Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Playing with Jacques Tati

I heard about Jacques Tati through Roger Ebert. I was talking to him on my criticbatphone and he mentioned this 70 mm grandiose widescreen spectacular called Playtime. Okay, no, I don't have a criticbatphone and I have never met Ebert. I heard about it through Ebertfest, his film festival. Once I wikipedia-ed Playtime and Tati, I was intrigued. This sounds fascinating. So I ordered the Criterion DVD from Amazon and watched it.

Here's what you essentially need to know about this movie and Jacques Tati. All of his films are comedies that rely on visual gags and very minimal dialogue, but sound is still very important. The major films star Tati as Monsieur Hulot, who is immediately recognizable by his tall lanky frame, hat, coat and pipe. It's his costume. Tati comes from a miming background, and worked on silent films before making his own films, so it's no real surprise that Tati has created his own French Chaplin or Buster Keaton. M. Hulot is built of the same building blocks as the silent stars, but he's much more graceful.

Playtime is the third film to feature Hulot, but "feature" isn't quite the right word. He has been reduced to a background character. In fact, the entire cast has been reduced to background character. Playtime is a film about the modern world. Architecture, technology and modernity are the main characters in this film, but they are not sympathetic characters. This is an indictment of the modern world, circa 1967. The buildings are all futuristic monoliths, imposing shadows on the streets. Everything is clean and metal and shiny and sterile.

This film is famous for its overblown budget and overblown sets (literally). The entire movie is filmed on a massive set dubbed "Tativille". In creating this entire world, Tati became a master of the detail. There is absolutely nothing left to chance in Playtime. I have only ever watched the film on my television, so I can't comment on this really, but apparently, the film is revelatory on the big screen. The canvas is so big that Tati has multiple visual gags happening at the same time, sometimes related, more often not.

In the most famous scene, M Hulot is going for... an interview? Not sure.... He is in this immense office building which is also an immense mall, and he walks past the vast sea of cubicles. He's stunned, and gets lost easily. While this is happening, two men in the cubicles talk to each other via phone, even though their cubicles are right across from each other.

The theme being put towards us in a myriad of ways is that technology is separating us, that our fancy architecture is separating us, that our ambition for the future stops us from seeing each other. In a great gag, a man on the street asks for a light of a doorman. The doorman offers the light, but there is glass between them that they couldn't even see. They have to walk to the door in order to light the cigarette.

For a mostly wordless comedy, the movie is very long at two hours. It's difficult to watch because there's so much happening that there's no way to watch it all in the first go. It's also difficult because I am a modern audience used to American comedies, not French mostly-silent satires. Us kids today, we've lost the tools to engage with films such as this. Damn kids. Get off my lawn and whatnot.

This is a comedy that isn't really laugh out loud. This is a terrific-looking engaging film about how inhuman the future is. But Tati is very hopeful. The second half of the film takes place in a futuristic restaurant on its opening night. We're slowly introduced to all these random people, the cooks, the servers, the maitre d', the rich patrons, the American tourists, the doorman, Hulot, the band, and they come together as the restaurant falls apart around them. As I say, Tati is hopeful. In the mess of the broken restaurant, everybody manages to adapt and have a great time. One great bit is when a piece of decoration falls over a couple of tables, and one ingenious characters uses it as a doorway to the drunken party he's having at the couple of tables. We can move on, Tati says.

I didn't laugh at every joke I caught, but I certainly laughed at some. I was more interested in the thematic complexity of the film. I have to admit, this isn't my favourite Tati film - that honour has to go to Mon Oncle, which is the second film to feature Hulot, and the subject of another blog post.

If you can see this movie, I recommend it.

No comments: