What defines a “great director”? Not influence; of that I’m fairly sure, though the broader appeal of a director—any director, spiritual or commercial—solely rests on their place in “cinema history.” And if it is influence that dictates greatness, Tati most certainly would not be appearing on this list.
Whatever the case, this article will determine—whilst not being restricted to—some of the greatest directors from some of the greatest filmmaking nations.
5. France — Jacques Tati
I start with the most obscure choice on the list. Jacques Tati. Most would make a case as to why Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo or Jean-Luc Godard should be crowned France’s GOAT, at least of the pack with forenames beginning with ‘J’, which I cannot argue. But Jacques has something no other director has ever had before, and what’s worse is that I cannot explain what it is. Perhaps it’s that M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) was the film that gave birth to modern cinema.
Or perhaps it’s that watching Playtime (1967) was the single greatest cinematic experience I’ve ever had. Or, perhaps it’s simply that Tati, when at his best, contained both best Chaplin sentiment and Altman community. (It might be more useful to consider Tati the director in the company of modernist control-freak auteurs Bresson and Antonioni, who didn’t make comedies but created their own worlds.)
Tati only made nine features in his lifetime. One of them, Oscar; champion de tennis (1932) is believed to be lost. For the remaining eight—Gai Dimanche (1935), L’École des facteurs (1947), Jour de fête (1949), M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime, Traffic (1971), and Parade (1974)—I confess with great remorse that my acquaintance has been a farce, having only seen them through DVD, laserdisc, and videotape.
The issue of format matters most in the case of Playtime, the only movie Tati shot in 70-millimeter, because although I advocate seeing all of his (or any artist’s) work in the proper format, Playtime on video is the same as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) on video: the television monitor cannot possibly suffice.
Details from Tati’s mise en scène are muted. The spectrum of colour becomes limited. The reduction of a 70mm. presentation to the scale of a television set is similar to reducing the performance of a symphony orchestra to a badly done audiocassette.
As a filmmaker, Tati has recurring themes (the leisure class, modernisation, children at play, mass entertainment), and his compositions seem as mathematically calculated yet spontaneous and vibrant as Welles’. His movies beg for purveyors of theory to figure them all out for us.
Nothing against the theoreticians, but given a filmography that includes titles like Playtime and Parade, and films that make constant references to having fun, anything short of complete submission to the Tati audio-visual experience carries the risk of revealing oneself to be one of the square, too-serious types that Tati constantly teased: the angry young Socialist in Hulot’s Holiday, the ultra-precise American in Playtime, and nearly everybody except Hulot and his little nephew in Mon Oncle.
This article was first posted on March 11, 2013