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Window Shopping

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  • Pages: 8
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  • Category: Shopping

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In ch. 2 of Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (U of California P, 1993), Anne Friedberg discusses the relationship between the city, modernism, film and architecture. How do her ideas of modernity, particularly her terms ‘machines of vision’ and ‘machines of mobility’, relate to 1 or 2 sequences in Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958)?

Anne Friedberg’s ideas of modernity – including the mobilization of the gaze amidst the modern city, consumerist self-gratification through fetishist agoraphilicism, and the dissolution of distinct psychological boundaries and functions separating public and private spaces, specifically encapsulated in the terms ‘machines of vision’ and ‘machines of mobility’ – can be inexorably applied to sequences in Jacque Tati’s Mon Oncle, and their interconnectibility can be realized as the epitome of this social machination is observed during the 20 minute sequence of the ‘garden party’ at the Arpel residence.

This leaves us ultimately with the melancholic realization that these ‘machines of vision’ and ‘machines of mobility’ which have manifested through the advent of modernization have irrevocably triggered the replacement of the impartial, non-materialistic genuinity of the traditional with the pretentious, consumerist superficiality of the modern. The ‘garden party’ sequence begins with a visitor to the Arpel household, as the greengrocer’s aged, coughing pickup truck pulls up outside the front gate.

We are exposed to an almost proportionately perfectionist shot – where we see a clean, grayscale, modern home occupying the top left of the frame, a dusty, colourful, old pickup truck the bottom right, and a fence the central barrier between them. The contrasting dissonance between the two areas of the frame is symbolic of the differences between modernity and traditionality, and maintains a fascinated gaze from the viewer.

As Friedberg discussed, “the tourist simultaneously embodies both a position of presence and absence, or here and elsewhere, of avowing one’s curiosity and disavowing one’s daily life”, and “tourism provides an escape from boundaries… it legitimates the transgression of one’s static, stable or fixed location”, and although the greengrocer is only performing the obligatory daily functions of his profession, he is emphasized as a tourist in the Arpel residence, strangely curious to discover what lies behind the gates.

As he rings the doorbell, water begins to spout from what can be deduced as a fountain in the front garden, and when Mme Arpel looks and realizes who it is, she turns the fountain off immediately. The greengrocer leans towards it with a bewildered, intrigued look on his face, and after he has received payment for his oranges and is walking out, we see him uncontrollably and yet cautiously gaze around – as if yearning for a more prolonged experience of this modern world, but afraid of what he might discover.

The above is a palpable illustration of the mobilization of the gaze and the dissolution of the barrier and functions of private and public ways on many levels. Firstly, the greengrocer’s mode of transport – his automobile, plays an elemental role in enabling him to travel to deliver his goods, and hence on a purely physical level acts as both a machine of vision and a machine of mobility.

It provides him with the physical mobility to travel faster, further, and view a wider variety of spectacles, than would have otherwise been possible. Secondly, we see by his hesitant body language that he does in no way feel ‘at home’ in the private Arpel residence, whereas his tension eases as he moves outside its boundaries – and this depicts to some extent the reversals of roles that public and private space has encountered with the advent of modernity.

As Friedberg stated, “the once-private interior became a public realm, and the one-public exterior became privatized”, and as opposed to the romantic warmth of Mr Hulot’s ‘vieux Paris’, we see how the modern private home is no longer atmospherically convivial but instead superficially and competitively judgmental towards the visitor (even moreso as the sequence progresses).

Public space, on the other hand, now seems to offer the freedom that the traditional private home did. It can be deduced that one’s psychological perceptions of the city must have significantly altered to elicit this sudden change, and hence that modernity as a whole has acted as a machine of vision by educing this perceptual change.

The negativity associated with both the physical and emotional artificiality that modernity encompasses is a prominent contention of ‘Mon Oncle’, and this consumerist self gratification through agoraphilicism is emphasized as the modern house is shown to become a public commodity, and hence a machine of vision and of mobility; a contraption that transports the ‘tourist’ in the home to a visually remote and exciting universe, while socially isolating those who refuse to partake in this modernistic commoditistic tourism.

As the ‘garden party’ sequence continues, Mme Walters arrives at the door, and we are exposed to a shot almost dominated by the vertical bars of the window frame which appear to the viewer like bars in a cage, with Mr Arpel on one side within the house, and Mme Walters and the garden on the other. The fact that it is indistinguishable on which side of the bars the ‘cage’ exist subtly communicates to the viewer that there is indeed no escaping modernization, that it is everywhere – indeed perhaps connoting Tati’s views that it is a social trap.

This ambiguity is further stressed when Mme Walters is confused for a hawker and told “we don’t need rugs”. She herself is an exhibit of how, in the words of Friedberg, “power was obtainable only through a triangulated relation with a commodity – “fetish”‘, as we see her wearing a ridiculous-looking, entirely unergonomic red hat, and as her dress what appears to be a hefty, designer, red, white and black rug. We see her sensation of power as she talks to Gerard at the table, using an exclusively patronizing tone – and reaching for his tie which she selects as his connection to modernization and to the new world which she has embraced.

She uses what comes across to the viewer as almost predatory sexual prowess – telling Gerard “you’re a big boy now”, and yet this is completely ignored, as he sits there seeming totally uninterested and unimpressed while she tries desperately and fails miserably to impress him – going to the extremes of informing him that she “can make paper boats”. We see how, although visually she is interesting to look at, emotionally she is the exact opposite, and yet through her confidence we see how she still considers consumerism through fashion as all that is necessary to attain fulfillment in her life.

Her fundamental lack of power, and hence superficial delusion, is clear as Gerard, who is uncompromisingly disinterested in this modern world, not only fails to be influenced by her, but plays a prank on Mr Pichard by whistling and causing him to impact with a pole – true power for a child indeed. The fact that the child is now committing this prank in his own home, rather than in public, again emphasizes the role reversal through modernity of public and private spaces.

When the Pichards arrive at the garden party, they bestow a bunch of plastic flowers to Mme Arpel, Mr Pichard saying that ‘they’re plastic – they last and last’, and this falseness which seems to undermine the entire purpose of flowers – their odour (as Mme Pichard jokes, “they do smell like rubber”) emphasizes how the have become purely a consumeristic statement in the modern world rather than a genuine and practical gift; how its purchase was the fulfillment of a consumerist, agoraphilic fetish, which mobilized their thoughts and vision through their acceptance of its functionless modernist symbolism.

It is unarguably, however, both the front garden and the interior of the Arpel residence itself that is the ultimate machine of vision and of mobility in the film. Friedberg states that ‘the city itself was a machine for mobility generating a newly mobilized glance’, and this is faultlessly true of the residence – it not only uncontrollably mobilizes the viewer’s gaze due to its visually arousing architecture and landscaping, but also acts as the cornerstone for the emphasis of consumeristic agoraphilicism and materialism in the film.

Friedberg describes the modern shop window as a ‘proscenium for visual intoxication, the site of seduction for consumer desire’, and this is again true of the residence, intoxicating the gaze of the viewer, and seducing them to participate and compete in this unspoken consumerist pursuit.

We see, as the hosts and four guests are sitting cramped and uncomfortably on white, thin steel pole-backed seats at the table in the beginning of the sequence, that the fence and various panels of the house are a mixture of several visually alluring greys, behind a landscaped garden of orange, pink, and blue-grey pebbles, perfectly leveled and distributed grass, trimmed thick green bushes and shrubs, scattered different-shaped and sized round-grey stepping-stones, and a rectangular navy blue pool of water containing an immense and visually provocative aluminium fish fountain.

We are visually overwhelmed by the almost dystopian yet pleasurable balance of the scene; we are visually comfortable with it, and yet at the same time panicking at its almost surreal cleanliness and perfection. This sensation is described perfectly by Friedberg’s statement about visual mobility; that ‘all arts of travel have for their goal the very illusion of immobility: in the panic and pleasure of transplantation the spectacle of a stability’, and are clearly aware that ‘the development of architectural spaces’, the garden, ‘encouraged such mobility’.

We see the interior of the house as Mme Arpel shows her female guests – the living room a vast, generally empty concreted space, with the occasional black or white, architecturally linear or circular and yet functionally limited piece of furniture, as she declares “it’s modern – everything’s connected”, and then leads them to the place where she “is really at home”, the kitchen, which is a bewildering maze of electrical concoctions – and as she pushes various buttons which cause the release of various loud and bizarre noises, the guests seem alienated and unfamiliar with their functions.

This is juxtaposed against Mr Hulot’s arrival – dressed in ordinary clothes on a tattered bicycle, as our gaze is mobilized between the two worlds – Mr Hulot seems welcoming and unperturbed, although uninteresting, and Mme Arpel’s almost communally isolating, although visually stimulating.

The sequence unfolds to what inevitably results in a visual circus – with a broken fountain spurting out uneven squirts of dirty water, all these colourfully covered guests jumping around carefully and tediously between stepping stones in the garden whilst carrying modern furniture, while we see Gerard and Mr Hulot wringing wet clothes out of the circular windows upstairs, uninvolved in the disarray below.

The water pouring out of the windows come across to the viewer as crying eyes lamenting over the chaos that modernization has inflicted on those who have welcomed it, insinuating that it is now an unstoppable, negative force. However, this visual display reinforces in the viewer’s mind the fundamental role modernity plays as a machine of vision and mobility, as the impractical yet intriguing visual appeal of the modern home mobilizes the glance of all those in its path.

Anne Friedberg’s ideas of modernity, that it creates a fetish for consumeristic self-gratification, blurring the line between private and public space, and most importantly acting as a machine of vision and of mobility, are paraded before us in the ‘garden party’ in Mon Oncle, where practicality and traditionality are trumped by consumeristic superficiality and modernity, in a world which has no choice but to accept, and indeed make the most out of, this socio-visual evolution.

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