Archive for Playtime

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…

Right city, wrong time

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2008 by dcairns

One of my larger incompetencies during the festival was missing the screening of OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terence Davies’ new documentary, which is serving to remind everybody what a great filmmaker, and personality, he is. But, despite missing the screening and Mr. Davies himself, nevertheless, gentle ShadowplayersI did not fail you.

A Videotheque is a special room designed for watching films under whatever the opposite of “optimum viewing conditions” is. Despite the cool name, there’s usually no dancing. You have a TV and a DVD player and a set of headphones and you’re surrounded by other people similarly equipped. It’s like being at home, only uncomfortable. Actually, home isn’t always comfortable either, especially last night when Fiona, suffering from a killer migraine, accidentally threw a live cat into my face. But there was something strangely appropriate about watching PRIMITIVE LONDON with blood tricking down my chin.

The E.I.F.F. videotheque is located in the shiny bowels of The Point Conference Centre, which looks like an office building out of Tati’s PLAYTIME, all metallic sheen and inhumanity. Adding a welcome note of the organic was regular Shadowplayer Kristin Loeer, who was running the place. Kris and her team sorted me out with various movies I’d been too slack or drowsy to catch on the big screen.

(This is part of why you should never trust professional film reviewers, who won’t tell you if they saw the stuff projected as it should be, or on a poxy monitor inside a strange metal box administered by Germans. And I can’t recall the last time Armond White admitted his viewing of, say, the latest Dardennes brothers opus had been marred by a flying cat gashing his lip.)










The movie, a portrait of Liverpool mainly through archive material, is very attentive to signs and graffiti. Narrated by Davies himself, whose sonorous, rich voice I’ve always admired (it’s how I remember my childhood G.P. Dr. Robertson sounding) this is a moving, passionate, sometimes angry and always poetic vision of a city I normally don’t care anything about, but which is brought to life like a richly textured yet unbelievably screwed-up movie character — perhaps a cross between Auntie Mame and the bad lieutenant.

The use of found footage, and its relationship to the V.O., is often startlingly beautiful. As Davies muses on the vacuum of the great British Sunday afternoon, in which children of both our generations were bored to distraction by a complete lack of anything to do, he shows a little girl skipping across a patch of waste ground, then abruptly stopping as if she’s just realised she’s surrounded by the bleakest stretch of nothingness in Britain.

The movie’s also often funny, with Davies leavening his aching nostalgia with cynicism re the coronation of Elizabeth II (“Street parties were held to celebrate the start of The Betty Windsor Show”) and the Catholic church, whose influence dominated Davies’ youth (“Pope Clitoris the Umpteenth”). There’s also highly emotive music, both popular and operatic, and many many quotations. CARRY ON fans will be pleased to hear Kenneth Williams on the soundtrack (the camp “Julian and Sandy as lawyers” bit from radio’s Round the Horne: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of out time.”)

The quotes are probably the riskiest strategy, because unlike Godard, Davies is very fond of rather familiar lines, like Ozymandias, and that stuff about the “blue remembered hills”. But it’s such a uniquely personal documentary that this seems fine — Davies “blue remembered hills” are his own, not Dennis Potter’s. And Davies has always been a populist without a popular audience. The sheer misfortune of coming along during a weird bit of British film history has bracketed him amid the artsy, when he desperately wants to address regular folks, to whom he has much to say.

OF TIME AND THE CITY will undoubtedly play many festivals and do well on British T.V. (which should be throwing money at Davies to make dramas — socially accurate, non-aspirational, poetic work has always formed the bulk of quality British television), but the real hope is that it will allow him to make another cinema film.

In its own right, it’s a marvellous example of just that, and hopefully an appetizer for what comes next.

The Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2008 by dcairns


The James Cosmo Experience.

“Production has begun on Morag McKinnon’s ROUNDING UP DONKEYS featuring James Cosmo (BRAVEHEART, TROY), Brian Pettifer (AMADEUS, IF), Kate Dickie (RED ROAD) and Martin Compston (SWEET SIXTEEN).”

This is the second film in Lars Von Trier and Zentropa’s ‘Advance Party’ project, three films using the same group of characters. I thought it was a dumb idea at first, but any excuse to make a film is a good excuse, if the film itself is good, and I have hopes for this one. The writer is gifted word-engineer Colin McLaren and the director is Morag McKinnon, both friends of mine and long overdue for a feature gig.

The scheme was intended for writer-directors (schemers are fond of limiting their options in this way, in hopes of whittling out as many promising candidates as possible), and Morag signed on as such, then found herself a bit stumped and got Colin in to help.

“Is it OK if Colin helps?” she asked.

Then, a little later: “I think we’ll have to give Colin a credit, he’s really collaborating quite actively on it.”

Then: “Colin’s writing it.” 

“A bittersweet, tragicomic tale of making amends, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS centres on Alfred Patterson (James Cosmo), who learns of his impending death and decides it’s time to make amends with his estranged daughter and her precocious 12-year-old.”

The first film in the ‘Advance Party’ scheme was RED ROAD, which won some awards and which I suppose I’ll watch at some point, but which seems, form its reputation, to embody exactly the kind of miserabilist mindset I generally can’t stand in British cinema. But I have to give it a chance.

The exciting difference with ROUNDING UP DONKEYS is the addition of humour, including an opening inspired by Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME and a lot of tragi-comic black comedy around the feckless central character and his numpty pal. (I’ve discussed the project with Colin and Morag a few times during its looong gestation.)

The same two collaborated on several previous shorts, including BAFTA-winner HOME, available on the Cinema 16 DVD, the film which introduced their lucky donkey motif, and both have collaborated with myself in the past: I produced Morag’s first ever short, THE END, back when we were babies, and edited DIARY OF A MADMAN, starring Colin, who adapted it brilliantly from Gogol’s short story. Colin then starred in two of my films, HOW TO GET UP and CLARIMONDE, proving himself the leading exponent of the Scottish Expressionism school of performance. We wrote a bunch of unmade films together, including such misterpieces as ENTITY BLOUSE AND THE SPY FROM FFABRIC and INSIDE A DOG, and then co-hatched CRY FOR BOBO after an evening spent getting outside of some wine and watching three hours of mind-palpatingly depressing Scottish short films.

So there’s history there, and so I’m no doubt biased, but wouldn’t it be nice to think somebody was making a British film that might be worth seeing? Join me in my world and believe.

“Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.”

“Homer Simpson, smiling politely.”