So anyway, as I was passing through Brisbane last week at the end of a long journey, I caught up with a friend of mine who reads my blogs. Brisbane always seems to me to be a city where a great catastrophe has at some time taken place, a catastrophe that no one wants to speak of. And there is still a sense in the air that something terrible happened there once, if we could just remember what it was. We were sitting in a hideous cafe in a hideous building at a university – hideous in a way that only universities can accomplish – when my friend said to me, vis-à-vis the blogs, ‘I really like your blog writing. But why don’t you write more about what you think about the solutions to the problems you write about? It’s like you’re complaining – and there’s lots to complain about – but I never know what you really think.’
My friend, who I shall cunningly disguise by calling ‘X’, poked my thinking a bit. Thinking about our discussion on my way home during the long boring drive down the Pacific Highway, it seemed to me that he might possibly have been asking me how to be happy, or how to think about happiness, which I took as an indication that he had actually taken my blog writings in the way I’d like them to be taken, if I had any choice in the matter.
My reply at the time that X asked his question was to mutter something about having my own thoughts on why we’re in the mess we’re in, but that they were of interest only to me and that this was fine and good. There was, however, a more adroit answer to X’s questions floating at the back of my mind, an answer I couldn’t quite remember but that came back to me last night when I was trying to sort out why I’d got myself into a tangle of weird misunderstanding with someone else in a completely different situation. It’s a quote from Thomas Merton’s strange novel, My Argument with the Gestapo:
When you ask me to tell my real name by means of passports, I can only answer you in a set of equivocal jokes by which I am all but helpless to tell you, that I don’t understand what you are talking about.
Another way of putting it, would be to say that I think that moments of joy can not be systematised anymore than you can make yourself fall in love with someone, but that being happy and thinking about happiness is a profoundly political act. If that’s too abstruse a way of putting it, perhaps I should talk about the funniest film ever made.
The funniest film of all time, as everyone knows, is Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday released in 1953. Every time I watch it, it reveals something to me, as though it’s a kind of celluloid onion with an infinite series of transparent skins. One of the things that my repeated viewings have uncovered for me is the care with which Tati engages the viewer. There’s a quality of thought, of something being thought through, as though nothing has been forgotten but only embraced in a kind of steady and unwavering empathy.
There is no real plot in M. Hulot’s Holiday anymore than life has a plot, but only a series of apparently disconnected events wound tightly around each other by circumstance. Hulot, an odd and engaging character with a swivelling, stiff-legged, spring-heeled walk, goes on holiday to a little French seaside town where a collection of eccentric but insular bourgeois have gathered for their annual summer holiday a few years after the end of World War II. The beach at Saint-Marc-Sur-Mer where Tati filmed M. Hulot’s Holiday is only a few kilometres from the massive Nazi U-Boat pens at the port of St–Nazaire, installations that are still standing because they are too difficult and too expensive to demolish.
Thousands of French civilians died in the gigantic Allied bombing campaign in the opening weeks of the Normandy invasion, bombing that created landscapes of fantastic destruction.
When the Allies landed and were pushing out of their beach-heads, the fighting in the north-west of France became unbelievably vicious and the Nazi retaliation on the French population for perceived sympathies with the Allies or as reprisals for actions of the French Resistance was carried out with a ruthlessness and savagery it is hard to credit. On June 10 1944, at the village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oradour-sur-Glane, four days after the Normandy landings, the SS machine-gunned 190 men and then burned to death 247 women and 205 children in the local church in retaliation for the killing of a German officer.
None of this, events that took place only four or five years before Tati started making Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, is visible or even alluded to in the film. A cascade of tiny moments, banal holiday experiences, are sewn together via Hulot’s innocent wanderings. The only narrative sequence is the beaded thread of gag after gag with no humorous soundtrack to warn you when the funny bits are about to happen, and no hammy build up to the gags themselves. They happen and you have no way of knowing when, and in fact the film is littered with gags, many of them very small but scattered about in such a way that the only way to watch the film is with the assumption that everything and anything is meaningful and is therefore potentially funny. Your potential cues are always in relation to any object or person’s capacity for humour, a humour that makes that object or person friendlier, more amiable in their weight. It’s as if every detail in the film has been cared for and thought over, and being thought about, allowed to find its own place. In the very heart of a country devastated by four years of Nazi occupation and by the horrific battles initiated by the landing on French shores of the biggest invasion force in history, a man cradles a fragile comedy about a timid and comical loner, as innocent as an angel, who goes on holiday to the beach.
One of the film’s central jokes is that no-one in the film, with the possible exception of a young boy and an elderly English spinster, has any idea that the myriad of odd and unexpected events that clatter through the summer are consequences of Hulot’s largely ignored, and eventually despised, presence. It is an old joke, like the clown who repeatedly loses his hat because it keeps being stolen and returned, unseen, by a small dog. Only we, the watchers, see the intricate couplings of cause and effect that wind throughout the film in idiosyncratic loops.
I’ve come to think of Tati’s film as a kind of manifestation of Thomas Merton’s quote, as a collection of equivocal jokes, as a response to the catastrophe of the Nazi occupation. To the French of 1953 when the film was released after four years work, M. Hulot’s Holiday must have seemed like the sanest thing in the world. Perhaps it was a kind of helplessness after the devastation and occupation of France that drove Tati to create a film that made everyone laugh at themselves. A film that that somehow communicated, in the very shadow of Oradour-Sur-Glane, how precious and weird an experience living is, and how completely insane and fucked-up an idea it is to intentionally construct anything that makes anyone else miserable.