CITY OF MIRTH
Jacques Tatischeff—his father Russian and his mother Dutch—changed his name to Jacques Tati when he was in his early 20’s. He sharpened his comedic skills in the French Music Halls—the equivalent to our Vaudeville. Tall and thin, Tati worked up his comedy routines through movement sans dialogue—physical yet not as whimsical as a mime—mostly mute and hilarious. He had studied silent comedy films—worshiping Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd—paying close attention to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Tati appeared in several short films in the early 30’s and up into the 40’s—some of which he wrote and directed. I don’t know what he did, or had to do, during the Nazi occupation of France—but after the war he became very active again. His first attempt at creating a signature character came in 1947, in a short film [18 minutes] called, SCHOOL FOR POSTMEN. He saw a lot of potential for humor in the French Postal Service. This came to fruition in 1949 with his film, JOUR DE FETE, (HOLIDAY), in which he played the hapless Postman—Francois.
But some time in the early 1950’s, he began to get a handle on a new character—and this creation would ultimately become his alter ego—Mr. Hulot. Hulot emerged—the umbrella-carrying pipe-smoking raincoat-clad funny hat-wearing Everyman in argyle socks. Tati sculpted Hulot from the toes up—creating a movement for the character that was miraculous. Hulot always leaned forward when he walked—defying gravity—almost off balance—lurching here and there—yet handling props gracefully. It was like a perfect blend of grace and disaster choreographed to the millimeter. Hulot had very little to “say”. He was an observer. He wandered through this world in a constant state of wonder. Two themes constantly explored were Hulot being baffled by all forms of technology and having bad luck in his many endeavors. It was reminiscent of Chaplin’s factory worker in MODERN TIMES (1936). Hulot was continuously confronted with Modernism—and he never could, or would, fit in.
Tati introduced Hulot in 1953 in MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY. It was a tremendous hit, and Tati adopted his other persona. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Filmed in black and white, this film was a paean to silent film comedy—and it remains brilliant even today. Tati as Hulot, with that great stone face, acrobat’s grace, and endearing naiveté—became known as the “French Buster Keaton”. In 1958 he released MON ONCLE—his first color film. [If one does not count JOUR DE FETE, which was originally shot in a process called Thomsoncolor. It was a new technology, and so the film was shot simultaneously in black and white. The color lab caved in for some reason and the film was released in B&W. Later, I have read, the Tati family restored it to color and re-released it.] In MON ONCLE, Hulot lived in a quiet French provincial neighborhood—and he went off to visit his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in the big city. They had a very modernistic home, equipped with every gadget imaginable—and they were very proud of all that technology. Hulot, of course, had bad luck in dealing with these new conveniences. MON ONCLE was a bit hit too, and it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film that year.
So in 1958, while Eisenhower was still president, and Buicks had thirty pounds of chrome on each door, and Elvis was perfecting his hip swivel—Jacques Tati was hailed as a comic genius. Believing his own press and good fortune, he set off to create his “masterpiece”. He spent nine years preparing it, writing it, and shooting it. He called it PLAYTIME. It was released in 1967. He shot it in 70mm. No other French film, even to this day, has ever been shot in 70mm—that was the purvue of directors like David Lean shooting epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.
Critics hailed PLAYTIME as a “true masterpiece”—which it was—but it generated only meager box office. Not being a “hit” that fickle bitch called the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, turned its back on him—clearly embarrassed that Tati had bankrupted himself on “such a self-indulgent project”—that nobody came to see. A devastated Tati only made two more short films—TRAFFIC (1972) again with Hulot—and PARADE (1974), which was a quasi-documentary about French cabaret acts—with Tati graciously recreating some of his old Music Hall routines.
Tati as Mr. Hulot only appeared in four films. For the astute Hulot-watchers though—one could find Tati doing a gag cameo as Hulot in Francois Trauffaut’s STOLEN KISSES (1968)—and in 1967 Tati released a short film, COURS DU SOIR, in which he teaches an acting class in comedic styles—and Mr. Hulot makes an appearance. Jacques Tati has been voted the 46th greatest director of all time by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY—even though he directed fewer films (9) than anyone else on the entire list.
Tati was a tremendous planner; choreographer, craftsman, and director—and he would often leave hints about the future theme of his next film within each completed feature. The ending of MON ONCLE paved the way for the joy and frustration of PLAYTIME. The representation of automobiles as ballet performers’ one moment and rampaging insects the next—leads to TRAFFIC. If there had been another Hulot adventure—perhaps it would have dealt with computerization and the exploration of outer space?
The French elite—the hoary intellectuals—all loved and worshipped Tati. They considered his films as “vanguard Modernist works”. He was given credit for both reviving the silent comedy and revolutionizing the sound effects within his movies. Leonard Maltin wrote,” This towering, graceful, pipe-smoking, auteur—was a comic genius—often compared to Buster Keaton. His whole reputation was based on only six feature films. His main theme was the eternal struggle between man and machine—his was an intricate slapstick in which characters found themselves at the mercy of progress. His love of silent film comedy was mirrored in the minimalist use of dialogue in his films.”
Jacques Tati’s comedic style returned to the basic roots of humor—back to the silent mask work of the Italian Commedia Del Arte—and the wonderful physical comedy of the early French farces. Tati’s films would use a formula, or process that relied almost exclusively on visual effects infused with exaggerated sound effects. In PLAYTIME when Hulot “investigated” those uncomfortable black leather chairs in the lobby waiting room—as he squeezed the cushions repeatedly—they emitted a very distinct and humorous sound. In the night club scenes, as various characters would pass the control panels and they would press buttons—odd staccato popping sounds would occur. Tati helped to pioneer these unique sound designs—but exaggerated sounds were always essential for sight gags. This tradition in comic routines goes back centuries—and it certainly was used in French and English Music Halls—and in American Vaudeville and Burlesque.
Great pages of snappy patter dialogue never were the cornerstone of Tati’s films. Dialogue is almost abandoned entirely—except minimally to develop plot lines or as background ambience. But dialogue was rarely used to convey much humor. Tati’s comedy was physical—not wordy. It was a full universe away from the wordsmithing of a Noel Coward or a Neil Simon. I think that Woody Allen used to search for a synthesis between words and action—but as he has mellowed and aged his films presently move less and talk more.
While watching PLAYTIME in widescreen, I began to notice—for the first time—that all the shots were set up as wide or medium. There was never even one close-up shot. The vast panorama of the action played out on a mock proscenium—as if we were watching it in a theatre. We never see a close-up of Hulot’s face. His physiogamy remained motionless as his body conveyed all the humor. Because the camera moves very little—just capturing the action—tracking but not dollying—a Tati film can be misjudged and mis-viewed. One critic wrote,” At first glance, or first viewing, the films appear to be little more than a collection of frieze-like sketches strung together for laughs. But this surface simplicity belies a complex multilayered process of preparation and choreography that Tati stuck to meticulously.” I thought that the recent French animated film, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLVILLE (2003) used much the same formula and process—and it achieved wonderful results with very little dialogue—letting the zany action carry the plot. An acquaintance of mine did not want to see the film because it was sub-titled. I assured him that language would not deter him from enjoying the film. He watched it and loved it.
When Tati set up the storyboards for PLAYTIME—he planned every shot for its maximum visual effect—wanting specific tableaus to insert Hulot into. He initially wanted to shoot in Paris, but after scouting around he realized that even in the most modern sections of the city—there was still a lot of history for one to feast their eyes on—that Paris is a marvelous juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. So Tati decided to create his own city—where all the signs of the Old World would essentially be erased.
On the outskirts of Paris, at the SE corner of the city, on undeveloped land leased from the city council in Saint-Meurice—in an area called Vincennes—the director erected a massive monumental set—a whole city that came to be known as Tativille. This was never a conventional two-dimensional backdrop set. It really was its own city. It could house 15,000 people. This pretend city was powered by two electrical stations—fitted with one working escalator, several working elevators, functional lighting, plumbing with running water—paved with fresh asphalt—and fitted with neon store signs that looked very authentic. Individual walls on the set were hinged. Whole office blocks were built on huge frames with wheels under them—so that they could be moved and arranged in different ways to accommodate new shots in new scenes.
Tati’s production company, Madman Cinema, employed 100 construction workers—and they created buildings out of 11,700 square feet of glass—38,700 square feet of plastic—31,500 square feet of timber—and 486,000 square feet of concrete. It was called “a massive folly” by some—but as Tati pointed out,” It cost me no more than paying for the professional services of Sophia Loren.”
The shooting began in April 1965, and the filming was plagued by various disasters. A huge chunk of the set was blown over and destroyed by heavy winds—and it had to be rebuilt to the tune of 14 million francs. With July came unseasonable torrents of rain. By September 1965, Tati’s funding sources had dried up—and he was dead broke. Not wanting to become just another talented cinematic genius with monumental ideas and an ego to match—ala Orson Welles—who could start massive projects but could only rarely complete them—Tati went out begging for money. It is said that Prime Minister Georges Pompidou connected Tati with the Credit Lyonnais Bank—and they floated a massive loan. But in order to secure that loan, Tati had to mortgage away everything he owned, plus his future, plus his family’s future. Absurdly it would have been like Mel Brooks pretending to be Carlo Ponti bankrolling EL CID—it was a poor fit. Jacques Tati was not a businessman or financier—he was an artist in dire straits, and it is damned shame that some patron, or gaggle of patrons did not step up to bail him out.
Sadly, PLAYTIME never generated enough box office revenue to allow him to break even, or repay those gargantuan loans. He remained in debt for decades. He shot the film for a solid year—and then he put it in post-production for nine more months—giving it birth at its world premiere in 1967. Like Stanley Kubrick though, he kept tinkering with the film even after it opened—finally cutting it down from its original 151 minutes to 120 minutes of running time.
In PLAYTIME, Tati postulated that the future would be a place of shiny surfaces and deadly conformity--huge identical towers of ticky-tacky—that would all look just the same. A person could easily get lost in the monotony and uniformity of such a place. He suggested that Modern society ultimately will delete or destroy all the vestiges and symbols of the past. [This certainly is the case in my hometown of Seattle; where whole blocks of historical buildings were torn down to make way for massive skyscrapers.] In his film one never actually sees any landmarks of Paris—but we did get a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the Arch de Triumph as distorted reflections on a swinging glass door—just a momentary icon that only remained in view the time it took for the door to close. With that effect, Tati showed us that History itself—perhaps even Art and culture—can be reduced to an illusory flicker. So important landmarks are only “recalled” as long as their images lasted in those shimmering refections—quite an effect. Actually while watching the film I thought that those sets were actual buildings in some modern section of Paris—but they turned out to exist only in some remote section of Jacques Tati’s creative mind.
One subtle jibe included in the film occurred when the American tourist, Barbara [played by Tati’s former neighbor’s girlfriend, Barbara Denneke] was admiring the various travel posters. Each poster contained a picture of the same identical skyscraper—transplanted in different countries. We only had a sense of what country was represented by things in the foreground—like a double-decker bus, or an American flag.
The Royal Garden Nightclub represented an absolute masterwork of mayhem that just took on a life of its own ad infintum. The Crown chairs were ever so stylish—but very uncomfortable—leaving imprints of the metal prongs in customer’s backs, continuously falling apart, and tearing waiter’s uniforms as they attempted to pass. The new floor tiles stuck on one’s shoes. The air conditioner was dysfunctional. The décor at the bar hung down too low for the bartender to see his customer’s faces. There were too many waiters, and no rhyme or reason for why one of them would try to serve whatever table. The serving window from the kitchen was entirely too narrow, and platters and plates hung up in it. One of the swinging glass front doors was bumped and it smashed to pieces—but soon no one really noticed its absence. Three-legged bar stools toppled much too easily. The tables were all too close to each other, and the layout of all the serving areas defied logic.
During that long section of the film that constituted the scene in the nightclub we were bombarded with multiple sight gags that all happened rapidly—even simultaneously. I don’t believe any viewer can fully appreciate the breadth of Tati’s special humor without repeat viewings. There was a barely controlled chaos in those scenes—but there also was a deliberate sense that when the customers came to life—dancing, shouting, and carousing—even though the place was tumbling apart and falling down all around them—Tati was illustrating to us that humanity can, and should triumph over technology.
One critic wrote,” Tati takes the future by the neck and twists it around in a mockery of itself. PLAYTIME reverses every rule. That city he created—far from wonderful—really was ugly, inefficient, self-mocking, and practically impossible to negotiate. Tativille was a city which had not been developed for humans—but for robots. It is a noisy world of clunks and clattering—of smooth polished surfaces—of cold open spaces—and geometric patterns without meaning or sensitivity—illustrating Tati’s dislike for the blandness of the new cities.”
Graeme Hobbs wrote,” PLAYTIME is a gently subversive and good-hearted reflection of the modern world and its gadgets. It demands a lot from the viewer—but amply rewards us for the trouble. It definitely needs to be seen in a theatre, or on a widescreen DVD.”
Another critic wrote,” PLAYTIME was Tati’s masterpiece of cerebral comedy—drawing all of his ideological concerns into one tightly packed canvas. Every scene is a cascade of visual effects—going off like fireworks one after another—subjecting us to an overwhelming sensory assault that can be physically hard to take on. He portrays Hulot as Everyman isolated and insignificant amidst the imposing uniformity of his surroundings.”
Tati handled crowd scenes masterfully—but one’s eye could not be everywhere at once. Richard Lester learned much from Tati—and he used those techniques in his BEATLES and MUSKETEER films. Tati seemed to have put a lot of his old Music Hall peers into this movie. Many of the characters were marvelously fully developed—with complete back stories. They vacillated between being very animated and being still—both hilarious and strongly presented. Each was more than ready for their “moment” as the camera’s eye passed by them and gave them a shaft of limelight and focus. There were dozens of memorable cameos—like the old doorman in the elevator lobby—the fussy executive that he had an appointment with, that he ended up chasing farcically from slammed door to slammed door, up and down endless corridors and elevators—that stunning short fat janitor in the immaculate white uniform, who only had to enter a scene and stand there staring to dominate the moment and tickle the funny bone—the several “old” Army buddies that kept dragging up off for a drink or dinner—the soda jerk—the cranky bartender—several of the tourists who let their hair down in the night club—all of the manic waiters and hosts at the night club—the frazzled architect rushing about with his blue prints rolled up in his hand, addressing one calamity after another—and I think that the diminutive actor who played the janitor played the raincoat-clad short fat tourist who employed the same stillness schtick in the night club scene.
Sheila Johnson wrote,” Tati put Hulot on the loose in a surreal scarcely recognizable Paris. This film was the jewel of Tati’s career. It is a hallucinatory comic version on the verge of abstraction.” Penelope Gilliatt wrote,” No other director has ever pitted the still small voice of human contact (like the silent scream in Commedia) so delicately against the nerveless domain of modern conveniences.”
PLAYTIME took place in a fantasy world not unlike the realm of Big Brother in “1984”—a place that simulates the very worst of our reality. Tativille was a vast labyrinth in which multiple gags were performed with such rapidity—in every corner of that wide screen—that it is cortically and visually impossible to see them all, and process them while viewing the film for the first time. Some of the terrific gags stick in the convulsions of your cortex like peanut butter on a poodle’s palette---like the tourist, Barbara, trying so hard to capture a folksy shot at the sidewalk flower stand—like the fussy executive taking more than a film minute to approach the camera and Hulot down that tunnel of a corridor, with his heels clanking and his moustache twitching—like Hulot stepping into an parallel glass building in mistaken pursuit, and the executive trying to hail him, only to walk face-first into the glass wall between them—all a living cartoon—like those insistent old friends of Hulot’s who stopped traffic to jump out and pump his arm—like that drunk who kept toppling off the tippy bar stool, only to be finally stuffed upright into it while it was upside down—like the 60’s Euro-hipster band that jammed and played at the night club, with its members wandering in and out—and then vacating as the trim work at the club began to fall down around them—only to be replaced by several willing audience members who could play piano and sing-- those several zany characters who dressed like Hulot, and who were mistaken for him by both the irate pursuers and old acquaintances—and the clogged-up traffic jams fueled by a battalion of bizarre cars putting around in a automobile ballet and mechanical kaleidoscope.
One critic wrote,” PLAYTIME had an intoxicating effect—an extraordinary mix of aesthetic vigor and comic madness—like the best of the silent comedies—it was wonderfully strange and crazily reassuring.”
Jacques Tati was a French national treasure, but he belonged to the world. His creation—Mr. Hulot—is solidly original and will never be competently copied. It was uniquely his—just as wonderful as Chaplin’s “little tramp”—Harpo Marx’s fright wig, bicycle horn, and mute delivery—Groucho’s fake moustache, crouch, and rapid fire delivery of lines from his old Vaudeville routines—like W.C. Field’s red nose and wheezing patter—like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy—and like Buster Keatons acrobatic prowess and sad stone face. Some of our greatest comedic actors—like Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar—all studied Tati as Hulot. Tati completely reinvented comedy within silence—and made us love and appreciate the fullness of it. His routines would range the entire spectrum from broad slapstick to ever so subtle bits of business with props and people. He would painstakingly organize and plan his comic adventures. He gently taught us that there is a plethora of unintended humor surrounding us—if we would only pay attention and notice it—to take the trouble to allow ourselves to be touched and tickled by it.
Jacques Tatischeff belongs to the ages—but Tati the artist and his alter ego, Hulot, will continue to live in our hearts—and our mirth thrives each time we watch one of his four features. Tati died in 1982, at 73 years old, of pneumonia. PLAYTIME was both his finest achievement and his worst disappointment. It was his artistic apex—and he never fully recovered from creating it. After watching it again—I too will never fully recover from being assaulted by its zany merriment.
At the end of the film, as the tourist bus drove off into the gathering night—and the street lights began to flicker to life—one of the street lights was left conspicuously unlit. Its shape seemed to be bent over, reminiscent of the apologetic stoop of Hulot. It has been suggested that this symbol represented Tati—presiding over “his utterly magnificent—yet wildly ruinous—creation.”
I gave this movie a rating of 4.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2005