Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jacques Tati: The Art of NOT Managing Technological Change

Monsieur Hulot in Mon OncleImage via WikipediaI just watched Jacques Tati's "Play Time" this weekend. I have been a fan of his ever since my dad took all of my brothers and I to a theater in Seattle one summer while there was a double feature of "Hulot's Holiday" and a Buster Keaton film. There was something about the man that we found almost uncontrollably funny. I thought for a number of years that it was because we were also Jerry Lewis fans and we had a soft spot in our heads (as many children do) for slap-stick. I had the good fortune of revisiting his films in college at the old Rainbow Theater in San Luis Obispo in the 80s and the films hold up - in fact, I think that "Jour de Fete," "Mon Oncle," and "Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot" are just as funny and particularly relevant for today. For those of you who do not know the Hulot character, he is a man who embodies all the simple bourgois comforts of the old France while comically navigating the modernism, technology, and American consumerism of the new France. His films contrast broken down villages, children playing in the streets, and Paris from the dog's-eye-view with the slick, industrial Mies Van Der Rohe graphite cube architecture, televisions, traffic jams, and plastic wrapped food. The modern world of Hulot is filled with loud machines, the hideous buzz of neon and florescent lighting, and the sterility of Bauhaus. Much of the humor comes in the misapplication of technology by a society that is just as stuck as Hulot in the past. Tati is an extremely talented and funny mime. His films do not depend on dialogue at all. And despite Hulot's challenges with the modern world, he is often playing loud Jazz on the radio or record player to the dismay of the clean, modern society around him. The Hulot character approaches technology and modern ways with childlike wonder, sometimes with amazement or just confusion. He is not afraid of technology; he just does not have sufficient knowledge or experience with which to interpret what is happening in the world around him.

And we see this relationship to technology and change everyday in the press, in government, and especially in education. Those are three fields where the professionals in all three of those arenas are the least prepared for rapid change. Each one of those fields depended on its students and initiates to have both feet planted in the old way of doing things in order to get ahead in their respective fields.  It is the clowns outside of these fields that are the answer. Comedy asks us to take a look at ourselves and our expectations of the world around us in startlingly new ways, and, yes, to laugh at ourselves. There is sometimes nothing funnier than someone interpreting new technology to us in the language and world-view of the old. I highly recommend at least "Mon Oncle" to be required viewing for anyone going into journalism, politics, or education.

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