Sunday, May 8, 2011


When I revisit the great directors of cinema history, as I do all the time, I’m often disproportionately drawn to what they did later in life, particularly to their very last films. This must reflect some quirk in my own personality, since those pictures frequently lack the raw energy and innovation of their creators’ earlier work. On the contrary, what often intrigues me is the sense of a fully achieved creative personality, still vital but no longer searching for major new directions. I don’t think many of these last films were consciously intended to be that – death or illness or lack of finance usually forces it on them – but it’s remarkable how they draw from that imposed status, as if saying this is what I was working towards all along – this is the essence of what I know about life and cinema.

Final films

For example, Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire is a gorgeous story of thwarted desire, with two different actresses famously alternating between scenes as the woman who’s the obscure object of desire. That wasn’t Bunuel’s original plan - in his late 70’s, he came up with the idea when the original actress dropped out - but it stands as a perfect final wry statement on our captivity to pompous delusions. Another of my supreme favourites, John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (not technically his last film, but the last in which he exercised his creative personality) extends his lifelong exploration of love and obsession into an infinitely mysterious and complex quasi-fantasy.

A couple of years ago, Eric Rohmer finished his career with The Romance of Astree and Celadon (and in this case at least, it does appear to have been a conscious final work): I said here that its “surpassingly beautiful ending confirms the belief and delight underlying his wonderful half-century of cinema.” Not long before, A Prairie Home Companion was a magnificent endpoint for Robert Altman. Other cases, like Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo, are easier to take as a sign of diminished powers, but remain cherishable even if just for the sense of a stubborn veteran insisting on still getting it done.

Jacques Tati

The final film I most recently rewatched is Jacques Tati’s Parade, made in 1974. This is a sadder case than the others I mentioned: Tati made very few films in his career (only five full-length works before this, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday probably being the best-known), and experienced a severe personal setback when his investment in Playtime – his finest picture I think – drove him into bankruptcy. Parade was a work for Swedish television, of all things - a variety show filmed in a Stockholm theatre, with clowns, musicians, dogs and donkeys, and Tati himself reprising some of his old mime routines. His subsequent ideas came to nothing; he died in 1982.

Parade is generally described, not too surprisingly, as a rather sad swansong; Tati made it quickly, and by its nature it didn’t allow the visual and conceptual sophistication of his other work. In his book on Tati, David Bellos says: “From a technical point of view, it is the least good work he ever did, and can be seen as a tragic mistake for a man who for three decades had exhausted all around him in the search for perfection in image and sound.” He also notes that during its making “Tati seemed to some to be a rather glum and confused old man.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, who knew Tati, describes his experience of the movie like this: “A friend at the time who despised Tati had told me it was pathetic, and I felt that it was…beautiful for what it was, yet excruciating in relation to what one knew its director wanted to do and was capable of doing.” Rosenbaum also notes though that the film has since increased in importance for him, noting in particular the lack of the bitterness marking Tati’s preceding film, Trafic.

Similarly, I don’t remember thinking much of the film when I first saw it, however many decades ago that may have been. But this time I found it far more sophisticated than I’d remembered, beautifully ambiguous, and quite lovely. As I mentioned, it takes the form of a quasi-circus show, but it constantly plays games with the formal structure that implies, with action spilling over from the ring into a workshop-type area in the wings, where a group of performers seem to be constructing the show even as it takes place. Sometimes a bit of business starts in this area, as if we were watching behind-the-scenes documentary footage, before developing into something clearly belonging to “the show.” Some moments couldn’t possibly be seen by the audience, and are only explicable as inventions for the camera.

Joy and Sadness

But then the nature of the audience is ambiguous too. Throughout the film, the camera keeps returning to certain people, as though they were points of identification, although it’s hard to see why they should be; a few rows are just filled with cardboard cutouts. Some in the crowd turn out to be planted performers, like a middle-aged business type who breaks away from his disapproving wife and jumps into the ring to try his hand at riding an uncooperative mule, but the initial interplay between the man and wife is again too low-key to be intended for anyone other than the cinema audience. In these respects and others, as Bellos points out, “in the end we do not know if we are watching a show or a film, and that blurring is precisely what Tati wanted. The uncertain boundaries between spectator and performer, between spontaneity and composition, between ‘show’ and ‘film’ add up to Tati’s last real word on the paradox of art that had worried him for more than twenty years.”

To me this far outweighs the caveats about lower technical quality (which in any event seems now rather charming, as coded evidence of the intimacy of what we’re watching). Not least is that Tati’s own presence there, in effect embodying himself, is never explained; why is this legend participating in such a show in Sweden, seemingly without any special billing, perhaps the first among equals but in no sense hogging the spotlight? Once you start reflecting on this aspect of the film, it takes on a gloriously existential undertone, gracefully sidestepping the weight of commercial cinema, even Tati’s own cinema, to reengage with play and creativity in its purest form. In that sense, it’s one of my favourite examples of an old master making lemonade out of lemons; it may not have been what Tati would ideally have wanted to do, but partly for that very reason, it’s an eloquent essay on both the joy and sadness of being held captive to your art.

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