As The Illusionist continues to impress audiences, Ian Hoey, ex-manager of Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema, looks back on Edinburgh’s long association with the films of Jacques Tati and a visit to the city by the director in the 1950s.
I was back in the Cameo recently, to introduce a screening of The Illusionist for a community group that visits the cinema once a month. The group, in which the majority of people are over the pensionable age, has been doing this for more than ten years now and they have a refreshingly eclectic approach as to what they come to see.
Since the group is based in Edinburgh and their cinema of choice is the Cameo, the idea of watching The Illusionist, which is largely set in Edinburgh and contains a scene in the Cameo, would appear to be as obvious a choice as ordering curry in an Indian restaurant. On speaking to them afterwards however, I was made aware of another reason many of them had wanted to see the film.
It was because Jacques Tati had written it.
Several of the members told me how they used to come to see the Tati films when the Cameo, then run by the legendary Jim Poole, would screen them on their release. In fact, it appears the Tati films were a popular choice for courting couples. Cynics could suggest that they were ideal date movies as the lack of dialogue and relatively simple plots would enable the viewer to canoodle with their film-going friend with no fear of missing crucial action.
However, while there’s no harm in a bit of kissing, whether in the back row or another part of the auditorium, this wouldn’t explain the sheer scale of the appeal of Tati’s films to the Edinburgh audience. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday ran for an incredible 28 weeks at the Cameo and a film doesn’t do that without widespread appeal and repeat viewings.
Although the days of consecutive full houses for Jacques Tati films may be long gone, there is still an audience for them to this day. Over a period of a few recent weeks, the Cameo has scheduled screenings of Mon Oncle, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime. The Illusionist is still playing to decent sized audiences with a good number of customers returning to see it for a second time or more.
Obviously, the prominence given to the sights of Edinburgh is a major selling point for The Illusionist, but there is a wider theme than that. The central character is a man out of time, someone for whom the present holds little attraction and a place where he no longer has any active role.
This in itself is not too far removed from the overriding premise of Tati’s biggest hits. Monsieur Hulot is constantly finding himself at odds with modern technology and the advancement of society as a whole is a predicament with which he finds himself fighting a losing battle. So much so that in the final unmade Tati script in existence, Confusion, the plan was for Monsieur Hulot to be killed on air in a television studio in the middle of a futuristic Paris.
It’s a shame that we never got to see this spectacular send-off for his famous character, nor the planned collaboration with the American pop duo Sparks, who were involved in the initial development of the film and whose song Confusion can be found on their 1976 album, Big Beat.
While his most famous creation may have been making an exit, the subject matter tackling society’s obsession with the media and image would have been a bold and prophetic move. Ron Mael (of Sparks): “This could have been his greatest movie, but already, in the script form it was an amazingly creative and fascinating project.”
There was to be no celluloid epitaph for Hulot or Tati as the filmmaker died in 1982 with the project, stalled by ill health over his final years, unrealised. One more unmade script, The Occupation of Berlin, is known to have been written but it has gone missing.
The big fan that he was, Jim Poole experienced first hand the man behind the Hulot legacy when Tati visited the Cameo some time in the 1950s.
“Off screen he was a very, very sad, quiet and nearly dismal person. And had the most practical mind as regards finance,” Poole once told me, before going on to describe how the first thing Tati had done on arriving at the cinema was to ask to see the receipts book to check how much money his films had been making. It was a demand to which Mr Poole was compelled to decline since his deal for the pictures was with the distribution company and not Tati himself.
This eye for cash seems somewhat ironic in view of the fact that Tati was later to expend his funds to such a degree that he faced bankruptcy. Which brings us back to the penniless magician at the end of The Illusionist finding himself alone in a world that no longer requires his style of entertainment. I had real concerns that the community group for whom I had introduced the film would emerge from the screening feeling downbeat at the underlying melancholy of the story.
“Not at all,” was the immediate response when I met them afterwards. “Times change and the world moves on,” they said. How very true, but it’s a pity that Jacques Tati is not around to see that. Although it may not command the huge audiences it once did, his entertainment still has a place, and one place it currently has it is in the Cameo Cinema.
The Illusionist is currently on release at the Cameo Cinema and around Scotland.