Archive for October 5, 2010

Beginners’ PlayTime

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 5, 2010 by dcairns

PLAYTIME, the Jacques Tati movie pinnacle, entered my consciousness late. I do have a very dim memory of it playing on TV when I was a teenager, and in that fuzzy, pan-and-scanned form, it induced boredom and alienation in five minutes. Although I made a point of buying the excellent, extras-packed Criterion DVD, I still think the only way to see it is on the big screen — but you may have a bigger screen than I do, so BUY IT if you don’t have access to an arthouse that shows the movie once a year.

Fiona, on the other hand, is not a Tati convert. If you’re proselytizing on behalf of a movie or director or book or author, you must proceed with caution. Nothing puts the target off more rapidly than missionary zeal, and anyway, bible-thumping is bad for the binding. So I had to bide my time. Several screenings of PLAYTIME came and went, because Fiona was ill or tired on that day. You can’t drag an unwilling friend or partner to see a two-hour near-wordless comedy when they’re out of sorts.

But finally the time came — Fiona seemed just about healthy enough to withstand the rigours of the French comedy, and she pronounced herself willing to give it a try. And while the film did not rocket into her top ten cinematic experiences list as it did mine, she found herself enjoying it, to her own surprise.

Here are the favourite bits ~

Overall, the film’s beauty and scale impressed, as how could it not? Fiona is still tempted to regard the production as an act of madness — constructing a city??? But Tati had an unbroken string of hits behind him, so he was justifiably confident. And Building an airport to do comedy in made more sense than shutting down Charles de Gaulle for months.

The cinema (the historic Cameo, as featured in THE ILLUSIONIST) was rather underpopulated, so in terms of laughter, not much was going on. But I never think laughter is an essential component of one’s response to this movie, where Tati will go quite a long way out of his way to avoid an obvious joke (there are precisely two pratfalls). So anything that did get a laugh in these circumstances deserves extra credit, I think.

Fiona’s first favourite gag was the travel poster with a giant Tativille tower block slapped front and centre, later developed when we see travel posters of all nations, all equally anonymous.

At the business exposition, Fiona was pleased to report that the hinged glasses which allow you to do your makeup without despectacling, now exist for real. She laughed at the Greek column pedal bin.

The scene where glaziers transporting a huge plate glass window receive from onlookers an acapella soundtrack of Egyptian dance music, making their sideways movements appear like the figures in a hieroglyphic frieze, got a warm reaction, and just as well — I mark this as the turning point, introducing the Royal Garden restaurant, and introducing the idea of characters transforming the world from mundane to magical via the power of imagination. The beginning of play-time.

Much credit went to this moment, where the actions of the man spreading glue on the loose floor tile (centre) uncannily echo those of the waiter demonstrating the merits of the menu in the foreground. Because that isn’t an obvious idea at all.

The woman in the floor-length gown who glides through the restaurant on castors, like Josette Day in LA BELLE ET LA BETE, became Fiona’s favourite moment. And the restaurant scene itself, the most amazing sustained visual gag sequence ever (in my ever-humble opinion), was the bit that turned the tide and made Fiona conscious of actual pleasure in the presence of this film.

The Emperor of Food! Surprisingly, this got a big laugh from Fiona — probably the biggest in the cinema during the whole screening, and possibly the biggest laugh this particular joke ever received. (Striking, in still form, how much space the actual joke is surrounded with — and yet in the film, this seems perfectly natural. And at any point, any part of that space may be animated by action and comedy.)

The Loud American amused Fiona from his first appearance, but made her wonder if Tati had it in for the USA. But as the character develops, into a rather heroic nonconformist, partaking in and even initiating the transformation of the Royal Garden restaurant, and then Paris/Tativille itself, into a divine playground, Tati’s fundamentally generous vision became clear.

The only downside was that after inducing Fiona to see the film, I had to reciprocate by seeing a movie of her choice, which proved to be another big-budget, large-format French folie de grandeur… ENTER THE VOID…