Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jacques Tati Exposition at the Cinemathèque Française

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The first movie comedy I saw starred Danny Kaye. I might have been 6 or 7 and I laughed so hard that I still remember thinking, gee, I didn't know anything could make you laugh that hard. My first Jacques Tati movie was Playtime. I was 19 and in Europe for the first time and, despite a show biz childhood, I had seen little if any silent film comedy. I was amazed. I remember thinking, zut alors, I didn't know you could do that! It was as if I had discovered a new art form.

Although Playtime lost a lot of money, Tati's legacy is in very good shape. His stature has grown, his movies are finding a new international audience on DVD, and this summer he is the subject of a retrospective in France housed at the Cinemathèque Française (through August 2nd), but with events outside of Paris as well. Here's a very short promo for the Tati exposition:




Authorized Digression: Did you see Tati's trademark pipe in that short animation? Well, believe it or not, they had to remove it from the print posters in the Paris métro:




Yep, I find that amazingly stupid (and I'm fairly anti-tobacco). What's next, Chaplin's cane? But what do you think? I think it's about time this blog had a Raging Controversy! Don't be shy — cast your vote in the poll (Raging Controversy #1) in the sidebar to the right.

There are a ton of Tati clips on YouTube, but you might want to avoid them. Better to see the whole movie to really get the whole picture. Tati weaves a complete tapestry with each movie, and what makes him unique is the overall world he creates, far more than just the isolated gag. [See the André Bazin article link below.] Furthermore, his cinematographic style and his sense of detail are best appreciated on the widest screen available; he even shot Playtime in 70 mm. Monsieur Hulot's Holiday and Playtime are good starting points, though others will certainly argue for Mon Oncle, which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1958.

What is singular about Tati is his ability to find physical comedy in everyday life. He is the master of observational visual humor; one critic labeled him "an entomologist of the material world." Despite some big gags such as the fireworks scene in Hulot's Holiday, most of his stuff is subtle and quirky. Often the main event happens off-camera, and our imagination is left to fill in the blank. "I want the film to start when you leave the theatre," Tait explained.

Although he has a great eye for social interaction, we know very little about Tati's characters, his alter ego Hulot included, and there is nothing that you could call a plot. People come together, they interact. Hulot, usually too old-fashioned for this modern world, struggles mightily with his environment, with the world of things, but nevertheless exudes a contagious joie de vivre, most appreciated by the very young and the very old. Before long the characters go their merry ways with tales to tell and fond memories of that odd man. End of story.


Tati is not the only director to attempt to revitalize the silent film form after The Jazz Singer (1927) precipitated its fall from public favor. To my mind, however, he may be the only one who truly succeeds, and he does so by finding his own style rather than by imitating the classics. I believe it was the Czech clown Bolek Polivka who said something to the effect that if you're going to be silent, there needs to be a reason. Rather than choose silence, Tati relegates actual dialogue to background chatter. Environmental sounds and human speech are part of a broader soundscape that works seamlessly with the visual humor. Buster Keaton, who commented that "Tati started where we left off," is said to have been so impressed that he asked Tati about working on new soundtracks for Keaton's silent films.

Just as it's hard to capture the essence of Tati in a YouTube clip, one might also wonder what a museum exhibit can add to the actual films. At least I wondered that. Here's what the expo has to offer in Paris:

• A museum exhibit at the Cinemathèque with props, costumes, and dozens of screens with clips from the movies and from his life.
Good job here. Tons of costumes and props, some original, some reconstructed. Models of sets. Dozens of monitors showing not just clips but also some nice thematic compilations of Tati's work juxtaposed with that of other directors.

A life-sized reconstruction of the set for Mon Oncle.
I didn't get to see this, but you can see a video of it going up here.

A screening of a fully restored "director's cut" version of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.
This was wonderful. The movie is 87 minutes long, but it felt like 50. If this comes to a movie theatre near you, don't miss it! Like I said, a large screen does make a difference.

A commemorative book, Jacques Tati : Deux temps, trois mouvements.
I bought it, I like it, but not necessarily a must-have. Tons of images and documents and about 75 pages of short pieces on Tati, mostly by other artists. You can buy it here from the French Amazon.com
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Finally, I know I said that YouTube wasn't necessarily a good way to get to know Tati, but here are a few unusual clips you might miss. The first is said to be Tati's first screen appearance (he speaks!) dating from 1935:



The next is Tati dancing, again from an early short, The School for Postmen(1947). You can see the whole movie here. (In two parts.)




And you can even sing "the Jacques Tati":




Update:
Alert reader Jonathan Lyons has alerted me to another Tati song, Jacques Tati by the El Caminos. It's available on iTunes, but I also found it here.

Other Perspectives:


David Kehr on Playtime:
Jacques Tati's Playtime is perhaps the only epic achievement of the modernist cinema, a film that not only accomplishes the standard modernist goals of breaking away from closed classical narration and discovering a new, open form of story-telling, but also uses that form to produce an image of an entire society. After building a solid international audience through the 1950s with his comedies Jour de fête, Mr. Hulot's Holiday, and Mon Oncle, Tati spent ten years on the planning and execution of what was to be his masterpiece, selling the rights to all his old films to raise the money he needed to construct the immense glass and steel set—nicknamed "Tativille"—that was his vision of modern Paris. The film—two hours and 35 minutes long, in 70mm and stereophonic sound—opened in France in 1967, and was an instant failure. It was quickly reduced, under Tati's supervision, to a 108-minute version, and further reduced, to 93 minutes and 35 monaural, when it was released in the United States in 1972. Even in its truncated form, it remains a film of tremendous scope, density, and inventiveness.

Playtime is what its title suggests—an idyll for the audience, in which Tati asks us to relax and enjoy ourselves in the open space his film creates, a space cleared of the plot-line tyranny of "what happens next?," of enforced audience identification with star performers, and of the rhetorical tricks of mise-en-scène and montage meant to keep the audience in the grip of pre-ordained emotions. Tati leaves us free to invent our own movie from the multitude of material he offers.

One of the ways in which Tati creates the free space of Playtime is by completely disregarding conventional notions of comic timing and cutting. There is no emphasis in the montage to tell us when to laugh, no separation in the mise-en-scène of the gag from the world around it. Instead of using his camera to break down a comic situation—to analyze it into individual shots and isolated movement—he uses deep-focus images to preserve the physical wholeness of the event and long takes to preserve its temporal integrity. Other gags and bits of business are placed in the foreground and background; small patterns, of gestures echoed and shapes reduplicated, ripple across the surface of the image. We can't look at Playtime as we look at an ordinary film, which is to say, passively, through the eyes of the director. We have to roam the image—search it, work it, play with it.

With its universe of Mies van der Rohe boxes, Playtime is often described as a satire on the horrors of modern architecture. But the glass and steel of Playtime is also a metaphor for all rigid structures, from the sterile environments that divide city dwellers to the inflexible patterns of thought that divide and compartmentalize experience, separating comedy from drama, work from play. The architecture of Playtime is also an image for the rhetorical structures of classical filmmaking: the hard, straight lines are the lines of plot, and the plate glass windows are the shots that divide the world into digested, inert fragments. At one point in Playtime, M. Hulot stands on a balcony looking down on a network of office cubicles, seeing and hearing a beehive of human activity. As an escalator slowly carries him to the ground floor, the camera maintains his point of view, and the change in perspective gradually eclipses the human figures and turns the sound to silence. It is one of the most profound images of death ever seen in a film, yet it is a death caused by nothing more than a change in camera placement. Tati's implication is that life can be restored to the empty urban desert simply by putting the camera in the right position, by finding the philosophical overview that integrates all of life's contradictory emotions, events, and movements into a seamless whole. His film is proof that such a point of view is possible.

Some Tati Links

The Tati Exposition
NY Times article on the Expo
Tativille.com (a somewhat confusing web site)
Newspaper reviews of all of Tati's movies (French)
New Yorker profile of Tati (registration required)
Panel discussion in French on Tati and the Expo sponsored by the French entertainment store, Fnac (on YouTube, 3 parts)
Monsieur Hulot and Time by famed French film theorist André Bazin (in English)
• Best book about Tati in English may well be Jacques Tati by David Bellos

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