Tativille 2: “Ce ne sera plus mon film”
(it will be my film no longer)

May 11th, 2012

Recreation in "Play time"; ph. Giancarlo Botti. All images © Les Films de Mon Oncle

François Truffaut had been ambivalent about Jacques Tati’s work (he’d called the director “laborious” in correspondence with Helen Scott), prior to watching Play time (1967). Having done so, he was awestruck, and immediately wrote Tati an exquisite letter to offer him sympathy for the disappointing reception, and tell him how much he had admired a film he realised was being woefully misunderstood and under-appreciated. It moved Tati deeply: such praise would have been touching at any time, but in 1968, to have Truffaut rally to one’s support was especially significant.

The appraisal of “a film from another planet, where they make films differently” was spot on. Play time is indeed one of that handful of films of which it may be truly said that you have never seen anything similar. And unlike many others in that handful – say, for example, Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) – it achieves uniqueness without compromising accessibility or entertainment value. It is one of the most original films ever; it might also be one of the most generous.

Why?

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Tativille INTERVAL: cameos & red herrings

May 11th, 2012

I’m not aware whether Jacques Tati might have watched North by Northwest (1959) while he was touring the USA to promote Mon oncle (1958). I don’t even know whether he liked Alfred Hitchcock much. But it seems likely. For here is Hitchcock’s cameo in that film…

Screen capture from "North by Northwest" (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, ph. Robert Burks): Hitch misses the bus.

…and…

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Tativille 1: “Le monde entier devient une clinique”
(the whole world becomes a clinic)

May 10th, 2012

Jacques Tati launching into the construction of "Tativille". Ph. André Dino. All pictures © Les Films de Mon Oncle.

Assuming it is well made enough that the handle won’t slip off during use, a knife will only be dangerous when employed dangerously. Likewise, under similar assumptions, architecture and technology will be as good or bad as the uses to which they are put. Le Corbusier wanted his houses to be machines for living in and, whatever you may think of his grand urbanising designs (I, for one, am glad he couldn’t convince the French authorities to raze half of the Rive Droite to the ground), a walk through the full scale model of one of his unités d’habitation at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine should convince you that these present no inherent danger to the soul, just the opposite. (Better yet, it is possible to visit the real thing at the Cité Radieuse in Marseille.) Le Corbusier (as Walter Gropius before him, and Otto Wagner, and others) intended to benefit the population above all else; budget was always a concern, yes, but only after human needs (as he saw them) were attended to. In less idealistic hands, this order was reversed and the idea was soon being reproduced randomly, thoughtlessly, but most of all cheaply, a bit everywhere; neglecting elements as varied and vital as the proportions of the apartments (based on the Modulor anthropometric scale of proportions he devised); the careful inclusion of well-cared, well-landscaped green areas (not just stretches of lawn), as well as commercial and service units; the enlivening use of colour and material. In the end, the machines for living in often turned into human crating by misapplication (wilful or not) of cost-effectiveness. This resulted in the sort of buildings that actually merits the Prince of Wales’s quips. [1]

Jacques Tati  never finished explaining that Play time (1967) was not a manifesto against modern architecture or modernity in general. (“I’m not very intelligent but I am not going to tell you that we should build small schools with tiny windows so that the pupils won’t see the sun, and that hospitals with dirty sinks, where one was badly looked after, were brilliant.”) By then, he was schooled in such charges: they had been levelled against his previous film, Mon oncle (1958), which covered a miniature of the same ground as Play time, from a more sentimental, less ambiguous angle. Objections notwithstanding, Mon oncle was an international triumph among critics and public; won multiple awards; was hailed as his masterpiece. As it happened, Tati disagreed. He felt he had relied too much on traditional narrative, taken a step back from the nearly plot-free Les vacances de M. Hulot (1953), and in doing so, lost his way, been distracted from what he really wanted to do.

Indeed,

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Closing images

August 19th, 2010

Advance warning: the post that follows necessarily reveals the resolution of both Éric Rohmer’s Conte d’automne (Autumn Tale) and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.  If you haven’t seen either and would rather do so without spoilers, save this for later.

I’m convinced that at some point in the 80s a law was passed forbidding the making of pictures without twist endings (or, the more the merrier, a final twist to the twist; usually one twist too many).  This was already questionable when confined to genres that might more obviously benefit (mystery, suspense, horror); but it has spread everywhere, to far less interest far less often than filmmakers seem to hope.  A recent example of an otherwise enjoyable film messily impaling itself on its final twist was Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which managed a quadruple whammy: it was facile, it was pompous, it insulted the audience’s intelligence and, astonishingly, betrayed everything that preceded it by keeping the original end. I’ll explain: the structuring device Ford invented to hang his film on was clever, strong, very believable and very moving. Unfortunately, it also completely undermined the conclusion of Isherwood’s source novel, which, by following on from said device, fell from poignant reminder of life’s unpredictability to cloying, pseudo-profound “message” on the (cheap) “ironies” of life. In other words, what had been a twist in the novel turned into a waste in the film. Good twist endings follow:

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The dog in Pauline à la plage

August 18th, 2010

Narrative art often imitates life; just as often, the attempt will stumble on the looseness of life’s “plots” (or maybe it’s the total lack thereof). This may be an impossible problem; after all, coherence and control are among the most traditional and enduring defining characteristics of narrative art. It’s very difficult to think of “story” without immediately thinking of structure, and organisation. It’s certainly not unthinkable,though; for  instance, much of the literature of the 20th Century strived to weaken or altogether break precisely that link. (I said 20th Century, but what about Brás Cubas? or his acknowledged grandfather Tristram Shandy?) Such striving, however, can feel awfully strained, and unless your attempt to open your plot out to the vagaries of the vaster world is very convincing, you will only draw further attention to the finitude of your story.

I will get to the dog, keep reading…

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