Monday, July 06, 2009

Mr. Hulot's Clambake without Michael Jackson

Believe it or not, I have been uncharacteristically silent about all the fuss around the never-ending coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. (This may come as a surprise to some of you whose despondency over the issue is totally out of proportion with the subject’s importance in his and most people’s lives, but my only response to that is: You started it.)

Anyway, the reason I have not been indulging in as much sneering and sniping as would normally be the case is that when I do turn on the television, I watch Turner Classic Movies. And on TCM, Michael Jackson hasn’t even been born yet.

I’ll admit this is rather indulgent escapism and makes me even crankier when the 21st century insists on creeping into my sanctuary. I rarely progress beyond the early 60s, though sometimes I am forced to watch a movie I would not normally watch because I’m in the middle of some sewing or knitting handwork and that’s what’s on.

This has usually ended in the discovery of a movie to add to my list of favorites; but sometimes it leaves me oddly disturbed.

I experienced both Sunday night when, because it was on and I had projects to complete, I was forced to view an Elvis movie (Clambake) after which came a movie I had planned to watch (and was directed to watch by Dark Garden), Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

For a quick overview: Elvis movie – no matter how I try to approach it, it is by far, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen (and it is, by the way, the first Elvis movie I’ve ever seen); Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – loved it.

I can’t, though, let the Clambake thing go yet, because it was so phenomenally bad. And one of the things that made it so bad was its total cluelessness about what was going on in the world politically, socially and musically. This was the year of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night. This was the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

In a watershed year for the entertainment field, there’s Elvis, singing cheesy songs based on the worst rock music ever recorded (think those stupid Brady Bunch songs…simplified) and woodenly delivering inane dialogue from an unimaginative script – surrounded by fake-lashed girls doing The Jerk, The Pony and The Swim – dances so old and culturally embarrassing, YouTube doesn’t even have decent videos of them. I admit I’m not an Elvis fan to begin with, but in this movie he certainly managed to completely disguise any reason why he deserved to even be in show business, let alone receive the kind of adulation he continues to get.

Now: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

I had received a directive from Dark Garden to be sure and watch this – that it was “strange,” he said. Good, but “strange.” When DG calls something strange, you sort of think twice about whether you really want to see it in the first place, but it was showing under TCM’s “Essentials Jr.,” meaning it was suitable for children to view, so I knew the “strange” wouldn’t cross the line into “disturbing.”

My guess as to why DG thought this was a strange movie is probably the combination of the facts that it was a French film, it was made in 1953 and was, for all intents and purposes, pretty much silent. Technically, I suppose it would be termed “slapstick,” but if it had been purely that, I doubt I would have enjoyed it so much. I find “slapstick” technically interesting and mildly amusing, but rarely out-and-out funny. When I see Charlie Chaplin’s eating machine, I’m so interested in the precision of the timing of the components of the scene that I forget to laugh.

John Lithgow, who introduced the film, said actor/director Jacques Tati was the inspiration for many tall, physical comedians such as himself and John Cleese. But if someone asked me to give them a general idea of what the movie was like, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean comes to mind, though less dependent on the main character.

Hulot is definitely the central character. But that doesn’t prevent Tati, as director, from having his fun with the other characters inhabiting this small seaside hotel for their vacations and making an overall statement about holidays in general. The workaholic husband constantly being called to the telephone, the elderly couple looking for an opportunity to be offended, the unintelligible announcer directing travelers to their trains, the herd mentality of vacationgoers – all these are familiar even though we are a half century removed.

I will even forgive Tati for his rather jaundiced portrayal of middle-aged women because it is just so darn funny and, in some cases, just so darn true. One woman spends her entire vacation complaining about the trouble she had traveling to the seaside. Another woman combs the beach for lovely shells she hands off to her husband, who promptly tosses them back into the ocean.

I think most of the strangeness comes from the alien landscape of a small, intimate seaside hotel, an establishment that, being born in 1957, I’ve only heard about and seen the ruins of. DG has probably not even had that experience. I also think we’re used to such light, airy locational films like this being shot in color. The film loses nothing by being in black and white, whether that was an artistic or budgetary decision. But about halfway through I realized how few “travelogue” movies I’ve seen that get that sun-drenched look without the aid of color.

I don’t know when or if TCM plans to run this again any time soon. It’s definitely a movie I’d watch over and over.


Darkgarden said...

It was crazy nuts man. I have it dvr'd in case I wanna kick back w. some Maker's and experience it again.

... OH! Mr. Jackson is now being driven down the road in president type motorcade thing!

Darkgarden said...

... I do hope he still makes it back for dinner this evening.

Gwynne said...

I'm gonna keep a watch for Mr. Hulot (not like DG is keeping watch over MJ though...). Sounds like a great (i.e. good strange, crazy nuts!) movie...Mr. Bean-like characters, middle aged beachcombing women, travelogue, colorless...all good things. Heh.

And there are times when a completely bad, cheesy, kitschy movie like Clambake fills the bill also. ;-)

I'm gonna have to keep an eye on TCM from now on. My husband always has the remote and his favorite channel is AMC, similar but more heavy on the old spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry reels.