Day 313: ‘Tati, Smart, Sophisticated & Slapstick’ 2018

Day 313
Wednesday 9 May 2018
‘Tati, Smart, Sophisticated & Slapstick’  2018

Playtime  (1967)   A Jacques Tati Film

Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is #43 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll and #37 in the Directors Poll.

I’ve now watched all five of the important Tati films according to the films on the Top 100 lists: L’école des facteurs [short] (1947), Jour de fête (1949), M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). I watched them in chronological order (except for the short). This is by far the slowest, the most beautifully photographed, the most imaginative, the most detailed and the most perplexing of all four feature films so far. That it holds the highest-ranking of his films on the BFI 2012 Poll surprises me even though I think it is the most extraordinary of his first five films.

After the music finished at the end of the DVD my Dad asked me, “What do you make of that?” That’s a rare question because normally he leaps in, boots and all, and make a pronouncement. I find in life that I can walk out of a cinema, concert or theatre and remain silent, withholding my opinion, and that the overwhelming majority of people will fill that silence with their own opinion. Mostly it is declarative, stating their immediate emotional (sometimes intellectual) response. It’s a moment where I nearly always get to withhold my opinion, emotional or intellectual. I like not having to sum up my feelings about an experience in one, two or three sentences. I like to reserve my opinion until I’ve had a chance to think about everything I’ve just experienced.

Playtime has a scope which is so breathtaking that I found myself frequently in awe of the fact that Tati’s observational style was quite differently employed from everything that came before it. Long periods go by without pieces of business or slapstick. He allows himself to tell the story he wants to tell without having to have every few minutes contain something that sets something up, like a gag, and delivers a punchline. For the first third of the film nothing much happens at all. Hulot doesn’t even feature as a character in a lot of what we see onscreen. And it’s the same when we get to the restaurant scenes. Finally, in the second hour of the film, Hulot becomes part of the restaurant scenes and his role increases substantially. But then that is true of two other characters as well: the brash American male and the gentle American female tourist. In the end, it becomes a sweet few hours of time Hulot and Barbara the tourist spend together, where they observe the catastrophic mess of the restaurant scenes, and find a few moments where they connect. It is not a connection of great depth. It’s enough only for Barbara to take away from their encounter a scarf and a little stature or keepsake and then the film is over. It ends in darkness, separated by little street lights salting  the black of the screen. And then it’s over.

I wonder if those lights we see at the end, in the last shot, represent human beings? They are separated by something – life, maybe – and yet from what we have just seen, every now and again one or two of those lights, separated by borders and oceans, briefly interacts meaningfully with another. One a tourist and the other a Frenchman.

BFI capsule review of Sherlock Jr.
“Keaton’s third feature is a breathtakingly virtuosic display of every silent comedy technique imaginable, from his own formidable physical skills to some then-groundbreaking camera trickery.”

– BFI []