Resurrecting Tati

by wjw on September 6, 2010

Back in the day, when there were actually theaters devoted to showing foreign and classic films, I used to enjoy the occasional festival featuring the films of Jacques Tati.  He didn’t comment on modern life, he observed it, and in a singularly droll manner.   When one of his meticulously-crafted gags went off, you didn’t laugh uproariously, you just smiled and said to yourself, “Yes, that’s the way life is.”

Some years back, I found one of Tati’s films in a video store and rented it, intending to show it to my then-girlfriend.  I don’t think she laughed once.

I didn’t blame her.  She couldn’t see it.

Tati favored the medium-to-long shot, which works perfectly well in a theater where the screen is forty feet across, but was deadly when viewed on my little TV.  Tiny little figures doing obscure little things far away . . . I sighed and thought, “Shit, the VCR has killed Jacques Tati.”

I’m pleased to report that M Tati has been resurrected, by HDTV.  My television is now large enough, and the detail clear enough, so that I can watch the films and see everything that Tati wanted me to see.

And my god, there’s a lot to see in Playtime (1967), which is the one Tati film I hadn’t seen before, and which we uploaded from Netflix the other night.  Some of the scenes have dozen of people in them, all in a complex, intricate dance.  In the middle of the frame there are some people having a conversation, far in the background are other people engaged in complicated sight gags, and in the foreground you see a pair of waiters exchanging shoes. I can’t imagine how long it took to stage and shoot something that complex.

Well, in fact yes, I do.  The movie took seven years to make, and Tati built an entire hideous modernist office park to stage his epic in.  Real hideous modernist architecture wouldn’t do, apparently, it had to be the Platonic ideal of hideous modernist architecture.  The enormous set was called Tativille, and is probably the most hubristic film set since D.W. Griffith rebuilt Babylon for Intolerance.  (Both films were financial failures, not surprisingly.)

There is no plot.  Not even a semblance of one.  In the first half of the film we see businessmen and bureaucrats and women in smart hostess uniforms marching around the enormous modernist set.  Busloads of American tourists wander through to marvel at the wonders of hideous 1960s office architecture.  (Parisian monuments, like the Eiffel Tower, are seen reflected in windows, or standing on the distant horizon, but no one finds them worth looking at.)  Through this wanders Tati’s iconic character, M Hulot, who needs too find one particular person in all the vast office space in order to solve his problem.  (We never find out what the problem is.  It doesn’t matter.)

Hulot always seems to be moving in several directions at once.  His hat points him one way, his umbrella another, his nose a third, and his overcoat is ready to shamble off on its own.  Hulot is a character who never quite fits into his surroundings, but that’s not actually a problem.  No one complains that he’s a weirdo.  People accept him for what he is, and he accepts himself. Where the rest of the cast goes wrong is that they think they fit in, whereas they’re pretty much cogs in an absurd machine.

Tati is not actually the star of this film— he’s in a minority of scenes— but what dominates is his sensibility.  The office blocks are squares and rectangles; the cars are all rectangular; the office cubicles are cubicular; the office chairs are more rectangles; the people who work in the offices live in a rectangular apartment blocks with giant square picture windows that compel them to live their lives completely in public.

Many of the scenes have no dialog whatsoever,  providing a lesson that you don’t have to wear whiteface to be a great mime.   Many of Tati’s gags are not visible, but auditory: he pays a lot of attention to the clack of heels in endless hallways, the squeak of an office trolley, the sound that a shoe makes when something sticks to the sole.  I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would get several minutes of gags out of the sound that a plastic air-filled pillow makes when you sit on it.

The second half of the film resembles a rather low-key version of a minor Peter Sellers film, like The Party. Hulot encounters an old army buddy by chance, who drags him off to the opening night of a nightclub.  Everything goes wrong and a lot of scenery gets demolished.  In a Peter Sellers film the destruction would be the point; with Tati, the demolition is the excuse to observe the characters’ befuddled reaction, and the adaptation of the characters to the fact that an enormous piece of modernist scenery has broken off and is dangling across the dance floor of a night club.

At the end, dawn has broken in Paris, and the Parisians get into their rectangular cars, and the tourists into their buses, and everyone gets onto a traffic circle and goes round and round while carousel music plays.  At one point the music stops, someone walks into the scene, drops some money into a parking meter, and the music starts up again.  And while this goes on, other characters and other jokes proliferate around the traffic circle, as in the window washing gag I found on YouTube.

Jacques Tati.  He’s back from the dead, and as good as ever.

Steve September 6, 2010 at 8:15 am

Along these lines, you should look for “The Illusionist”, the new film from Sylvain Chaumet (Belleville Rendezvous) based on a somewhat autobiographical (and hence controversial 1956) screenplay by Tati.

Kathy September 6, 2010 at 1:43 pm

One of my favorite parts of this movie involved people entering and leaving the modernist nightclub. The doors where huge plates of glass, and a doorman opened and closed the door for entering guests. Then, someone crashes into the plate glass door, and it shatters, leaving the doorman holding the doorknob, with no actual door attached to it. The shattered glass is swept up and removed, and the doorman stays at his station, using the doorknob to open and closed a mimed “glass door” for all the guests. The imaginary door works just as well as a real door till a drunk staggers through it, destroying the illusion for all concerned.

I should also add that Art Buchwald, who wrote the dialogue for the American tourists, has a walk-on part as a tourist in a frumpy overcoat.

A movie worth seeing!

Sean Craven September 7, 2010 at 12:10 am

Thanks for the information — I recently rented Playtime and found it unwatchable. Now I know it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Tati — it was our television.

TEngland September 8, 2010 at 2:18 am

Wish I’d read this before seeing the film on TCM Monday night. I saw right away (heh) that the small screen was going to be a problem. I couldn’t see all the action in the crowd scenes, just little bits. I didn’t watch it all, just little bits as I jumped between stations, but I saw the scene with the window washer, enough to tell me there was more to see if I could just see it, if you catch my drift.

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