Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mon Favourite Comedian

Here are some facts I wasn't aware of until recently.

I didn't know that Jacques Tati started out as a stage comedian/mime in music halls before he became a filmmaker. I didn't know that Mon Oncle was filmed after M. Hulot's Holiday. I had thought Mon Oncle was in black-and-white. ANd worst of all, I didn't realise how much Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean stole from Tati's Monsieur Hulot.

Both characters elicit laughs through slapstick routines, both speak little, both drive banged-up cars. But while Hulot is a loveable, good-natured and well-meaning buffoon, Bean is an obnoxious, hard-to-like dimwit.

In fact, the similarities came to a head with the last Mr Bean big-screen movie, blatantly titled Mr Bean's Holiday. I don't know if the movie should be seen a s a sort of tribute to the French comedy great, because there's no element of an homage in the film. What it has though, it a scene directly lifted from Tati's Jour de Fete, where Bean shooting past some bicycle racers mirrors the scene where Francois the postman peddles his bicycle past a group of racing cyclists. The raod trip style of the movie can also be seen as similar to Tati's cars-and-highways epic Trafic.

The other difference is that Tati's work has more pertinent meanings rather than mere gags. His colour films spin a thematic thread observing the incongruities of modern living, but not an indictment or criticism of it, mind you. The manufactured city of Play Time is a magnificent, labyrinthine glass wonder that shimmers with a sharpness and sheen reflecting slick modernity, yet encased inside what seems like a child's dollhouse. The film is really an unforgettable experience, and holds up to repeated viewings simply because Tati packs every frame with incidences, occurances and gags. The later Trafic seems to play this up with triple the magnitude, with even more things going on in a frame and faster cuts.

I'm a late discoverer of Tati's comedy, and it's hard not to lose respect for Atkinson's creation once you've learned of its origin. Monsieur Hulot is a walking disaster of dance-like movements and bumbling trajectories, a contradictory mash-up that could probably be called "graceful stiffness." The wooden puppet-like flinging of the arms and strutting of the legs are as light as air, as demonstrated in one of the funniest moments in comedy, the tennis game in M. Hulot's Holiday. I'd rank that sequence up there with Chaplin's boxing match in City Lights.

Comedy is one of the hardest things to do. It's the worst feeling in the world when no one laughs at your gags. It makes me wonder why some people here think it's so easy to be funny. I don't have to mention names but I'm pretty sure everybody knows the culprits, those who think making funny faces and acting like a doofus immediately make them the kings of comedy. Compared to other local offerings of horror, drama, action and other genres, local comedy is probably the most painful thing to sit through. If you haven't already noticed, there's a disturbing and inexplicable trend in local comedies. Be it on TV or in the cinema, a TV show or a movie, you'll definitely find actors in wigs. Then there's always the tasteless toilet humour and scatological jokes, people shitting, vomiting, spitting, excreting all sorts of bodily fluids.

Local comedians definitely need to learn that comedy really is an art, and that it takes class to be truly funny. Perhaps they need some lessons from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennet, Charlie Chaplin, and of course, Jacques Tati.

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