Saturday, August 09, 2008

Promises of Mobility

Carscape from Jacques Tati's Trafic (1971) (Source)

The signing of the treaty establishing the European Economic Community in 1957 has had an interesting effect on car culture in Western Europe, so says a 1962 Time article on "Filling Europe's Highways." This effect was noticeable. For example, one executive boasted (from a car showroom near the Arc de Triomphe) that 40% of light trucks in France were manufactured by Volkswagen. This was a testament to how reduction of cross-border tariffs facilitated a situation where the largest car manufacturers in Europe (Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat) were poised to dominate European markets. Time also noted that this new spirit of economic unification creation had a palpable psychological effect on the population of Western Europe. In other words, everyone now wanted a car. The article states that "Common Market economists agree that the chief reason for the auto boom is the buoyant psychological climate which the vision of a single market of 170 million customers has created in Western Europe." When the narrator of a 1957 Pathé newsreel concerning the signing of the Common Market Treaty asks "Why a European Common Market?", he answers, "Parce que l'economie moderne exige de grands espaces vitaux" ("Because the modern economy demands great vital spaces").

The consequence for this demand is visible in Trafic (1971), Jacques Tati's last film as the beloved Monsieur Hulot. Like Tati's earlier works, Trafic takes a simple story arc as an opportunity to explore a spectrum of themes via a comedic lens. Here, Hulot plays the director of design at Altra, a small French car manufacturer. Along with Maria, a bumbling PR specialist (played by Maria Kimberly), and a jack-of-all trades truck driver (Marcel Fraval), Hulot has been hired to take Altra's latest car -- a hilariously outfitted ultramodern Camper Car -- to the international auto show to be held at Amsterdam's RAI International Exhibition and Congress Center.

RAI Interior, from Trafic (Source)

And because this is a Tati film, one can foresee that Hulot's arrival in Amsterdam is delayed due to human and technological happenstance. Trafic could be read as a continuation of the commentary on architecture and technology seen in Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). If Mon Oncle levels Tati's critique at the scale of the living unit, and Playtime at the metropolitan scale, then Trafic could be said to operate at the infrastructural or regional scale. But this distinction could be a little too facile. After all, though Tati is beloved for his comic inventiveness, he was a rather sophisticated filmmaker.

Roadscape with Tower and Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Tati takes advantage of a rather generous, yet boxy aspect ratio to portray European roadspace in Trafic. French, Belgian, and Dutch motorways are orderly and pristine. The camera follows them at car-speed as the painted meridians slide up and down the screen, in time to a bouncy jazz score. All scales of traffic are present here: large cargo trucks, family sedans, two-door coupes, police motorcycles. Most of the time, these objects are all captured in establishing and long-shots, a tactic that ensures that the various motor vehicles become part of this roadspace.

Keeping true to the tenor of the Time magazine piece, medium shots (and the occasional tighter close-up) are reserved to depict the sheer number of automobiles and their users. In these shots, arterials are clogged with vehicles. It is the opposite of the type of doggedly efficient technocracy seen in Playtime. In that film's famous last moment, cars circle endlessly on a roundabout, their motion choreographed to carnival music. In Trafic, cars barely move. They seem to move attached to each other, bumper-to-bumper, along the highway routes from France to the Netherlands. One famous long shot (see top image) fills the screen with cars, with the occasional umbrellaed Hulot-esque person walking amog the automotive labyrinth -- it is very evocative of the very scene in Playtime where Hulot looks at a orthogonal arrangement of cubicles: near static-humans affixed to their work consoles, drudging away.

Choreographed Trunk Opening, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

It is therefore highly ironic how those moments depicting the static displays inside the auto expo at the RAI seem unusually dynamic. Visitors open and close car doors and trunks, extract and retract antennae. The persistent klang of metal-on-metal becomes Trafic's only appropriate soundtrack. In fact, it drowns out the cool-jazz soundtrack present throughout the film.

Auto Expo Inside Amsterdam's RAI, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

These motion-less cars at the expo are capable of exhibiting more movement than on the motorways. When displayed under the RAI's graceful parabolic glazed space frames, the cars are (literally) mobilized by architecture.

Choreographed Accident from Trafic (Source)

As a counterpoint to the above-mentioned "carousel" scene from Playtime, the most famous choreographed scene in Trafic involved a drawn-out series of car crashes inside the Dutch border. This scene, and others, provides us with a different portrayal of technology. If the technologies from Mon Oncle and Playtime seem inept, at least they are beautiful. The gleaming surfaces of the Arpel kitchen in the former, and the shimmering glass and gunmetal grey surfaces from Playtime's Tativille set (containing some shots of Henri Vicariot's Orly airport) barely conceal a utopic promise: these films seem to capture artifacts from a not-so-distant future, only to distill them under the alembic of Tati's camera eye.

M. Hulot (L), Truck Driver (C), and Mechanic (R) Watch a Moonshot, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Trafic becomes a type of coda: on the motorways, cars and trucks in the film are either banged-up, wrecked, or destroyed. After the above-mentioned accident inside the Dutch border, Hulot and Co. take the damaged Altra camper car to a local mechanic (Tony Knepper). He lives in an ivy-covered hovel (presumably suburban) by a river. While he smooths out the camper car's crumpled dents by hand, Hulot and Maria indulge in some quality country time and camp out in a moored houseboat. At the hovel, the truck driver and mechanic watch what is perhaps the apotheosis of technological achievement at the time: Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on July 20, 1969. In another instance, the truck driver looks outside only to see a pile of junked up cars rotting on rainy, muddy plain. The juxtaposition between images of technological prowess and disrepair becomes one of Trafic's most poignant moments.

Junked Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

M. Hulot Inside the Altra Camper Car, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

But no discussion of technology in Trafic can continue without a (somewhat) closer look at the Altra camper car. Like Hulot himself, the car is a bit of an anachronism. It is a counterpoint to Trafic's air-cushioned Citroëns, ruddy Renault's, feisty Fiats and venerable VW's. Painted in an Altra blue-and-yellow scheme, the car comes to life as a type of mobile habitat. Rear bumpers become seats. Hulot cooks a steak on the radiator grill. The rear part of the car, which extends to accommodate a double bed, even contains a portable shower and coffee grinder. It is anything but sleek or sexy. It is, however, the logical counterpart to the Arpel's kitchen from Mon Oncle. That film was released only a year after the signing of the Common Market Treaty. If we take Time's prognostications about the treaty at face value, it seems strangely perfect that the public would want the technological accoutrements of the Arpels kitchen on an automobile chassis. And yet, the Altra camper car is designed to operate far way from the city, perhaps even in the Dutch countryside.

The car expo in Amsterdam is, if anything, an emblem of the aspirations associated with the 1957 Common Market treaty. Under the span of this building, cars from different countries are displayed to all Europeans. Translators and interpreters are in abundance. Announcements in French, Flemish, Dutch, and even English ring in the busy air. This even mirrors the actions of Hulot and Co. in their distraction-ridden outing to Amsterdam. The Dutch car mechanic even addresses Hulot in English.

The 1957 Common Market Treaty was only one episode of many demonstrating how Western Europe continued to create linkages in the aftermath of World War II. These linkages were cultural, political, and even infrastructural. A highway map of Western Europe reveals that Amsterdam is around 500km north-northeast of Paris. It is pretty much a straight shot. Once you are driving out of Paris' incomprehensible sprawl, you will take highway E15 and pass by both Le Bourget and Charles De Gaulle airports, testament to the city's place in the annals of infrastructural development. On to highway E17, which takes you through Lille, and then on through Belgium, via Gent and Antwerp. Once inside the Dutch border, highway A27 takes you through Utrecht and finally to the outer rim of Amsterdam.

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