On atrocities and equivocal jokes

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.

Falaise Road

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.

Oradour Church

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.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Too bloody right! You couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, be more explicit.
    What was your last blog about? I can’t remember. My pc says error page 401. I’ve gone blind.
    Somewhere in my recent readings some writer expressed distaste at people who are always on about “becoming” – do you know of this critique? I’m not familiar with it.
    Last night I too was disgusted at my unconscious obsessional thinking that life from go to whoa was some sort of grueling initiation. I thought: For what???? The only thing being achieved is bloody misery, mine and others.
    In the middle of last century a whole nation was obsessed with the idea of “becoming”.
    Similar sentiments appeared in Brisbane.
    My mother danced in Cloudland during the second world war and among other bands I saw there was your favs the Clash. Boy did that sprung floor bounce. And then something terrible did happen there: developmental ideologies put into practice. Cloudland was demolished in the night and I shall never forget the carnage of the front page photo in the Courier.
    Modernity for Tati is a ridiculous aspirational drive that he disarms with humour. I think he’s quite unequivocal that modern social structures are not good for the human spirit. There’s no paradox but quite a lot of courage that he made this resilient film in the proximity of reminders of the atrocities of a failed futurism. Something to take strength from indeed.

  2. Gus: Thanks for this. Nice to see someone familiar with Tati. And Bjelke-Petersen Brisbane. Brisbane is a strange place,and each time I visit, I still get this sense of something terrible being covered up. Public space in Brisbane is still tightly controlled, which is why it is such a boring place to hang out. In Melbourne CBD for example, the first thing one notices are large informal gatherings of people sitting around. In Brisbane wherever two or more are gathered together there are cops idly watching: keep moving, keep shopping, no hanging out around here. The Bjelke-Petersen years have profoundly affected the Brisbane psyche. The Stranglers visited Brisbane in the John years and went away so freaked out they wrote Nuclear Device.
    I think this is about as explicit as I get. Except I think I’m being explicit the rest of the time. But apparently not.
    Tati’s films are both a mourning of the past, a celebration of the margins (often in the shape of dogs and children – and Hulot himself) and a very prescient warning of the future that had already arrived. I must have seen M. Hulot’s Holiday 20 times. I only own 4 DVD’s and M. Hulot is one of them (the other 3 being Stalker, Porco Rosso and the lost episodes of ‘Monkey) and I can’t help myself laughing each time. I laugh at Hulot I think because I use up the energy or whatever it is, that would otherwise be used weeping, or raging. The scenes in the hotel restaurant especially are hilarious and I can’t work out they they stay so fresh after repeated viewing. The blog was an attempt to talk about that, among other things.

  3. Stephen,I think the restaurant scenes are funny because of the sound the door makes everytime someone walks through it. Repetitive predictable sound is a classic Tatin device. He alsonusesnit to great effect in Mon Oncle. The sound of a modernist leather lounge chair cushion squeaking and deflating. You’re right, he is hilarious. Jean Claude Carriere, who worked with him, writes about the experience and Tati’s techniques as a story teller, in his book The Language of Cinema. Thanks for the memories.

  4. iPhone typos – the bloggers curse. Tati would have had a lot to say about them. Yes, the soundtrack to M. Hulot fascinates me, as there isn’t one, just an aural landscape in which things happen. I propose that on election might, which promises to be the dreariest night of the year, the entire nation ignore the election results and watch M. Hulot’s Holiday. If it worked for the French after Oradour-Sur-Glane and the Nazi occupation, it can work for us on August 21.

  5. There is a current controversy about Jacques Tatischeff’s personal life and Chomet’s recent film The Illusionist. As long as we remember that we are talking about his films and not the man we should be right. I for one have not read his biography. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100602/LETTERS/100609998
    In Jour de Fete I seem to remember a colour section with Hulot saluting two men with rifles (soldiers?)only Hulot presents arms with a hose instead of a rifle, falls down a hole and all you can see is the spout of water from his hose and isn’t there a yank jeep and MPs involved in the chase scene who are astounded to see him ride past on his bicycle talking on a phone? Very minor references to the war.

    1. Thanks for the link Gus. It seems that having survived a war, Tati’s remaining family and associated hangers-on are still at war.I’ve been jotting down notes on humour for a while now, in regard to other writing projects, especially humour as resistance and its possibiities for disruption. But lately I have been thinking about compulsive jokers, of whom I am probably one – though my sense of humour seems to be too vague and tenuous for the most part to lend itself to mot juste’s or punchlines – and the place of the joke in defending against isolation and fragmentation. Jokes tend to unite people, and if the making of jokes can have that as one of its intentions it might be that the joking individual is also the individual keenly aware of his or her isolation and so forth, and what he or she is being isolated from. This was clearly the case with Tati I think. But also in relation to Merton’s quote an equivocal joke is the way of dealing with that sense of isolation and incomprehensibility, ie: I can only tell you who I am by making jokes.
      There’s a terrific book I have called ‘Hooligans or Rebels?’that documents English working-class children’s resistance against various authority structures in the first half of the 20th century. There were for example, 150 documented school strikes by children between 1889 and 1938. Impossible to imagine that now. Anyway, humour as part of this – generally termed ‘larking about’ had a disruptive function and a function also of dealing with misery; stealing teachers canes, sneaking up to the back of outdoor toilets and singeing adult bums with lighted paper and so forth. These children were mocking their causes of their own suffering, the causes of their isolation and marginalisation.
      And Jour de Fete of course, is built on a reference to the US post-war presence and all the modern innovations that trailed in the armies wake.

  6. This is such a great post, Stephen. It’s certainly not too abstruse to talk about love being a political act. Indeed, I think the most banal and day-to-day observations and existences can be seen in the most startlingly political interpretations whether they’re seen that way by the central individual or not.

    I’m not familiar with Tati’s work. But my partner loves old movies so I’ll seek out this film, I might even watch it on election night as you suggested in a comment. And as for the friend in the cafe in Brisbane, as for Brisbane in fact, yes I can relate to both your description of your conversation and the city itself – like one big new suburb that never cohered. Mind you, I caution myself as I’ve never lived there, just visited.

  7. We can start a Movement; Vote Hulot on election night. It seriously has to be better than watching the depressing sight of either Gillard or Abbott sanctimoniously claiming victory.
    Thanks for the phrase ‘startling political interpretations’in relation to ordinary events. I will remember it. I am reminded of Octavio Paz’ words from The Labyrinth of Solitude, that ‘love has always been a revolutionary activity, but now it is beginning to be positively dangerous.’
    I spent five years in Brisbane as of two years ago, having not lived in a major city since the 1980’s. It became like living in a tunnel or being underground; one can only take certain routes to certain places, and do certain things and so forth. And as I left, massive actual tunnel-building was about to begin. Melbourne and Sydney both have very many hideous aspects too, but it’s the strange sense of being policed in Brisbane that always bothered me.

  8. An example of public space in Brisbane, and its relationship to surveillance and sociality… Nearly everywhere that I see public seating and public benches, the seats/benches do not face one another (like you might imagine for a group of seats in a lounge room, cafe, etc) but they face out, or all face one direction — which means they rarely get used, or produce a feeling of non-cosiness and as such it feels like sitting is a highly visible act (one is exposed)…
    The informal gathering of friends, groups and so forth in public space can happen, but the amenities and furnishing that populate public spaces to me so often suggest that informality, cosiness, and being in groups is not the point of public space.

    1. I note also in Brisbane – as in other cities – those incredibly annoying, fascist impediments placed on benches and so forth so skaters don’t use them, and so the homeless don’t sleep on them.
      I’m not sure that Melbourne is designed any better than Brisbane as far as public space goes, but the spaces in the CBD are used differently in each city. So there’s a bunch of steps in the centre of Melbourne somewhere which always seem, whenever I’m there anyway, to have people sitting all over them. Any similar use of space in Brisbane would arouse great concern, because that’s not what public space is for. When I see public spaces ‘designed’ as such, they are often vast plazas, where it is impossible to gather but easy to be watched.

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