Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Movies of My Life

Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) is a film that I find myself returning to every two or three years. If pressed to tell you why, I’m not sure I could. Not with any degree of firm conviction, anyway. To say that it is a comedy is correct, on the face of it, but if you watched it expecting belly laughs like you might experience with, say, Laurel and Hardy, you’d be disappointed. I have seen it at least 4 times, and I have never really laughed out loud at anything onscreen. Playtime’s pleasures are more quiet and sly than robust.

I ‘ve always had this little crazy theory lurking in the back corners of my mind that Jacques Tati got the inspiration for Playtime from an ant farm. Yeah, an ant farm – That thing with a colony of ants sandwiched between two plates of glass. That’s what I feel like when I watch Playtime: It’s an observation of a species.

Tati had already has a big hit with Playtime’s predecessor Mon Oncle, which takes a look at the impersonal modern world, as M. Hulot struggles to cope with a futuristic house. As good as Mon Oncle is, it’s view of the modern world is a tad sour. Playtime, on the other hand, can be seen as a celebration of humanity on the face of the onslaught of modernism.

The film revolves around M. Hulots experiences in a world of glass and concrete. Early in the film, he has an appointment with some bureaucrat for some reason or another. This is one of the first of the film slyly humorous scenes. Hulot waits while an elderly security guard punches numbers into a huge bank of buttons and lights. He sits and waits, and finally we start to hear the clicking of shoes on a hard floor as the camera looks down a long corridor. Finally, a speck appears at the other end, and the man walks up to meet him. To describe this scene does it no justice, but in seeing it in a theatre, the ludicrousness of the little man, the long, long hallway, and the clicky shoes is disarmingly funny. It’s a normal human being doing a normal thing in an absurd scenario.

Take the sequence where Hulot is told to wait before the guy sees him. The waiting room is a glass cube, which is funny enough, but the walls are festooned with portraits of stern authoritative types, who all seem to be looking at him. Hulot can see the world outside, others can see him, but he’s still like an ant under glass.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that Playtime is just a cute broadside against the modern world. To be sure, it isn’t an accident that the architecture is presented the way it is – Cold grays and blues, and right angles everywhere. Tati compensates for this with the people that he populates this world with, however. They aren’t cold automatons, but rather a living community. The subtle message of Playtime seems to be that even in this austere world, there is poetry. Whether it’s a man doing a bizarre ballet atop a rolling office chair, or an angry man slamming a noiseless door, Tati never makes his folks less than human.

The film tradition that Tati belonged to was that of the great silent comedians, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. More than any other characteristic of Playtime (and of M. Hulots Holiday, and Mon Oncle), I love his brazenness in essentially doing away with dialogue in his films. You can hear people talking in Playtime, like the gaggle of American women, or the little security man I wrote about earlier, but it really doesn’t matter what they say. The construction of he film is so clever that dialogue is completely irreverent.

The centerpiece of Playtime is an extended sequence at a posh new restaurant where just about anything that can go wrong, does. As the time for the party approaches, work crews are literally just finishing up the contraction, and there is a running gag about a floor tile that doesn’t want to stick. Look at the patrons of this place as they start to flow in – They are all well dressed, affluent and perhaps somewhat uptight. Being uptight just won’t do in this movie, however. Tati brings several gags to simmer simultaneously during this sequence. There’s a fish dinner that never seems to get to the correct person. There’s a waiter with a torn coat that the others come to borrow stuff off. There’s a serving window that is too small to pass a dish through. All this stuff is whirled together as a jazz band plays, and gradually you notice that everyone has loosened up and packed the dance floor. The rowdiness builds and builds until Tati finally boils it over, and then brings it all back to earth in what is probably my favorite Tati scene.

Tati doesn’t really believe in bad guys, and that helps give his films that sweet glow that they all carry. With no real rooting interest in the outcome, you just sit back and observe. This was always in evidence in Tati’s films, but in Playtime, it’s carried to its logical conclusion. Although the film ostensibly centers on M. Hulot, he isn’t really the “star”. Playtime is much more diplomatic than the earlier stuff in the way the focus is distributed. The American lady played by Barbara Dennick is essentially as important to the film as Hulot, and others get significant screen time, like a fun-loving loud American diner, and the long-suffering headwaiter.

Playtime doesn’t end with bang, either. There are no great romantic moments, no revelations, and no grand comic flourishes. After spending the raucous night at the restaurant, the people just quietly go their own ways. I couldn’t have made that ending sound more boring, but Playtimes closing passages are pitch-perfect. The tourist ladies climb into their bus, and they meld back into the city. The bus joins into a roundabout with all makes and shapes of other vehicles. It’s instructive to notice that after bathing most of the rest of the film in sterile grays and blues, that this scene is a cacophony of color and noise.

That brings home to me what I love so much about this movie, and about Jacques Tati. Even in a cold mechanical world, people are people, and they’re the best things going. You just have to look.



Roger Eberts Great Movies

Cinema Styles on Playtimes’ color palette

My essay on the restaurant scene

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Ingrid Thulin

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Week of Movie Watching

Stage Fright – Another Hitchcock crossed off my list. SF was made in 1950, and was the last film before Hitch began his Golden Age with Strangers on a Train. This one centers on a man (Richard Todd) hunted for the murder of the husband of his lover (Marlene Dietrich). Stage Fright is interesting for the peculiar romantic quadrilateral that develops between Todd, Dietrich, Jane Wyman as Todd’s other girl friend, and Michael Wilding as an investigating detective who falls hard for Wyman. This one is interesting for about three quarters of its length, and then it falls off the rails. Dietrich’s character spends the whole movie acting as guiltily as she can, and then the movie throws a big curve at us, and it just feels contrived. A lukewarm recommendation.

Lacombe, Lucien – This 1974 Louis Malle film centers around a young Frenchman who is seduced to join the German police at the tail end of WW2. Malle makes Lucien a blank slate – He doesn’t seem to have any great affinity for the Gestapo, he just likes the idea of carrying a gun and seeming important. The core of the film is the boys’ relationship with a Jewish tailor and his beautiful daughter. The tailor (Holger Lowenalder) has lived a comfortable life, and is quietly realistic about what his future holds. Lucien begins by clumsily trying to seduce the daughter, but begins to build a cautious friendship with the old man, as well. Beautifully acted and photographed, and a harsh indictment of French corroboration. A great film.

Dinner for Schmucks – Some pretty good laughs here, mainly from Steve Carrell. The film centers around a corporate ladder-climber played by Paul Rudd who needs to bring a guest to his slimy boss’ “Dinner for Idiots” in order to secure his promotion and get a posh new office. When he meets Barry (Carrel), whose hobby is creating dioramas out of dead mice, it seems like a match made in heaven. The performances of the two leads reminds a bit of the great Planes, Trains, and Automobiles for the way it mixes a sweet doofus with a chronic tight-ass. The film kind of goes down the trail you think it will, but it’s a fun ride, nonetheless. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

And Also Starring...

The name Mike Mazurki is not likely one you’re familiar with. The face – now that’s a different story. If you have even a passing familiarity with the film Noir era of the 40’s and 50s, you have seen him.

As with Edward G Robinson, Mazurki’s facade masked an intelligent and refined nature. The university-educated Mazurki played some football and did some wrestling in his younger days, and it was his imposing bulk and tough–looking mug that got him in the door playing heavies in the glory days of gangster movies in the 1940’s. A look at his resume shows him popping up often in the best B movies of the era. There he is as the murderous Splitface in Dick Tracy. He’s fresh-from-prison crook Moose Malloy in Edward Dmytrks’ Murder My Sweet. He’s there playing nicely to type as a carnival strongman in the great Nightmare Alley, and most notably for me, as fiery wrestler The Strangler in arguably the greatest Noir of them all, Night and the City. He also got to help George Raft send up the gangster persona in Some Like it Hot, and has a smallish part in John Ford’s last great film, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011