Etaix Redux

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In the US, the most familiar work of Pierre Etaix is probably the poster he designed (boy, dog, umbrella) for Jacques Tati’s 1958 “Mon Oncle,” a film for which Etaix also served as sketch artist and assistant director. His own films — five theatrical features and a handful of shorts — languished in legal complications for years, until they were restored and returned to circulation in 2010.

A new box set from the Criterion Collection gathers this material in convenient form, with a generously illustrated booklet that includes program notes by David Cairns. My New York Times review is here.

It’s a diverse and surprising body of work, concentrated less on the panoramic vision of Tati than on minute and meticulously executed visual gags. The influence of Buster Keaton seems particularly strong in his first two (and apparently most commercially successful) features, “The Suitor” (1962) and “Yo Yo” (1965); the 1966 anthology of shorts, “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” abandons the timeless, silent clown quality of the earlier work in favor of a more painful comedy of irritation and interruption set in a contemporary France that weirdly anticipates Godard’s 1967 “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Weekend.” “Le Grand Amour” (1969) looks forward to Blake Edwards’s later comedies of sexual humilation, while the 1971 “Land of Milk and Honey” — the most radical and difficult to digest of Etaix’s films — is a dyspeptic documentary on a France falling back into coarse consumerism after the upheavals of ’68. Reportedly greeted with universal distaste, the film effectively ended Etaix’s career in theatrical film.

Still missing are a couple of intriguing outliers, “L’age de Monsieur est avance,” a 1987 television film that pays homage to Sacha Guitry, and “J’ecris dans l’espace,” an essay film on the development of the semaphore, produced in 1989 in an early version of the IMAX process. But there is more than enough here to establish Etaix as another of the French cinema’s grand eccentrics, and a figure who merits more thorough investigation.

58 comments to Etaix Redux

  • Robert Garrick

    Yann writes that “Film has a special look, or rather a variety of looks, which we have all become accustomed to and therefore love, but the objectively measurable image quality of digital acquisition technologies already exceeds that of film.”

    This sounds an awful lot like “put down that toy; you’re a big boy now and science has a wonderful future planned for you.”

    Many cinematographers disagree with Yann about film versus digital. Certain Christopher Nolan disagrees. But I’m perfectly happy to let all of these technologies go forward, and to let every artist pick his own expressive tool. In the “film versus digital” debate, there is no final answer.

    The problem is that film, as a mass art form, needs a gigantic expensive infrastructure. So this is a war. Something will live and something else will die. Film is what’s going to die, almost certainly. And I’m far from convinced that the digital revolution is the wonderful brave new world it’s cracked up to be.

    If you think everything’s going to be OK, please read this article, from “The Atlantic,” November 2012:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/with-35mm-film-dead-will-classic-movies-ever-look-the-same-again/265184/

    The conclusion in a nutshell:

    “Welcome to the digital world, movie version. . .

    ” . . .What does this mean for classic-movie buffs? More low-resolution screenings of DVDs in repertory theaters, fewer old films overall to see, and the potential loss of a wide swath of our cultural heritage.”

    Barry really said it all in his first post, a while back. Digital restorations quite often look like crap. At best, they’re “different.” And at worst, they’re a desecration.

  • Peter Henne

    With respect to Yann’s technical expertise, I nevertheless agree with Robert. “Re-creating the ‘film look’” as Yann put it is still an imitation, like costume jewelry, and cinephiles like connoisseurs can spot the difference. Commercial demands do not require or fuel fine matches with indiscernible differences, anyway. I beg to differ that perfect lookalikes must emerge, especially because different materials are projected and such large screen space on a theater screen has to be filled, which is the true test for the proposition. There is a lot of room for failure.

  • Robert Garrick

    Here’s another excellent piece on digital versus 35mm:

    http://indieethos.wordpress.com/tag/35mm/

    “I saw Leos Carax speak after a screening of Holy Motors this year, and he said this very funny thing in regards to the digital movement. He said, ‘I feel like we were prescribed an antidote or a medicine for something that we weren’t sick for yet. . . “

  • Digital cinema is like any other aspect of information technology: it’s a matter of constant updates, and we all are made to finance them.

    “The death of film” is a part of the 1990s jargon of IT marketing departments. IT engineers know better: film is durable, digital files are impermanent. That’s why they store digital movies on film.

    In our cinema we have an annual feature, “50 Years Ago” with vintage prints, and usually they still look great. Film never stopped getting better, which means that recent film prints will be good for use for a long time to come if properly stored.

    But we need to face reality and demand best quality for digital. Yann has a point about resolution but in my experience 4K projection makes a difference. It is already quite convincing, and from the obvious differences of the transitional era we are switching to subtle differences. TAXI DRIVER in 4K looks fantastic, but certainly it’s different than film.

  • Great discussion!

    Here’s a good, recent article from Variety on the subject of digital film: http://variety.com/2013/film/news/film-jobs-decline-as-digital-distribution-gains-foothold-1200375732/

    Here are a few thoughts of my own from last year: http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/05/passing-of-polyester.html

  • Alex Hicks

    The “the death of film” usage is also a part of the rhetoric of anti-IT folk.

  • Continuing the John H. Auer discussion, I wrote up Olive’s Blu-ray of CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS.

    I feel unqualified to speak about the man’s work since I’ve only seen CITY and HELL’S HALF ACRE. And I didn’t have the opportunity our host’s Film Comment article on Auer… with those apologies out of the way, here’s what I managed to throw together:

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/review/city-that-never-sleeps

  • Better late than never, a more optimistic Leonard Maltin blog posting:

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/premature-burial-for-35mm-film