Monday, June 3, 2013

Jacques Tati -- an appreciation

This actually is my 100th post on this blog, so I thought I would make it a special one.

I recently (late April-early May) went on a Tati spree.  I rewatched M. Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime and Trafic (and the 3 main shorts) over a 2 week period.  I'd seen all of them before, most two or three times before (actually this was the first time through for the short Cours du soir where Tati is doing a mime class with a couple of clips of his other movies like the bicycle plunging into the water).  I'm still debating whether to watch some of the documentaries on the bonus DVDs.  In general, once you've read up on the general outline of his life and seen one extended interview, that seems sufficient.  He was remarkably consistent in his views.  I had the kids watch and they liked parts but were certainly bored for long stretches...  To be honest, I think Trafic gets a bad rap, but is just not that different from Playtime.  If anything it is marginaly more linear.  I would accept that it tries too hard in places, like the crazy car crash that is definitely over-choreographed.  I suppose it is karmic justice that in the end Hulot is blamed for all these things he had no control over whereas in the earlier films he created all this chaos and more or less skated away free.  But that doesn't mean it is any easier to swallow.  (Curiously, Tati did not care for the darker turn that Chaplin took in Limelight, yet seems to be at least heading in the same direction.  He particularly objected to "old clowns" not leaving the stage in time, and yet look at Parade...)

Speaking of Parade, in a week or so, I plan to watch it and decide whether it is a trainwreck or not.  It doesn't really strike me as something that will hold my interest (despite Rosenbaum trying desperately to make the case that it was a radical yet productive new direction that Tati was heading in).  I have to say, from what I have read, Tati really made things harder than they needed to be -- actually cutting out very funny bits from Trafic and even Playtime in the service of his view (encroaching on an ideology) that watching the funny behavior of the "every men" in these films rather than watching Hulot as the main character was somehow a "better" film experience.  Clearly, audiences didn't agree.  My impression is that he just got too rigid about it.  Another undercurrent is that he was a bit of a control freak, like Chaplin, but then also quite disorganized and thus not able to work with collaborators (and certainly not with studio bosses).

I think for some movie-goers, particularly myself, an appreciation for Tati sort of creeps up.  M. Hulot's Holiday (or Jour de Fete) are certainly the most outright comic films, and they seem quite in line with Chaplin or Keaton films, if slightly less manic.  Some of the stunts that Tati films seem just as dangerous as anything that Keaton did, and I still can't get over the shot of him riding a bike off a small hill into a lake.  It's not that hard at all to imagine either Chaplin or Keaton being transplanted to France and making these films with their incidental background music (and repeating themes!) and little dialogue.  There are snatches of conversation, but it is exceedingly rare that the dialogue propels the plot forward.  My daughter still has some trouble reading subtitles, and yet I very rarely had to read them or explain what was going on.  Of all the films, I think they had the most trouble following Mon Oncle actually.

Anyway, there is no question I didn't really get what Tati was going for in Playtime the first time around.  It didn't help that I was watching it on VHS!  And consequently, I remember passing on the Tati films in the Criterion collection at J&R Music World in lower Manhattan. Then I felt a bit stupid when they quickly went out of print (and started fetching such high prices).  But later, I saw that a local cinema was presenting it in 70 mm (this must have been part of the "tour" that Criterion set up to promote its greatly enhanced DVD set).  Many of the visual jokes made much more sense when presented on the big-screen.  And I was simply more receptive to the film the next time around.  In many ways, the films of Tati stay with me much longer than other films; my mind kind of returns to them (perhaps as if they were unsolved puzzles) the way a dog worries a bone.  Quite possibly it is their open-endedness and reluctance to go for a conventional, linear structure that makes them compelling.  At the same time, they can feel like they drag.  Every shot is superfluous to the plot, as it were, so you can often feel a bit fatigued after watching one of the films.

In the end, I think Tati was too rigid about not centering Playtime on M. Hulot.  Films generally do work better when the audience has someone to latch onto, rather than just presenting a bunch of random passers-by and showing how funny the average person is.  Democracy in humor seems a real oxymoron, particularly when perpetrated by one of the more notorious control-freak directors in the business!  For me, Playtime is certainly the most interesting of the bunch, simply because there is so much to take in, and I do think it is a shame that Tati had so much trouble getting further films made.  Who knows what might have come about with a bit more financial freedom (a la Kickstarter)?

Anyway, it appears that the Region 1 DVDs and Blu-Rays are all OOP again, so I won't provide any links.  There are used copies floating about.  BFI has a really nice Tati set with all the films except Trafic, so that is the way to go if you can watch Region 2 DVDs.

Actually, as a quick addendum the one aspect of Playtime that pretty much everyone enjoys is the chaotic aspects of the restaurant/night club on its (premature) opening.  They are shooing the workers away just as the first customers arrive.  That is pretty much my experience this morning when we arrived at our new offices in New Westminster.  There are a few severe kinks still to be worked out, but in general the move has gone smoother than feared.  I have a couple of shots of workers working on the kitchen, and I just missed the workers cleaning out the foyer (just have the stepstool left behind).  I should be able to post them tonight.

I can't actually find any stills of Playtime with the restaurant workers; they may only make sense in context of the rest of the scene.  In any case, this was still in our lobby later this morning.

And here we can see another working installing the dishwasher in the kitchen.  Refrigerator still missing at the end of the day, and no working water filter!  So not quite ready for prime time.  The shattered glass in the stairwell is a particularly nice touch for those that recall the chaos towards the end of the night club scene where Tati manages to smash a glass door and then holds onto the door knob, miming that it is still there.

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