Friday, April 2, 2010

Monsieur HAL's Holiday

My streaming Netflix selection of late was Jaques Tati's Playtime. Some movies you watch because they sound like fun, others you watch because you have grown up reading rave reviews about them and you simply haven't gotten around to them until now. I was hoping Playtime would be both. I went at it with no preconceived notions, save for the one that Tati (whose work I had never seen) was a genius.

I didn't like it at all.

The movie struck me as comedy blind - there were five minute cutless longshots where literally nothing happened, punctuated by the mildest of sight gags - man pokes a dent into a chair cushion, chair cusion pops back out for example. What's more, the film takes place all within a single, sterile city block in Paris, and after a while it seems less like comedy than a document of the world-view of an obsessive compulsive, someone who is constantly bedevilled by odd numbers and acute angles. The dialogue (in French and English) was meaningless blather. I just didn't get it. Oh and it was too long and there was no real story.

Suspecting that the problem might be me and not Tati, I did a little research.

Playtime, (French, 1697) it turns out, is an incredibly ambitious comedy. A big part of the problem is that I watched it on TV. It was shot in 70mm and meant to be seen not just on a much larger screen but also with the multi-channel sound system that Tati mixed himself. Like those camels in the distance in Lawrence of Arabia, sometimes the joke is simply too small to make out on televsion. And Tati hated closeups, preferring to shoot long or medium. He intended to direct your attention to the funny joke in the upper left corner of the screen by mixing the sound louder there. In other words, you have to completely change the way you watch movies in order to find Playtime entertaining.

The section of Paris that hosts the action is was built especially for the film. Local wags called it "Tativille". It took a year to build and the whole movie took 3 years to shoot. When it came out Tati refused to screen it in 35mm mono, and that hurt its profits. Another percieved problem with the movie is that Tati fans loved his character, Monsieur Hulot. He's like Tati's Little Tramp. Tati would just as happily abandoned him and indeed, Hulot weaves in and out of the "narrative" but in no way is the movie about him.

Tati was a perfectionist; often Playtime feels like a Buster Keaton comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick. NOTHING is improvised, nothing is left to chance. It's said that he directed the actors by basically acting out their parts for them; so in some ways it's as if the whole cast is Jaques Tati, only shorter.

Bearing this in mind I rewatched the first half-hour and while it's still not so funny, it's definitely more interesting. You can start Where's Waldo-ing the gags better. One panoramic office scene, for example, is punctuated by a red blinking light outside one cubicle and a green blinking light outside another. Watch those cubicles. In fact, bright colors are used very sparingly in Playtime and you might consider it a good strategy to mind as you watch.

Okay, so probably Playtime is less comedy and more sudoko. Still makes interesting viewing!


  1. 1697? No wonder you didn't get it! :)

    Tati always left me a little cold, but "Playtime" sounds intriguing. Your description reminds me of the mise-en-scene comedy of Blake Edwards, where planes of action take place in different spots on a wide screen, and you, the audience member, have to pick them out. Is there a home video version available in the original aspect ratio and audio?

    I'm also noting my post on "It's a Mad(x4) world." "Playtime sounds like a perfect opposite to it: A 70mm epic-style film starring nobody, where nothing really happens. Especially if you consider the 3+ years of lead time before production started: The scripting and planning probably started when "IAMMMMW" was out in international release.

  2. Ahh, you missed it, then you caught it -- a little bit. First, a disclaimer: Playtime is my favorite film, and has been for some time. There is a wealth of critical material on the film, much of it available online. The best article I've read is in a book, "Architecture and Film," edited by Lamsher. Anyway, I first saw Playtime almost a 1/4 century ago on videotape. All I knew when I recorded it was that it was a four-star effort by Jacques Tati, something like "The Charlie Chaplin of France." Well, I was about 20 minutes into it and completely dumbfounded. Then, I laughed. Stop everything, it's a comedy! Rewind, play, laugh. It's been an adventure ever since. In 2001 the 65mm negative was restored under the supervision of Tati's daughter -- an editor and documentary filmmaker herself (since deceased). Living in Los Angeles, I have had the pleasure of seeing the 70mm restoration projected theatrically several times now. Yes, it is a completely different experience on a big screen with a receptive audience.

    There is a roadshow touring right now of all of Tati's works; it has already played NYC, Boston, Chicago and L.A. Though I don't know where you live, if you ever have the opportunity to see Playtime presented theatrically in 70mm, don't miss it. There are also fine Criterion DVD and Blu-ray releases of the 70mm restoration (although made from a 35mm internegative, I think).

    I like to call the film, "The 2001 of Comedies." It shares much in common with 2001: it was shot over a 3-year period outside Paris while Kubrick was shooting 2001 in London; both are shot in 65mm, both are unconventional stories and rather revolutionary departures from traditional narrative. In fact, if you open up the famous jump cut from the bone to the spaceship in 2001, you can insert (so to speak) Playtime, and you will have a more-complete picture of late mid-20th-Century life.

    Playtime is nothing short of profound. It never fails to leave me happy and content at the end, as urban life itself devolves into a carousel of interaction, movement, color, and pleasure.

    Tati's previous film, Mon Oncle, is a nearly perfect film (1958 Foreign Language Oscar), and very much worth seeing in the context of Playtime, as Tati's concerns with the Old and the New are a precursor to the complete domination of Modernism in Playtime.

    As in all of Tati's works, they are sublime comedies, and profound commentaries on the human condition.


  3. Thanks for the insight ScottMK! All of Tati's films (by all I mean all 3) are available for streaming from Criterion via Netflix, so I'm catching up. I watched most of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday last night (it's a lot more user-friendly, God knows!) and Mon Oncle is next. Then I'm taking another crack at Playtime.

    Incidentally, Playtime is available on Blu-Ray.

    It occurs to me that Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean owes a lot to M. Hulot; the difference being that Bean lives among us whereas Tati took the trouble to build a parallel universe for Hulot to stumble around in. It's most evident in the crowd scenes.

    Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy probably owes a lot to Tati too.

  4. Thank you, too, Danielk. 1 small correction: Tati made 6 feature films. They are: Jour de Fete, Les Vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday), Mon Oncle, Playtime, Trafic, and Parade. There are Criterion DVDs of Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, and Trafic; to date, only Playtime has been reissued in Blu-ray. The Trafic 2-DVD set contains two excellent documentaries, one from 1973 and the other from 1989.

    There is also a new (2009) documentary on Tati, inspired by the biography written by David Bellos, titled "The Magnificent Tati," by Michael House . Unfortunately, I missed the Los Angeles premiere screening last month, and I don't think that it's available on DVD yet.

    Like all great artists, Tati's work represents a unique and singular vision.