stretches through to Kafka and Beckett, with a spectrum of cinematic techniques that reveal the organizational logics of postmodern space. Technology, of course, is at the center of Tati’s most remarkable films, but it is crucial to note that Tati’s interest lies not so much in the ‘hardware’ of technology, but in the technological rationality that sustains all of modern life. For Tati, as for Heidegger and Foucault, technology is a mode of thought, a technique applied to resistant material in order to extract something of benefit. Technology begins with the sketching of a grid, a diagram- the precise demarcation of frontiers, the distribution of bodies in codified zones. It is a matter of micro-management, of coordinating flows of bodies, circumscribing movement and confining it within a prescribed range. Every space, Foucault tells us, requires a corresponding technology, one that programs its spatio-temporal coordinates and regulates the behavior of its occupants.
Chaplin had begun to think of this in Modern Times, probing as he did the relationship between regimes of disciplinarity and the working body, but Chaplin’s vision remains arrested by his philosophical humanism. In Chaplin’s films, the question of agency is never raised; the Tramp is, in spite of all, the architect of his own fate, an inexorable force of resistance. The Tramp is the engine of every Chaplin film, the immovable center of gravity around which a constellation of events revolves. We never question the necessity of the Tramp, his presence justifies the existence of the film. Hulot, by contrast, is a purely contingent being, a man without qualities. Nominally, he is the subject of his films, but this does little to disguise his arbitrariness - he stumbles into frames, drifts out of them for prolonged periods of time, occupies the fringes of others.
Like Kafka’s K., Hulot is often employed as a moving marker, a pretext to shift the camera through Tati’s nightmarish vision. Tati, in his emphasis on the mechanical, is resolutely Kafkaesque- he wants to know how the world works. It is wrong to conceive of Kafka’s texts as being ‘existentialist’ in the Cartesian or Kierkegaardian sense, as though they are inward meditations on the solitary soul, gloomy exercises in subjective psychology. Nothing could be further from the case- Kafka’s texts have been purged of sturm und drang, being far closer to the Alice books and Gulliver’s Travels than Dostoevsky and Sartre. K., like Hulot, is an integer, one among many, one term in a complex set. Think of the scene in Hulot’s apartments, where Hulot’s window is directly connected to the singing of a bird. The causal sequence here is extraordinary: the window, which reflects a shaft of light that hits an adjacent wall, must be opened at a precise angle so that the light shines on the bird cage. Even the slightest deviation from this angle would result in the bird’s silence. Tati’s films are structured around concrete mechanical conjunctions like this: Hulot+ window+ sunlight+ bird=birdsong. Here, each element of the equation is as necessary as the next, the absence of one would invalidate the formula altogether.
Indeed, in Tati’s films, everything counts, even a shaft of light. Save for certain segments in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the most orthodox of the Hulot films, Hulot is never a pivot for the action of the film, nor is he the motor that advances it. In Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, we are already made acutely aware that Hulot intrudes upon a reality in which he is superfluous, even unwelcome; a fully-operative whole that functions immaculately without his interference. The film, in a sense, pre-exists Hulot, who is inserted into it. This is a particularly Tati-esque motif, prominently exhibited throughout Playtime- the space precedes its inhabitants, man’s contrivances assume a life of their own. The grid is there before us, beneath us- Hulot discovers this when he unwittingly springs a leak in his sister’s garden, uncovering a sprawling, subterranean network that underlies all of modern life.
This is a recurring scenario in Tati, one where Hulot is forced to act with scarcely any comprehension of his circumstantial conditions. Indeed, time in the Hulot films is fragmentary, unfolding in a perpetual now that has little reference to its antecedent or subsequent moments- Hulot is always too early or too late to enact his good intentions, he cannot synchronize himself with the rhythm of a given happening. Rhythm, of course, is crucial to Tati’s productions, all of which are orchestrated like vast symphonies. Hence the volume and precision of his soundtracks: “Everything was music, the lifting and setting down of their feet, certain turns of the head, their running and their standing still, the positions they took up in relation to one another…” (Kafka, Investigations Of A Dog)
In any given scene, we find the concurrence of heterogeneous velocities, the overlapping of different vectors- running bodies, strolling bodies, inert bodies, bicycles, sports cars, buses, trolleys, revolving doors, swinging doors, escalators. This rhythm provides the pulse of every frame, the time signature around which Tati choreographs the action. It is also entirely determinative of how a situation functions: consider the scene in Mon Oncle where Hulot is attempting to cut a series of stalks while avoiding the gaze of his brother-in-law, whose view is partly obscured by the edge of a wall. The brother-in-law is sitting on a rocking chair, and he would only be able to see Hulot at the very bottom of the chair’s axis. Working within this conjuncture, Hulot has to syncopate his cutting with the rocking of the chair, while angling the scissors out of his brother-in-law’s range of vision. The Hulot films are an endless series of such impromptu performances, each of which is executed in unique conditions.
All improvisation, of course, requires a time signature, a beat, and the humor often rests on whether the players are able to catch it. In the Hulot films, Tati reveals the complexity of modern life, where even the most banal, habitual functions are extraordinarily complicated- crossing the road, climbing the stairs, moving towards a destination- each journey is fraught with unforeseeable perils. In order to navigate through the labyrinth, one must have internalized, in advance, the map of the territory, its variegated tempos, its conditions of conduct. Upon these premises, a performative style can be improvised- a characteristic gait, a personalized stride.
The Tramp’s waddle and Groucho’s swagger are two instances of this style, diacritical marks that individuate their bearers. Hulot, by contrast, lacks a signature. It is unclear whether we can even conceive of Hulot as an individual- his name merely designates a set of conflicting reflexes and motor impulses that cannot be coordinated into a coherent unity. Hulot, in Kafka terms, can never quite ‘pull himself together’- his body is the locus for a multiplicity of divergent forces, he can never commit himself to a singular direction, let alone direct himself towards a concrete goal. He is thrust into the center of a mad waltz, the steps of which elude him entirely: “I howled as if some pain were being inflicted upon me, my mind could attend to nothing but this blast of music which seemed to come from all sides, from the heights, from the deeps, from everywhere, seizing the listener by the middle, overwhelming him, crushing him, and over his swooning body still blowing fanfares so near that they seemed far away and almost inaudible.” (Kafka, Investigations of a Dog, emphasis mine) What is the point in all of this? Personality, Hulot reminds us, is never an a priori; the project of personhood is a dynamic process of adaptation, one which requires a continual acquisition of skills, a consummate mastery of one’s body. Hulot cannot be incorporated into this technological universe because, ontogenetically speaking, he remains at an arrested stage of development; he is not properly a person. Walking, he learns, is an acrobatic feat; preserving one’s balance on the treadmill of modernity is an art requiring the utmost finesse.
If the comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Tati teaches us anything, it is that politics, in the first and last instance, is always a question of bodies- the training of docile bodies for work, the disciplining of bodies in school, the subjugation of intransigent bodies by punishment. Mon Oncle is, in one sense, the story of Hulot’s vagrant body and his middle-class sister’s futile attempts to domesticate it, to confine it in a domicile and bind it to a routine. Corporeality is the central axis of this comedy, which is why it requires very little dialogue- the body, that vulgar, ungainly, abject thing, remains essentially foreign to the dictates of language and the strictures of logic. Clumsiness, in this regard, is the principal subject of subversive humor- every uncoordinated body makes a mockery of control. This is why a system of power can never achieve its own closure, or reach a state of equilibrium- the body always juts out, a stray finger, a mis-timed step can often have catastrophic consequences. Power, in the Foucauldian sense, is precisely the concerted attempt to truss the flesh in the fetters of discourse, to overwrite the body with the language of command. The law inscribes itself upon the skin, branding it like the crown-shaped chairs in Tati’s Royal Garden. Hence the insurrectionary power of the factory sequence in Modern Times- the will may comply, but the body cannot be subordinated. The Tramp’s body spontaneously irrupts into a nervous fit, inciting mutiny against its enslavers. This conceit is repeated numerous times throughout Modern Times- it is the body that pulls the levers of the machine, but it is also the body that jams the gears of the machine.
Chaplin’s problem, of course, is that he locates the machinery of modern society in the workplace, in the regimes and routines that coordinate proletarian labor. His understanding of the machine is a limited one- man, condemned to endless drudgery at the assembly line, becomes an automaton. This diminution of human potential remains Chaplin’s fundamental concern, and his ardent humanism circumscribes the range of his critique. In focusing entirely on the human concern (alienation and dis-alienation), he fails to see, as Tati does, that reality itself is structured like a machine, that we must begin to understand the unique terms of our imprisonment before we begin to issue utopian manifestoes on liberty and emancipation. In an analogous sense, the transition from Chaplin to Tati is akin to the epistemological shift that occurs between Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Das Kapital. It is also the leap from existentialism to a philosophy of structure. The camera zooms out from the individual concern to take in a totality of relations and exchanges, an infrastructure that provides the skeletal scaffolding of everyday life. This is the movement that emerges from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday through to Playtime, a film that features no close-ups whatsoever, and where the interest in man is always secondary to the patterns that he traces through space.
What does it mean to say that ‘reality is structured like a machine’? Simply that Tati, in conceiving his films, does not begin with the human but with the diagram, the architectural blueprint. In Playtime, we witness the disappearance of Hulot in a sprawling metropolis, and by extension, the disappearance of the human itself. All of Tati’s frames in Playtime resemble the lens of a microscope- men and women move across a bounded space like particles set in motion, and it is their interactions that are of primary experimental interest. In a paranoiac surveillance society, this is precisely the angle that the shot should assume, that of the security camera. He teaches us that the time of narrative has passed, that the camera must make a concerted attempt to monitor the present, to gauge the implications of a mechanized reality.