‘La circulation’ is the word for traffic in French, but film director Jacques Tati used the synonym ‘trafic’ as the title of his 1971 film about the automobile. ‘Trafic’ is used more generally in the sense of ‘the traffic of goods and services’ both licit and illicit. In English we know the double-f traffic as the movement of the means of conveyance, but we too know it as, negatively, the movement of illicit goods and services. We speak of human trafficking and the trafficking of drugs.
I began thinking of traffic today when reading this piece by Bill Keller in the New York Times on the motorway infrastructure of New York City. Keller writes of the massive transportation problems facing a metropolis like New York City. He adroitly illustrates the opposing forces, the march of tradition and influence versus the grand ideas and fresh perspectives that a couple of individuals in moderately high places have managed to bring to some public attention. In doing so he also illustrates how challenging it is for individuals with good ideas to be heard in bureaucratic systems, filled with special interests, nepotism, and general resistance to change.
Keller’s article forced my hand, as I’d been thinking about Tati’s films lately and waiting for an opportunity to re-watch the four we have on CD. Tati only directed five or six films, and a few shorts. Some people may have heard of him due to the animated film The Illusionist from 2010, based on a script he wrote in 1956. Tati’s films humorously and gently confront the viewer with the contradictions and irony of modern life from the perspective of a figure who bears a vague resemblance to de Gaulle. Tradition meets the hyperreal.
Trafic tells the story of a hapless group of characters whose mission is to deliver a proto-type, ultramodern camper from Paris to Amsterdam for an international auto show. Tati, an American PR expert, and a schlemiel truck-driver take the camper, loaded onto a lorry, and form a small convoy on the expressway northeast to Holland. In the meantime, the camper’s display backdrop of fake trees and a large, very real log, are transported separately and arrive ahead of schedule at the grand venue, a palace of a convention center, and are set up to await the trio.
Along the way, they encounter an array of obstacles and the story is developed in a way that, like Tati’s other films, required very little dialogue. On the contrary, what dialogue there is seems almost superfluous. The scenes convey the story very well indeed. And that story is the story of modernity. While we find a man who might seem more comfortable in the polite, slow-paced society of 1950, I do not believe that his place in the new era is really the point of the movie.
In Trafic, we see the absurdity of the notion that modern (conveyance) is at all equal to ‘convenient.’ For Tati, the expressway is a metaphor for rapid change. In images that are little changed today, we see a society that seems to be moving very fast, on the verge of a breakthrough, but that is stalled at the same time. Fields of traffic cause nothing but aggravation. Bored motorists gaze blankly ahead. Minor offenses cause violence. What we see most clearly is a society that is consuming itself. Always in the background there is the image of cars being junked that bear great resemblance to those just coming off the assembly line, while on the television are images of rockets landing on the moon.
What I believe Tati says in this film is that the great advances of humanity are often little more than an absurd backdrop to our fundamental needs of comfort, of food, and of companionship on the one hand; and on the other hand he seems to say that great ideas don’t always make it off the drawing board, no matter how much better they would make life for the masses of people. Bigger minds, or bigger powers, have other plans (see the Keller piece for more on this.)
This was a film encapsulating the old saying, ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry’ from one of my favorite poems, ‘To a Mouse,’ by Robert Burns. This idea is embedded in the idea of the luxury camper. While we want to live close to the land, ultimately most of us don’t really know what that entails anymore. And in Trafic this idea is taken even further, with the camper conveyed as it is in a lorry, touching the ground only for repairs and passing customs. We’ve changed, whether we wanted to or not.
So, my recommendations for the day: 1. rent, buy, or order Trafic by Jacques Tati, forget everything you just read, and just enjoy it. 2. Read ‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns and 3. Dust off your bike. Spring is coming soon.