Monday, April 6, 2020

Jacques Tati | Parade


what is a circus?

Jacques Tati (writer and director) Parade / 1974

I generally do not like circuses. Although I do fondly remember when my father took me, and I think my younger brother David, to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus when he traveled into Cedar Rapids, by train I believe, to perform at the venue titled Hawkeye Downs, just outside of the city. I recall that my father, not very attuned to entertainment—he primarily loves sports and Westerns—took us quite early in the morning to see the set-up of the great circus venue.
     There we took in a side-show—although I think my father refused to allow us to see some of the freakish events—and then we basked in the major, three-ring circus of tigers, elephants, jugglers, dancing women, and the wonderful clown of the day, Emmett Kelly. I had never before experienced by father so open to the simple celebrations of pleasure. I’ll never forget that very long day—something a bit like Cecille DeMille’s memorable The Greatest Show on Earth—without, fortunately the great train crash. But everything else the movie portrays was there: trapeze acts, lumbering elephants, horses, lions, tigers, clowns, and an eager audience for the entire spectacle of it. I love my father for having taken us to see it.
      Yet there was something, even as a child, I hated about it all. The whips used to keep the beasts at bay, the dangerous vertiginous heights that the trapeze artists took to simply dazzle us, the silly cars stuffed with too many clownish figures. I have always felt that, despite the spectacular events, there was something impossibly dangerous about living at the edge of circus life. The bearded lady, the dwarves, the two-headed monsters, were not something I really wanted to witness. As much as I love theater, even in my childhood, this was not my true idea of entertainment. James Stewart was locked into his role as a clown because of his past. And all that fake laughter, I couldn’t bear.
      How different is Tati’s European take of the same kind of event. Here the male audience of 1975 in Sweden mostly leave behind their motorcycle head gear instead of hats as they pour into a large tennis-venue to see Tati’s version of a circus.

     Yes, there are jugglers, who in this case mostly juggle artist’s paint brushes. There are animals: a seemingly nasty mule and prancing horses. But the major form in this show is pantomime, performed mostly through the master of ceremonies hero, Tati himself, as he imitates the playing soccer, tennis, and other sports. Serious musicians are interrupted by tumblers. Drummers intrude upon otherwise well-intentioned actors. This is the world of the Marx Brothers.
      Of course, Tati himself is a kind of clown, but here the clowns are also the artists, who throughout the production keep painting the sets on stage, representing the images—sometimes crudely clown-like (a bit like the art of Red Skelton) with more interesting abstract productions. The artists who remain on stage for most of the production, represent a performance in creation. They are as important, in this production, as the major circus artists, and they engage the audience in their antics, sometimes attempting to find colors: a blue, a purple, a red to create their vital art.
     In fact, the audience is central here, not just a huge aggregate sitting far away from the three-ring circus. People come and go, they sing along with the songs presented by the performers, they actively accept the balloons with which they are presented, some of which are used to create music.
A young girl keeps her eyes poised on a childish and sometimes churlish young boy behind her. Even if I might never have been able to participate with that audience, some of whom dare to take on the stubborn mule—the young boy finally able to tame it through an offering of food and a truly lighter settling across his back—there is something just so enjoyable about this stubborn Swedish folk that you have to love their pleasure in the event.
      Most critics have argued that this is not Tati’s greatest achievement, and I’ll agree. But Parade is a kind of statement, of sorts, of what performance can truly mean. I don’t think my father would have enjoyed this more vaudevillian version of the great spectacle he (and perhaps even I) might have sought.
      But Tati’s world is not so much about the spectacle but about the art itself—in every sense of that word—the sets, the costumes, the subtle ability to entertain the audience. The parade, in this case, is not at all like the performers in Show Boat or Jumbo. It’s a passage of time and pleasure, an intersection between the audience and the performers on stage.
      The backstage workers, the painters, the almost accidental performers, are just as important in this instance as the “master of ceremonies.” Tati, although often as brilliant as ever, lets his subordinates control the stage. And his audience is as important, in this film, as what he’s representing. In this brilliant piece of cinema, no one seems left out.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).

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