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French humorist Jacques Tati talks with Studs Terkel

BROADCAST: Nov. 1, 1962 | DURATION: 00:31:58


Filmmaker Jacques Tati and Studs discuss finding the humor in everyday life and people becoming their gadgets. The two also go in-depth about Tati's film "Mon Oncle" and the development of the character Monsieur Hulot.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel In this world today, there, there are certain men who I think have an insight thanks to their art, that all of us need one way or another. We hear so much about this technological age and what happens to the man, what happens to the human being. And when a humorist, it's hard to describe the art of Jacques Tati. Of course Chicago which remember him in Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle, and perhaps you may remember, those of you that listen to the station, the interview that we had with Mr. Tati when he would pass through Chicago at the time of the showing of Mon Oncle. How can we describe your humor, Jacques Tati, how can we describe your approach?

Jacques Tati Well I don't know that. I think that the people have to do it if, if they want. I mean myself, I, I feel something and I don't know if I'm right or if I'm wrong. I mean that is, maybe the people who go and see the picture they understand what I have tried to do. Or maybe they don't understand. If they don't then I'm sorry because, it's not because the people who come

Studs Terkel Now this point, the point you raise right now, the people who don't understand. You find, do you have a way of, do you have a way of judging people? This might be a very interesting criterion -- of those who, to use an American phrase, "dig" your humor and those who don't.

Jacques Tati Well I think, I, I think what, what is important in this situation, it's in our business today, I mean in the motion picture business, everybody wants to make this industry as a real important industry and they, they are making pictures the same that they are making a model, a new model car, you see what I mean, a new car. So for instance, they, they, they don't take the personality of the people and you don't see now even in the American motion industry, motion picture industry, all the people are very well made. There is no mistakes. But what I feel for myself, I, I hope I will always make mistakes.

Studs Terkel Mistakes. You just said that people are very well made. Like a car is very well made, like the car next to it is very well made.

Jacques Tati Yes, yes. That's what, that's what I, that I feel. I, I feel

Studs Terkel Things are well made, things.

Jacques Tati Things are well made. And the, the, the personality, the individuality of the people is a little bit lost. I mean when, when you see a very big hotel, very well made and that the bathroom is wonderful and the, the bedroom is made that the sun shine inside of your bedroom and the radio goes on with a good quality of sound and everything is made for you to be happy, I think for myself, from my point of view, I do expect that one moment the, the shower won't work. You see, that it will be something wrong. Then I will see a, a little man, very simple, coming to repair and arrange. And the moment that little man come is not able to arrange that shower, I, for myself, that is the, the, the real moment where the, the, the life come back and the, the human being, we both together in that room talking about nice

Studs Terkel Where I, I remember you're saying, as you're talking now I remember, it was several years ago and you said something in this vein. You said something about the cars. A man does not enjoy this car he drives. He says, the only time he does if something goes wrong and he has to tinker with it and then something of himself is involved.

Jacques Tati Yes, yes, yes. That, that is a problem today because publicity today is very important for all the, all the big manufacturers to sell their, their, their cars, products and also. Publicity put a little bit down the critique of the people because they are thinking Chesterfield, they are thinking Chevrolet, they are thinking, and they have hear and heard all those data so many times that it's difficult for them now to have a real judgment, you see because it's push, it's push. I have, I did have the, the, the, the, the example, and I do like the, the, the people in the States because I find them real good friends, you see. And when a friend tell you what he feel about, and the truth, I think, the American, it's, it's better to understand a critique of what we're doing that only lines who are very well made to please everybody and the people don't think about. I mean, it's, it's when I say something, I say something because it's true, you see. I went one day to a shop to buy a tie. And the man in that shop did act, and I say act, exactly the same that the men who were doing the publicity in the television for a similar tie. And so I, I told him, I say "Are you doing that in purpose to sell me the tie, like I saw the man selling the tie in that television set?". He said "Why?". I said, "Because you are as good as the man that I saw in the television," and he was very happy.

Studs Terkel He was complimented.

Jacques Tati Complimented, to say. That, I'm sure that was not his personality. He has took a, a story direct by somebody like, somebody. But that is only made for theater that the people have to rehearsal every month to play a show one night. But that, I feel, find it sad. I feel sad because I say I'm sure that, I hope he won't be like this in his house. But I mean to sell me that tie, he's obliged. Or, I don't know, I think it should be better if he would be exact

Studs Terkel So here is this act. He is very efficient. And you said, you're as good as he, as the man you saw on television. You might even add, as good and dead, perhaps. As good and dead.

Jacques Tati Yes.

Studs Terkel I suppose the dead man is the perfect man. He can't make any mistakes.

Jacques Tati Well that is another

Studs Terkel In a way, in a way it's connected because you speak of life! You see, you said, when the little man came in to repair that shower. Life!

Jacques Tati Yes.

Studs Terkel Because there was something wrong and a human being was fixing a thing.

Jacques Tati Yes, yes, because, because he's obliged. Nobody can direct him, can tell him how he's going to repair, you see because he, he can't, he can't -- the moment he has a problem himself, a little human problem that he's obliged to put his own idea on, the way he is going to repair that shower, then you start

Studs Terkel to To have a human equation at work, you were saying that the man who makes the car sometimes, today we have mass production, [unintelligible] how much he into it. The man who makes the car may get a better kick out of a man who drives the car.

Jacques Tati Yes, that's, exactly what it

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, the little boy, the little boy in Mon Oncle. Now here he lives in this perfect house doesn't, in the suburbs, with all the gadgets. But he ran to you.

Jacques Tati Yes.

Studs Terkel He ran to the place, and not a slum, but this place that was, had color and mistakes.

Jacques Tati Yes. Because the, the, the people, that's, that's why, that's why the -- simplicity. I mean, everything has been made for, everything has been made for comfort, you see. But in that comfort, we don't come and we don't bring what we call in France, "esprit" and in the States, "sense, sense of humor." You see? I mean, I think the people need more, more today than before. A real sense of humor, too. Everybody is working each morning to find how we can open a door faster, and a window quicker. And, but very few people are working today to say all right, but don't, we mustn't take that too seriously because you are not a, a gadget, and so important. We have to joke a little bit and sometimes they are wrong. And if they are wrong we have to have a little laugh because if we take the laugh out of people, well for me I find myself that life is not so interesting.

Studs Terkel The perfect, coming to you Jacques Tati, the recognition that the perfect gadget which becomes the end in the lives of so many people they, surrounded by the gadgets, whereas the person becomes a secondary thing. Or he becomes a gadget too, I suppose.

Jacques Tati He can because, even now when you see there is not any more good or bad driver in those very large road. The traffic have been all arranged by people. You have no gear. So you, before you could have a, a woman who was trying to drive and make a lot of noise with a gear, and all the people were turned in the street and have a little laugh, I think. Aho, bravo! [laughing] Yes? And she

Studs Terkel I'd vow the feminists would like what you're saying, go ahead!

Jacques Tati And, and, and then a very good driver could show how it's, it's he's good to, to put his gear first, and after wait a little bit for the second, and afterward for the third, and how to show how he's a wonderful driver. Now, as to there, the people did work and they did enjoy themselves, like you said before, to find the way that we don't have to change the gear. You see? Premier, first, second. It's already arranged for you now. So, there is not anymore more bad and a good driver.

Studs Terkel There's no technique involved.

Jacques Tati The, the car, everybody

Studs Terkel Everybody drives. Is it, might be right to say that everybody is driven, rather than everybody drives.

Jacques Tati That's exactly, yes.

Studs Terkel Cause isn't this another way, what you are pointing out in all your films, seems now, we'll ask about your forthcoming project in a moment, is people speak of, we are spectators, you know the element of participation. That little man who fixed that shower, or when a man fixes a car of his own, he is partici -- he is doing.

Jacques Tati Yes. Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel And we are being done to.

Jacques Tati Yes, yes, yes. You see everything, the way you have your haircut prove your character. Yes? I mean, prove your personality. If you are obliged to have your hair cut like everybody, and I like the way, that's why I talk to you because

Studs Terkel Ah my hair! [laughing] You are referring of course to this we call crew cut craze in America. There is the definite style, you know.

Jacques Tati Style, yes, yes.

Studs Terkel Style, the advertising men have it cut the same way and the ties are the same way. It's a uniform.

Jacques Tati A uniform, uniform of an artist, a uniform of a, of a big businessman, and a uniform of an homme prière who is the faster

Studs Terkel Well, let's think of a man who wears no uniform. Let's think of Mr. Hulot, this man. Why he is such an endearing figure. He was awkward. He was ungainly. He made mistakes. He goofed. And yet, at the very end there were certain kinds of people that came up and they shook his hand. Because I guess it was very much that he lent, he gave some little glow to their lives

Jacques Tati Yes, because otherwise those, those people came in holiday. When the, I'm always afraid to speak about the construction of the picture because when the picture is finished the people say that there is no construction, oo that's wrong, because when you take the, the, the story of Hulot's holiday, you find that the businessman did take, pass his holiday and his own business. And he has always been on the call, and on the phone to New York or London, and so forth. Then, the old soldiers have always talk about what he has done in the last war. Now, the young intellectual has always tried to make it, [Europa?], better by his own imagination. Now, they're not one of stop from what they are, were, in Paris, or, and the, the only one who really did, who just came there with a simp -- like maybe with a little children mind, that's enfantin?

Studs Terkel Innocence.

Jacques Tati Innocence. But he just came there to enjoy himself. He just came there because he wants to be in the sea, he wants to swim, he wants to go on a boat. He wants to -- and everybody is against him because he's the only one who really want to enjoy that two weeks holiday, vacation he had. And it's not because he is Mr. Hulot that they are against him, but it's because that's bother their own little organization as a big businessman, an intellectual, and the soldiers, and a madame who is always talking about the kids, and all the people in that life, it was difficult for Mr. Hulot to take holidays. All the people who did recognize that he was the one who really enjoyed his holiday, and he was the one who may also have put the people also did enjoy his presence in those two weeks holiday. At the end, the little man come and say goodbye and I hope you're coming next year.

Studs Terkel The man who was bothering his wife all the time, or that, that spinster schoolteacher because, here, but the others though, who were in these pigeonholes were almost authoritative figures, really. They seem stronger figures, seemed not, seemed to have more authority that is, had their pigeonholes and you, Mr. Hulot, the misfit, challenge them.

Jacques Tati You see, I don't wantto make, to be, to be proud of myself or to be my attorney and have to defend the character of Mr

Studs Terkel There's no need to defend

Jacques Tati No, I mean to, to put Mr. Hulot too big, because I don't want. I want to, that I, myself would live a simple life because I don't want to make another character that I wouldn't be that character, you see? But I can -- when I came in, in a year in university in New York and I talk with the people and I told them that, they did offer me quite big money in the States to make a commercial for television by, with Mr. Hulot's character. That kind of money was, did show, that I could repaint my house, that I could change my car, that I could come with maybe a fur coat to my wife. That was on one side. On the other side was, but maybe Mr. Hulot got friends, yes? And maybe he also got friends by me, young students. Now if I'm doing that, and say that the beer so and so is the best, or the flying airlines or -- I'm, I'm selling Mr. Hulot and I'm not allowed because, that man that the people think is a friend can't be, and can be a man who's going to tell them which beer they have to drink. So I came back and I didn't accept that big amount of money. I came back. Maybe my house is not repaint. I didn't change the car. But I can go back to the States and I can talk to the students again. And I know that they can't say, "Oh, but we saw you and tell us which cigarettes we have to smoke."

Studs Terkel And that's beautiful. They, they then tried to buy Mr. Hulot, but Hulot would not allow himself to be sold.

Jacques Tati No, and I think today it's, it's, it's an important move because I think the people need that especially, and more. Because even Mr. Hulot, he's playing on the, on the Pologne and Ungarisch, and I receive letters from student from those country where they not always can say what they want to say. And in those countries they find that Mr. Hulot is a free man, and I do hope that I'm going to be and I, I have

Studs Terkel Well, that, in short Hulot has, there are so many implications to Hulot. I mean, the joy in seeing him, of course. But the fact that he doesn't, dissent in a different way, as you say the letters he receives. He challenges authority.

Jacques Tati Yeah.

Studs Terkel Not deliberately fighting, but in his own, by living.

Jacques Tati Yeah. By living, yes, yes. He is, he tried to, to live.

Studs Terkel How, Jacques Tati, I was about to say Mr. Hulot.

Jacques Tati No, no, it's all right.

Studs Terkel Jacques Tati, how did Mr. Hulot come to be? How did Hulot come to be?

Jacques Tati How he is coming to be?

Studs Terkel How did he come to be? How was he created? How did Hulot how was Hulot born?

Jacques Tati Well, from the observation of the people that you meet in the street. And it's not, he, the people are surprised to see maybe a character like this. But for myself I'm not, because I only took one of the heroes in the street. But if you will go around and if you look in Chicago or in New York, and you may find maybe the man who's, is going to sell a, a Frigidaire or an aspirator machine, you'll find a lot of much more Hulots that you imagine.

Studs Terkel He was then was a composite. This Hulot was a composite of many of the, I'm about to say frailties, but good frailties, the little flawed idiosyncrasies

Jacques Tati Yes, yes, yes, but that's why what -- you see, he tried to take, to go on in life with what is good and bad, and difficulties. And it's the same thing that in the picture. Maybe critic often say that picture is not shot like this and like this, that they, in a professional way that they will. But I think this, those mistakes are, I like them

Studs Terkel Because the humanity is there, the fact that someone is alive and makes mistakes. I must say this to the audience. There's a machine now at work. It's a good machine recording Jacques Tati's conversation with me. But it was, when was, when were you in Chicago? How many years ago was that now?

Jacques Tati What, was it what, what, four years ago.

Studs Terkel About four years ago. I must make this confession. Mr. Tati graciously came to the studio. It was during the showing of Mon Oncle in one of the, in one of the theaters in Chicago. And after the interview the engineer whispered to me in a very horrified way, he says "Can you tell Mr. Tati that I had forgotten to turn on one of the gadgets," and it didn't record and the whole interview was wasted and of course I was feeling horrible and apologetically I said to you, "Mr. Tati, I hate to tell you but the in-interview hasn't worked out, or the whole hour's wasted." Instead of getting angry you began to laugh and you said "It's great! This proves your point!" And the next day it was at this hotel. We, it is very swank Chicago hotel where you were staying as a guest and you said, "By all means, have another interview." And during that hotel, this, I raised two points. I believe it was your birthday, and all sorts of food were being brought in by a dozen different men, it seemed. And then you said "Isn't that remarkable? All the ritual, but the cake happens to be pretty bad!" Now there're two points here, this is a two point story. One is the machine going bad, [laughing] and your reaction then, was the reaction that proves that maybe there's something to Mr. Hulot.

Jacques Tati Yes, yes. I hope that this one [laughing]

Studs Terkel No, this is good! I see the, I see the light going here! No, I think there, there are limits I think to the human being

Jacques Tati No, because if it didn't work then you have to come back in Paris

Studs Terkel Yeah I come back to Paris again

Jacques Tati that will be, will be another trip and then you will hope you enjoyed your second visit.

Studs Terkel Mr. Tat- thank you. The other point, though. I don't mean to denigrate the hotel or anything, but there's, I think that there's something to this story, the tremendous panoply and show whereas the nub, the core is not very good. I mean the showing, the footmen, or whatever they call, the, the waiters all coming up, with all the ritual was there.

Jacques Tati Yeah, because the people I use now to, to reveal the decoration and presentation. You, if you want to sell a good cheese you have to have the best packet, the best color, the best. And, it is not exactly sure that it's the best food, you see. For myself if I come in, and I did, in a small house in New York, and Mama go alone by herself in the kitchen and she'd make food for two or three friends. I think we have a, we have a, wonderful food and, and, and I'm, and I'm sure that if we, if you make the comparison between that big important meal that we did have, and that, the nice little food they keep making by hand, and make the right soap inside them, and make the right soul. I'm sorry, I put soap. But I mean, because then has been made by somebody with art. And in that big hotel I know that the man didn't do it by, by heart.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And so the, as you said the ceremony was all there but the, the, the, the core itself wasn't.

Jacques Tati Yeah, but very few people you see -- they all say, oh it was wonderful or we had such an evening, or thank you very much for, you see, they, that conversation start to bother me because it's always wonderful and marvelous and they don't mean it, you see. So, I'd much prefer to come to, when you don't find that the food was so good, to say well, all the people here are, are very nice, but I, I find that the food is, the cake is

Studs Terkel And that was going to stun the man. But here again, you're also defying the, the packaged conversation, There's a package, the food and here's packaged conversation. You hear the sameness in the conversation, the phrases used, wonderful and good. I know you're in the middle of many things, and you're giving me this time in your Spectra Film office here in Paris. 34 Faubourg, Saint-Honoré. I will someday, the

Jacques Tati It is good you give the wrong number because otherwise I will

Studs Terkel Oh, it is the wrong number?

Jacques Tati Yes, but it's all right.

Studs Terkel Oh I shouldn't have to call that. [laughing] Good, then. I'm, I'm, I'm truly Hulot at times. But the, the question of you and Mr. Hulot. It's been so closely associated with Jacques Tati, does this become a problem of yourself, you, your own personality, Jacques Tati being submerged to Hulot? Does it ever become a problem?

Jacques Tati I don't think it's a problem because I am a little, a, a prisoner of Mr. Hulot's character, you see? And as I say to you before, I, difficult for me to change my car because, I don't want to be against the other comic, but it would be impossible for me to come in a Rolls Royce with a chauffeur and somebody would open the door. I think Mr. Hulot, the character would be wrong. And, the moment I am, I'm obliged to drive my car alone and be Mr. Hulot, I am a lovely prisoner of a, of a man that I like,

Studs Terkel I That's the question, a prisoner of a man who you feel is so much like yourself.

Jacques Tati Yes, because I couldn't, I don't think, I, I don't, I think my picture, maybe the people find a lot of construction, or not, that's wrong, but it's by simplicity and it's, they are honest. And I, I don't think, I don't think you can be honest if you coming with your own Rolls. Yes, when you are traveling and the people ask you to visit New York State and you come in the Cadillac that they always do

Studs Terkel That's when they order it. That's not yours.

Jacques Tati No, I mean you, you sure that that car is going to, you're going only to use it for 24 hours or so.

Studs Terkel You're not really a prisoner of Hulot. I mean, this is a man you welcome.

Jacques Tati Yes.

Studs Terkel In a way, he is almost, is he a caricature of, of, of your own qualities?

Jacques Tati Well, I think I've been living a little bit like this. I mean, I, I think from the beginning of the school and a student and I've always been little bit, not exactly as Mr. Hulot.

Studs Terkel Oh

Jacques Tati But, a, a, a little bit. I, I was yesterday in London and I came back, and I find in my pocket this morning the, the, the very big key they have to open the door in the hotel, [laughing] but so heavy that it was

Studs Terkel Felt you had it

Jacques Tati Yes, and I, I, I passed the customs, you see. They didn't find my key. [laughing] And now I am very embarrassed to, to send back the key because it's really -- and you see, they always give you a very important, heavy key that you show that you, you're not going, with you. And I came from London with that key, you see? No, I, I finally got the key in my pocket.

Studs Terkel Well, this key may well find itself eventually one of your creative works.

Jacques Tati Yes. What, what, what I feel, right, and I told you that four years ago in Chicago, that I'm sorry that the distributor, or the people who do show the picture, it's not a question of money point of view, because if the picture makes, they are always thinking about grosses, we did so much and so much. That is not the point that was important. The point was important that I don't know why and I don't know, I don't know the reason why the, the popular people, wouldn't come. It's making by, it was a point as art picture and the moment they hear about art picture they was thinking that it's maybe something very difficult, too

Studs Terkel Esoteric.

Jacques Tati Esoteric. I, I feel sorry because when I'm working, I'm work -- I'm, I'm working to make the people who get up at 6 o'clock in the morning and take their coffee and go by bus, or their work. And I feel sorry that sometimes we don't play Hulot to those kind of picture, to the, the people for who I'm working first, and who they're made for.

Studs Terkel Well doesn't a picture like Hulot have a mass appeal? I believe it would. Does it not?

Jacques Tati I don't know. For the moment, you see, they have a, the other distributor got a very important publicity, big television break. And we always play in, I like the small city, remember I wish that

Studs Terkel Of course. Is it the distributors, this is the question I'm asking, because just yesterday René Clair was saying something. The true audience have a picture in the Chaplin sense, one that has a, sure there's an art film, but a broad appeal, at the same time art. Good, but why not, because it is a mass medium. I think Hulot, I mean it occurs to me that I think everyone who sees Hulot

Jacques Tati Yes. That, when they come they, they, they understand, because I always defend the, the dialogue of the popular people, because here the, the, the conversation of popular people who work in the little cafe, it's much more clever than the dialogue that you hear in a, in a big party, a cocktail party where you hear always the same sound, and it looked like if it's an international sound and you, you have heard all the words coming one after another one. Ahh it was wonderful-- It

Studs Terkel It has that same packaged gray sound.

Jacques Tati Yes. So that is, you, not obliged to listen. If you had a record and you put that over and they say now, again in, in a cocktail party, so I know. But in that little cafe in Paris you hear so little detail in the, the language, and so little observation by the people that they did observe. And in a clever way that I feel sorry that sometimes we don't come play this picture, only even if it's free, coming coming. All right, you come. But just to show them that they are right.

Studs Terkel You doing that. There's one last question, involving you, your, your, your project, your current project.

Jacques Tati Well I'm, I'm always defending about the same stuff, and I'm, I'm doing it maybe in another way but I'm going to have a, in a very big building. The building will be the same decoration, the same window. We are going to use the same chair from one office to another office. And the same chair, you will have it from your house to this office. And the same decoration will be the same for what you call pharmacy drug, drugstore, when you go for medicine or you go to a butcher. And all would be the same except in that big decoration you will find all the people that even with a modern decoration you would, can recognize that this man, he's a man who is -- got character. The other one got also another character and it's a defend of personality and individuality.

Studs Terkel This will be your comment then on conformity.

Jacques Tati Yes.

Studs Terkel Comment on conform -- And we look forward, I think, I understand that Hulot, this is the last question, that Mr. Hulot will be played in America, or is being played and I know there's like a catch to it?

Jacques Tati No. It's, it's, it's started. I think it's start again, and I tell you I have a lot, I do have quite a lot to do now.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Jacques Tati No, but no, but no it's, I want to ask you, I want to tell you a question that you see, all our conversation is, is right. Right for one reason, that I was in Chicago four years ago. You were very nice with me. That, I remember it very well, and that's why our conversation will never stop.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much. Thank you, Jacques Tati.