What is your wilderness? I have my own.
It has no boundaries, but shifts its grey
And crumbling landscapes through my skull,
Shuffles them, while I stand, and stirs the dark
Air that I breathe.
Oh, you innocents! You nonentities,
Caught up in the illusion that to move
Your bodies to and fro is to be alive.
How have you added to the sum of things?
The brooding images
That haunt my fatuous hours have sharper focus
Than anything you see with daylight lenses.
If you could see what I see, you would find
The world too vivid, too extraordinary,
To be endured. It is not easy
To blind the brain, and pull the curtains down
Across the vision. No. It is not easy
To ignore the stories that are being told
Moment by moment by a torn sleeve,
By a tilt of the hat, or the humped shoulder,
Of the delicate suffering at one's elbow.
Oh God! The endless, generous profligacy
Of every sliding second. There's no end
The invention is so rapid, various, profluent.
Another and another, each one in the weird wake
Of something vaster.
- Mervyn Peake, 'Mr Loftus' (1950s)
Another of Peake's previously unpublished plays, 'Mr Loftus' is now available in its entirety from the invaluable Peake Studies, Vol. 14, no 1 (pdf).
Like an Oblomov in a London attic apartment, Mr Loftus, also referred to as the Earl of Mattress, spends his days in disdainful idleness. Visitors are welcomed with a warning to "Keep further off; you smell of activity." And when Loftus scolds his faithful servant for not having woken him, the servant explains: "I tried. One has to dig for you, sir. Awaking you is like some dreadful deed in a bone yard."
If this sounds like vintage Peake, 'Mr Loftus' indeed contains some delightfully weird dialogue and occasional flashes of "the ice-green light of zoneless poems". After the introduction of its eponymous hero, however, the plot is rather disappointing, especially besides his much more savage play 'The Cave'.
Both plays share the theme of the artist who places himself outside of conventional society, but where 'The Cave' put this tension to dramatic use, and in service of a philosophical search for ultimate truth, in 'Mr Loftus' the intentions of its slothful hero never really become clear. Except when it is said of him that:
He's vaster than any of us.
We do our best within a little field;
He does nothing in a great wilderness.
Made after his masterpiece 'Playtime', 'Trafic' (1971) is usually regarded as a lesser Tati. This still means classic and inimitable comedy, but besides the film is a fascinating document of the troubled (and ultimately failed) collaboration between two masters of visual comedy, Jacques Tati and Bert Haanstra.
After 'Playtime' had financially ruined Tati, his next project needed foreign partners. Tati and Haanstra already knew each other - Haanstra's 'Zoo' had been screened alongside Tati's 'Jour de Fête' - and they decided to co-produce and co-direct 'Trafic'. Not surprisingly, this case of two captains on one ship - and large-egoed ones at that - was doomed to fail, and after initial shooting Haanstra left the project.
The final film, however, still clearly shows Haanstra's contribution, creating a unique blend of Tati's dramatic and Haanstra's documentary visual humor.
'Trafic' picks up exactly where 'Playtime' left off: with automobiles. This time Monsieur Hulot is involved in transporting a camping car from Paris to an auto show at the RAI in Amsterdam. The camping car is at least as cleverly designed as the futuristic house in 'Mon Oncle', but transported on an old lorry and accompanied by M. Hulot, it will take most of the film and endless breakdowns and chaos along the way for it to reach Amsterdam.
After the increasingly abstracted world inhabited by M. Hulot, culminating in the unrecognizable glass and steel Paris of 'Playtime', 'Trafic' takes place in a much more realistic and less stylized world - probably due partly to Haanstra's influence and partly to budget restraints. Much of the story takes place on the road between Paris and Amsterdam, in garages en route and around the RAI, while in Amsterdam there are even glimpses of hippie culture.
The film is at its best satirizing the epidemic car culture which in the early '70s was already causing choked roads and chagrined drivers. Here Haanstra's contribution shows in a documentary sequence of car driver behavior - a kind of 'Zoo' in a traffic jam. Another highlight contributed by Haanstra is an early scene in the RAI, with the show's organizers walking around in the empty exhibition hall stepping over invisible wires.
For Tati, of course, making fun of cars was part of a broader critique of modern civilization, which replaced organic life with clinical, mechanical organization, or in Ellul's term, with technique. Here 'Trafic' falls somewhat short - especially compared to 'Playtime' - despite its title, which in French refers primarily not to traffic but to the exchange of goods.
Perhaps the film articulates this overarching theme best in its parody of the emerging self-importance of public relations, with a hasty, over-efficient American PR lady causing much of the havoc on the road, before letting her hair down and accepting the organic chaos of M. Hulot's world.
In Tati's ultimately melancholic conclusion of human relations becoming increasingly mechanized, this is his optimistic note: at least one PR soul has been saved.
For Dutch speakers, the Tati-Haanstra collaboration is recounted in detail in this chapter from a Haanstra biography.
And here's a great collection of 'Trafic' posters.