Saturday, August 8, 2020

Dancing about architecture


Directed by Jacques Tati
Written by Jacques Lagrange, Art Buchwald, and Jacques Tati

Spoiler alert: oh, very inapplicable

Hot take for the .01% of movie watchers that even know who the hell it is I'm talking about: the films of Jacques Tati are only barely "comedies," and are rather more like observational works of slow cinema that simply happen to occupy a universe (slightly) more absurd than our own.  They can be, on occasion, very funny, but while it is known that the very littlest thing in them (or at least every little thing in his mature works, which is to say all his features from 1958's Mon Oncle onward) was planned out and executed down to the second with a frighteningly rigid precision, on the occasions when they are funny, it almost seems like an accident of his process.  Which is part of the charm of them, actually, and I won't deny that when they're working, they're genuinely mesmerizing, and sometimes the humor of the joke (if a joke it be) is generated entirely by the stark fact that you're still waiting for something, anything, of significance to occur.  And sometimes it never does.

This approach was not uniformly successful, and I'll say this much: I find it legitimately sad that I have failed to encounter even one single piece of writing or commentary on the works of Jacques Tati that is willing to admit that somebody could find this shit boring.  I want to be clear on this: Tati can be boring.  Very often, he obviously intends to be: as his career progressed—and really, you can trace this thread back to its beginnings—the great theme of his films began to express itself more and more clearly as a terrible disquiet with the ways that mid-century society was rendering its inhabitants less and less human with every passing day.  It fits, then, that his mature films would be filled with arcane and obscure processes that are designed to befuddle the mind with tedium and repetition, but are also so complex and delicate, or just downright misconceived, that they're just a few mistakes away from breaking down altogether.  Enter M. Hulot (Tati himself), the bumbling dipshit—the Criterion Collection's copywriter prefers "endearing clown"—who first appeared in 1953's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, and who Tati became so exhausted with over the next twenty years that, in the final Hulot film he never got to make, Tati planned on killing him, one would assume due to one last bungle on the character's part, but, knowing Tati's sense of humor, it probably would not have actually been Hulot's fault, and that would've been the gag.  In any event, the last four features Tati did get to make are dedicated—sometimes more, sometimes less—to his slow-witted and often self-centered alter ego, slowly groping his plotless path across a world he never made, in ways that are informed by, but not indebted to, the silent comedy masters, and shaped by Tati's own history as a vaudeville mime.

That this is not a formula that is guaranteed to work should honestly go without saying, and frankly I think more than half the time it didn't: Holiday is terrible, and like its immediate predecessor, 1949's Jour de fête, I personally find it nearly unwatchable, even though neither one is even an hour and a half long.   I genuinely hate both, but I suppose I hate Holiday less: Jour adds the insult of spending nearly an hour of its runtime on a meandering, borderline-neo-realist phase, pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the description "immediate post-war European cinema," before it finally gets to its actual point.  Unfortunately, its actual point is recycling the jokes, and a lot of footage, from Tati's much-superior 1947 short film, "School For Postmen," except Jour has noticeably worse staging and less-punchy editing at every single turn.  (That Jour was padded to become a feature is unmistakable—that its centerpiece is somehow just as padded as the padding around it is insane.)

Holiday is a much more respectable effort, but one that has just about the same unacceptable ratio of hits to misses, so while I accept that comedy is tremendously subjective, it's a disagreeable thing indeed to be trapped with a comedy that's failing you, especially when it offers no pleasures besides Holiday's undercooked cuteness.  I mean, I guess liked it when the funeral guy mistook a spare tire covered in leaves for a wreath, which I hope gives you a sense of Tati's penchant for the comedy of "stuff that looks like other stuff," though his visual sense improved mightily as he became a more careful director.  Which takes us to Mon Oncle, which crystallized Tati's thesis for Hulot, and is a marked improvement on what came before—it was Tati's first film released in color, and I don't think even the fanboys would argue that he wasn't a filmmaker whose style depended an enormous amount on color—but, five years since I saw it, I'll cop to apparently not finding it too vividly memorable.

The good news about these films is that they were successful—I am not sure why, but they were (and, you know, you can still admire a filmmaker without loving everything he does at exactly the same obnoxiously emphatic level).  That success allowed him to make Playtime, which the consensus has (correctly) determined is his best film—though if you said you preferred the film he made next, as he reeled from Playtime's financial catastrophe, I would nod approvingly, as I like Trafic enough to save my thoughts on it for a review of its own.

But, yes: Playtime, Tati's masterpiece (though I might quibble with that), was a career-leveling setback for the director, in large part because three hit films in a row had induced his backers to loan him out all the rope he needed to hang himself, though he tied the noose personally with various unwise personal guarantys.  Here's a quick and dirty (but revealing) comparison: between Mon Oncle and Playtime, Tati's budget increased by thirty-four times.  I have a soft spot for megaproductions, however, and if Mon Oncle does indeed look its half a million francs, Playtime looks every centime its seventeen, and it permitted Tati to expand his vision expontentially.  Playtime was big: big sets; big cast; and a big format, too, photographed in 70mm by Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, making it the first Tati film with genuinely good cinematography.  To effect his idea of a society entombing itself in glass and steel, he damn near built his own city, dubbed "Tativille," a huge complex of buildings and moveable backdrops that retain a certain fakey quality, but were so large that they impress a hermetic, almost-expressionist sensation of perceptual reality upon you anyway.  As it sprawled in scale, it also sprawled in time: the film that he started developing in 1959 and began shooting in 1964 didn't manage to get finished until the very last month of 1967.  The only place it ever got smaller was in the editing room, as nervous distributors forced a severe cut from 151 minutes (!) down to 124.  Well, I suppose it got smaller at the box office, too.

Which is a shame!  (Though Tati is partially responsible: besides spending so much in the first place, he was a dick about presentation* and refused to allow 35mm prints to be struck, limiting the film's penetration to very rarefied markets, somewhat contrary to his reputation as the "democratic" filmmaker who loved the masses.)  But a shame nonetheless, as Playtime finds the director operating at the very height of his powers, though it is interesting (amongst other reasons, of course) for demonstrating, in its very distinct phases, not just the successful version of what "Jacques Tati operating at the height of his powers" looked like, but also its failure mode, one right after the other.

As usual, it has no plot to speak of, but we may summarize it as a film that follows Hulot and several others—principally Barbara (Barbara Dennek), one of a large group of female American tourists—as they arrive in Paris, and make their way to a labyrinth of indistinguishable gray highrises, resembling what the La Défense district in Île-de-France was already turning into when Tati started his project, and had by 1967 largely become.  You can subdivide Playtime further if you wished—it's an avowedly vignettish work—but I prefer to separate into just the two parts, day and night, and I could go with the bad pun and say that this encapsulates the difference in quality between them.

Day, in any event, is by far the better half of the film.  So: Hulot has come to Paris on some obscure business, and attempts to keep an appointment with a certain Giffard (Georges Montant).  This increasingly fails to happen as he becomes trapped in this modernist maze, and it's almost uniformly amazing.  The very opening sequence immediately tells you exactly what Playtime will be about: the titles are presented against an endless cerulean sky, and we drift about this heavenly realm in much the same way as its cute little fluffy white clouds do, until, in a jarring jump cut, a skyscraper appears out of literally nowhere like a concrete finger jammed into the eye of God.  Playtime then begins to ramp up toward justifying that opening gesture, and it's maybe not entirely perfect—it begins, in fact, at the Paris Airport, and other than a sound effect gag that suggests a woman may have stuffed her dog into a carry-on bag, it's almost anxiously observational and unstructured for a good ten minutes.  But this is when we arrive at the office park, with its numerous businesses—all seemingly alike, and, besides a product expo that Hulot stumbles into, each of them utterly mysterious as regards what they actually do—and Tati's production design, cinematography, sound design and choreography start interacting in ways that produce an effect I'd call hypnotic if it also wasn't so damned laugh-out-loud funny.  The exact moment this comedy finds its rhythm is easy to specify: it's when Hulot is imprisoned in a glasshouse "waiting room" and he begins to interrogate the workings of this district's omnipresent black chairs, which gently fart whenever you sit on them and almost seem alive, as they retake their shape, whenever you get up.

It'd be tempting to just start cataloguing gags.  I'll try resist that, and try to say why this works.  For one thing, it's snappy—hardly devoid of long, itchy pauses, but justifying them, making each shot individually funny even if nothing is happening.  After all, the absence of anything meaningful happening for poor Hulot is the joke, and in the moment it seems exactly as plausible as anything else that he will indeed spend the remaining 105 minutes of his movie trapped in a human terrarium with flatulent chairs, which is hilarious when the prospect occurs to you, even if you'd obviously prefer Tati didn't go in that direction.  So let's call that "pace," slow but engrossing, with the jokes clicking along in a vital, mutually-reinforcing way that Tati's other features don't usually manage.

The other, bigger thing, however, is that Playtime is freed from the requirements of needing to hit any particular quota of activity (even though the frame is often jam-packed full of activity), because it's such a staggering aesthetic achievement even before you notice the funny stuff.  Tati said he wanted it to look like a black-and-white film that somehow managed to get shot in color, but, truly, that sells the accomplishment short: it is a very monochrome film, but with color accents, and there's a greenish-bluish tint to the film's grays that gives it just the right mix of metallic and matte (neatly enough, a lot of the film's "metal" is represented by giant photographs wallpapered onto the sets—nominally to prevent glinting, but it winds up giving them an oddly subdued character that subliminally adds to its otherwordly, purgatorial impression).  Glass, however, is everywhere—so omnipresent that Hulot chases Giffard's reflection across a plaza—and this presents the modernist paradox: transparency and isolation simultaneously.  (Along with a hefty dose of "watch us be rich!")  Conformism runs rampant, and one of the funnier things is the profusion of "false" Hulots, that is, guys dressed in his trademarked garb, as even the clown is reproducible in this day and age.  The landmarks of Old Paris are seen only in geographically-whimsical reflections in glass doors.  This is the new Paris, the same as the new everywhere else.  And everything—everything—is, or has, its own box.  And usually more boxes inside that.

That these spaces aren't "for" humans is the whole of the idea, but its permutations seem virtually endless, and the real genius of it is that, with the deep focus 70mm permitting the camera to capture details even into furthest expanse of the backdrops, and with Tati's huge cast of robo-extras and his now-customary refusal to shoot anything in even a medium close-up, he turns Tativille into spectacle.  Effectively, he allows this place to have its own life.  It is not human life, and the humans who exist in it do not necessarily live well, confined as they are to the straight lines that their boxes channel them inexorably into; but it's a breathtakingly beautiful vision anyway.  For all that Playtime is worried about what happens to humanity in such conditions, it understands the appeal of this kind of dehumanization; and, as the jokes and misunderstandings play out, it finds a rich vein of irony, no doubt deliberately, in the way that Tati's own rigid and mechanistic directorial hand shapes a rigid and mechanistic world for our amusement.  It's a reflection of mid-century society that finds more loveliness in it the more absurd it gets—but, of course, at its foundation, its scenario is ultimately just a dumb guy who got lost in an unfamiliar building, which frankly is as relatable and humane (and inherently funny) a story as Tati ever decided to tell.

And then night falls, and Playtime somehow starts to leak energy in the very instant it's beginning to set up the reclamation of its humanity, which is a much more cruel and unintended irony.  It starts off well enough, with Hulot finding himself dragooned into an old army buddy's expensive modern condo, and the resemblance to fishtanks is hard to miss—though one might also liken their glowing boxes suspended in the night as even more isolated than that, whole private universes that don't interact.  But even this early into night, the rhythm of the comedy starts to stutter, and Playtime becomes rather less funny, especially as it starts leaning into its preachiness at the expense of its, well, playfulness.

For now we turn to the Royal Garden, a happening new nightclub making its shaky debut, and despite all the money and time lavished on Tativille, this represents the centerpiece of Playtime.  And I don't get it.  Oh, like, I get it: it is, again, about how modernist architecture is clumsy, and how appearance is valued over substance, and how such shallowness sows the seeds of its own destruction; and it's about how curves can beat straight lines, allowing not just a new permeability between classes, but a resurgence of human feeling.  It's also forty-eight freaking minutes long, and while it's never even remotely as hard a sit as Tati's bad movies, it opts less for structured comedy than for sheer footage, not "badly" edited (for it's technically edited astonishingly well), but edited without a solid strategy for how to translate the burgeoning happiness of Tati's cyphers into actual warm feelings.  Which I suppose would be a hard-to-avoid outcome for a style that combines silent comedy with surveillance photography.  (So while I feel like I should be frustrated that virtually all of Tati's forced cuts were made against the "day" section of the film, it's entirely possible that the "day" section sings because he did cut it down.)

Now, the "night" section in general is still fairly chuckle-inducing and cute.  It has its running gags; its visual liveliness; its caricatures of certain easily-satirized types.  The problem is that it never feels like it manages its escalation quite right.  It starts getting repetitive long before it concludes, and when it does finally end, it's in the anti-climax of nothing more exciting than a sunrise.  There's plenty of examples to choose from here to illustrate what I mean, but just one will do: there's this joke about a piece of loose vinyl flooring (the overarching joke of the whole thing is that this bourgeois hotspot is a cheaply-made rathole), and it's fairly amusing.  It gets plenty of callbacks, too—but it never actually pays off in any of the big ways that it's clearly set up.  The whole sequence is like that: it feels like an hour of set-up for a punchline that never quite arrives.

And since that's a huge chunk of the movie not to love, it makes it hard to love Playtime as much I want to, even though its first hour embodies every superlative anybody's ever slapped on it.  (Meanwhile, that dawn-set epilogue returns us to the more beauteous notions that the "day" phase had so much fun with earlier, leading into some pretty great final images loaded with some fine existentialist symbolism; so, you know, Playime ends really well.)  The formal and comedic achievements of the first half make me want to agree, hell yes, it's a masterpiece; and even the technical bona fides of managing the Royal Garden's crowd, across dozens of shots with dozens of actions inside each one, inspires respect; I even think the great half and "bad" half are arranged the right way, not just narratively/thematically, but because the last hour benefits immensely from the goodwill generated by the first.  I don't quite know what to do with Playtime, and yet its angles and reflections have colonized my mind in ways few films are capable of.  Unquestionably, it's essential cinema.

Score: 8/10

*As directors often are.  Christopher Nolan wants you to literally die to see Tenet.

No comments:

Post a Comment