Beginners’ PlayTime

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…


15 Responses to “Beginners’ PlayTime”

  1. It’s actually PLAYTIME that converted me (grudgingly, I admit) to Jacques Tati – that and MON ONCLE.

  2. Mon oncle and Les Vacances de M. Hulot are my favourite Tati.

  3. I like them all, but by testing the waters I’d found that the visually sleek mid-late films had more instant appeal for Fiona than the pastoral early work. Hopefully we can work backwards from PlayTime.

    The biggest mistake with Tati would be to not find the films funny and then dismiss them as not your kind of thing. I really don’t think you have to laugh to get them: if you really watch a Tati movie, the world is transformed, you see things through his eyes. Human character, via posture and movement, is illuminated.

  4. Playtime is both the apotheosis of Hulot and his eradication. As Tati so memorably said “Playtime is nobody.”

    The masterpiece of masterpieces it must be seen on the largest screen available with mag-stereo sound. Tati shot the film silent and spent two years creating every sound heard in it.

    WAY off-topic: Norman Wisdom R.I.P.

  5. They showed Playtime in the Egyptian Theatre at the TCM fest last April. I went. It was jaw-dropping to see it on that big screen in 70mm. With that and the release of the restored Mr. Hulot’s Holiday not too long ago, it’s been a good year for Tati in his proper movie theater environment. ;) I find he is a bit of an acquired taste and I have to adjust my mindset, or should I say, the pace at which I expect things to move, at the beginning of a Tati film. Once I’ve made the shift, then it’s all quite lovely and one becomes happily lost in Tati-world.

  6. I remember the first tape of Playtime I saw and it was worse than pan & scan – each scene was framed 1.33 and the extraneous sides cut off, no pan/scan at all, so some gags were totally eliminated. It was frustrating to know something was happening but not knowing what.

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Tati’s movies are the highest level of comedy in the sense that while his works are funny what we are laughing at comes out of a refined recognition of our follies. So PLAYTIME is the achievement of that aspect of his work. It’s a really melancholy movie but full of fun. One thing which I love that nobody mentions is the main motif which is let loose at the climax in a hurdy-gurdy version around a carnival of cars in a circle. It’s simple but melodious. For me watching PlayTime(on a very small screen sadly) what affected me was not the technique, the grandeur of the sets(which is incomparable) the sound design(unparalleled) but the mood and tone of these people, their connections to each other fragmented, lost, re-arranged and distorted. It also has one of my favourite bar scenes.

    For me, Tati never made a bad film. One thing that I do take issue is the de-valuing of Trafic, the film after this, partly by Tati, but followed through by everyone else simply because it was a comedown after PlayTime in that it’s a Hulot movie but it’s much more successful than Mon Oncle which while great doesn’t entirely hold up as his other films. His final film Parade an “alleged” documentary is a real super-masterpiece. After Playtime, M. Hulot’s Holiday it’s his best.

  8. I like them all and I think they’re all successes at their varying tasks. PlayTime is the most impressive because it sets itself the biggest, most abstract and almost metaphysical tasks (do I even know what I mean by that?).

    Norman Wisdom’s death isn’t that far off-topic because he was, in the 50s, our nearest answer to Tati on the one hand and Jerry Lewis on the other. And not a very inspiring answer, but he does seem to have inspired Nick Park who I find a lot more enjoyable.

    In a sad but rather beautiful way, Norm’s alzheimer’s seemed to actually turn him into the erratic, childlike character he played on film. If you’re going to suffer senility, an authentic second childhood is definitely the way to go — he was a scamp to the end.

  9. Apropos funny, has anyone read Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘The Sacred Art of Stealing’? It’s a very enjoyable read.

  10. I read lots of Brookmyres but not that one. Now I’m on Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet.

    I think it was Dilys Powell who gave A Stitch in Time an offended review (“Sadism!”) on a par with her attack on Peeping Tom.

  11. The wondrous Ulrike Ottinger once directed a stage play based on THE HEARING TRUMPET. If only she’d turn it into a film…

  12. Here’s a vote for PARADE. I think Rosenbaum has claimed at times that it’s Tati’s masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s quite wonderful. Hopefully Criterion gets to it, as it’s otherwise only available on VHS and Criterion laserdisc, both of which are out of print.

  13. I like Parade a lot, and in it’s more modest way it’s still attempting things which are revolutionary in terms of cinema.

    Fiona doesn’t like the looks of those hippy clowns so I’m saving that one for last. Mon Oncle will probably be our next.

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