Saturday, July 11, 2009


A live performance is only as good as its audience – especially when that audience is called on as an equal participant in the show. Such is the working principle behind Parade, Jacques Tati’s final completed picture, a 1974 video project that finds the filmmaker returning to the live performance of his pre-film roots. Following his run of four movies featuring and eventually exhausting the possibilities of his comedic alter-ego M. Hulot (which along with 1949’s Jour de Fête comprise the entirety of the director’s features), Tati channels his music hall background, staging a variety show of pantomime, music, sleight-of-hand and rodeo both in front of and in tandem with an approving crowd, comprised of both passively observant audience members and ringers in the form of actors and performers.

The film’s privileging of the audience’s role in the comedic process is highlighted from the start when, before the show begins, Tati’s camera follows a group of motley-clad young theatergoers wending their way into the building. One wag picks up a traffic cone and places it on his head to the amusement of both his friends and, presumably, the film’s audience. Picking up his example, another theatergoer follows suit. So when, after the crowd is seated and we’re treated to an opening musical fanfare, Tati makes his first appearance as master-of-ceremonies and announces, “It is our great pleasure to introduce a show which everyone is invited to participate in. The performers and clowns, and you and I,” we've been well prepared for this communal approach to the creation of comedic spectacle. In fact, we've already seen it in action.

The audience’s participation in the performance runs the spectrum from privileged private moments which unfold undetected by the “official” performers (as in one gag where a man removes a motorcycle helmet obstructing the view of another spectator only to reveal a more obtrusive mass of red hair) to complete co-option in the staged spectacle (a sequence where audience members are called on to tame a bucking mule in the ring). But the meat of the project lies in a middle-ground in which members of the crowd become “spontaneously” involved in the planned performances, even as the interventions are clearly staged by Tati.

As the action unfolds on stage, the filmmaker repeatedly cuts away to the audience in close shots of such intimate proximity that we can make out the private asides spoken by the individual viewers. A group of audience members emerge as actual characters; the frequency of their appearance and the pride-of-place given to their reactions mark them out as being equally central to the film as their on-stage counterparts. Eventually these men, women and children become involved directly in the spectacle. In one memorable scene, a group of stage magicians hilariously botch a disappearing act. Cut to the audience, where a muttonchopped young man shows ‘em how it’s done, wowing the crowd with his far more successful feats of legerdemain.

Still, Tati himself, as the grand homme of French comedy, remains a privileged figure throughout, never interrupted by the audience. As he performs his legendary pantomimes – mimicking a tennis match or a round of boxing – the crowd laughs respectfully, but always keeps its distance. (The exception: in the tennis sequence, the audience members, unbidden on-screen though clearly cued, move their heads back-and-forth to follow the imaginary volleys). And where the other acts are shot in such a way as to suggest the proximity of audience and performer, Tati films himself against a far more distant backdrop, the crowd becoming little more than a mass of indistinguishable faces.

But it’s the audience – and particularly its youngest segment - that has the final word. After the show ends and everyone – performers and audience alike – has cleared out, two children who've been prominent members of the audience take the stage for a final romp, suggesting both the continuation of the comic tradition – Tati was nearly 70 at the time, his moment nearly passed – and the final democratization of the performance space, fulfilling the director’s working principle that, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his essential essay on the film, “amateurs and nobodies… are every bit as important, as interesting and as entertaining as professionals and stars.” As performer, Tati remains every inch the star as he commands the stage, but as a filmmaker he generously cedes the spotlight to clowns, musicians and viewer alike, thus re-thinking the essential relationship between not only Parade’s on-screen performance and on-screen audience, but between the film’s movie-going audience and the spectacle that Tati has arranged for them and, at least on the metaphorical level, invited them to participate in.


I was recently asked to participate in a survey at The One-Line Review, in which each contributor was called on to make a personal list of the 50 greatest films, the collective results then tabulated. For my list, I limited myself to one film per director, with two exceptions. I included two films directed by Leo McCarey because Duck Soup seems to me more of a Marx Brothers picture than a McCarey picture and I included two Dreyer films because there was no way I could leave off either The Passion of Joan of Arc or Gertrud. The list can be found here.

No comments: