Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Skuriels Countdown: #4

Jacques Tati, 1967
[15 votes]
“Seeing Jacques Tati's Play Time (1967) flawlessly projected in a gorgeous 70 mm print on the gigantic Virginia Theatre screen at Ebertfest a few years ago was one of the great movie experiences of my lifetime. Like so many movies we now consider among the best ever made (among them Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game…), Play Time was not a success when originally released. 

“What happens in it? Barbara (Barbara Dennek), an American tourist, visits Paris with a tour group. Monsieur Hulot (Tati, as his character from M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle) gets lost in a modern office complex, where he spontaneously hooks up with the group as they are guided through a trade exhibition of the latest office furniture and business gadgets. Later, M. Hulot runs into an old friend and visits his modern glass-box apartment. Many of the characters come together in a long, rambunctious restaurant scene in which a businessman who at first appears to be an Ugly American, becomes the life of a lively impromptu celebration. The next day, Barbara takes the bus, through a circular whirl of traffic, back to the airport. Got that?

“Maybe it doesn't sound like much. But what is it about? Everything. Mostly it's about paying attention to the world around you, savoring its beauty and its absurdity (and, like Tati, I believe that few things are more beautiful than the absurd).  M. Hulot, and the movie itself, is baffled and frustrated by urban modernity, regarding it with a cool detachment that would seem almost anthropological if it weren't so funny and poignant -- and if we and Hulot were not utterly immersed in it. The vortex of city life spins all around us, and we can only observe in wonder.

“Observation -- it's what PlayTime does, and what it is.  Taking place in a city set built for the film on a studio backlot, the movie is like a giant ant farm.  Most often the camera stays still and hangs back. Often, there is no single focus for the composition (though the image is in deep-focus), encouraging your eyes to wander around the frame.  And that frame is teeming with lively details -- little comedies and dramas (an airport janitor, a pair of nuns, a switchboard operator) playing out simultaneously (in play-time, I suppose), all over the place, left and right, top and bottom, foreground and background, for you to notice or not. That's one reason it rewards as many re-viewings as you want to devote to it. To invertibly paraphrase Hitchcock,  

Play Time is more than a slice of cake; it's a big, delicious, intoxicating slice of life.” ~ Jim Emerson

“The first hour of Play Time suggests that this will be a comedy about the coldness of urbanization in big-city life. Jacques Tati’s ‘Tativille’ set is majestic enough to call attention to itself, gleaming architecture and all; despite the presence of Tati’s famous Monsieur Hulot character in the cast, the film barely has anyone resembling a central character to ground it; and in fact, Play Time doesn’t even have a conventional plot, proceeding instead as a loosely connected series of gags, sometimes many of them crammed into the same long take/wide shot. In those ways, its free form follows its function of evoking the sometimes overwhelming experience of living in a big city.

“But then comes its second hour: an extended sequence set during the opening of a new restaurant in which pretty much everything that could go wrong does, broken doors, falling ceilings and all. None of this seems to faze any of the restaurant patrons, however. If anything, these strangers, previously disconnected from each other thanks to the sheer vastness of the metropolis in which they’re surrounded, finally find a way to come together, even as the world around them seems to be falling apart. A funny if critical take on the perils of modernization becomes an uplifting vision of the possibility of making emotional connections, however fleeting, in a potentially soulless environment. For all of Play Time’s formal and narrative innovations, it’s Tati’s sense of humanity that has continued to shine through.” ~ Kenji Fujishima

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