Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Play Time (1967)

Danger! Watching classic movies can be upsetting to your movie going routine.

When you see a classic like Play Time (1967), which I finally saw last week thanks to the urging of James, it can lay ruin to any chance you might have of enjoying a comedy made in the past 10 to 20 years. I'm tempted to avoid all new comedies until this one begins to dissipate in my memory. They'll feel lazy, obvious and unambitious in comparison. Jacques Tati's near perfect barely verbal urban chaos comedy is mind blowing. I don't mean that in a cheap blurb whore way. When I wasn't giggling (I literally couldn't stop laughing well past the end of certain gags), my jaw was on the floor trying to process how Tati could have possibly staged all of these complicated laughs.

For those who are unfamiliar with this classic, it is without a traditional plot but it's a linear series of four or five comic setpieces. We follow a confused businessman (Tati himself as "Mr. Hulot", a character that must have influenced "Mr Bean") through labyrinthine office structures as he attempts to get a meeting and an American women's tourist group through a Parisian shopping spree. Eventually these two threads collide at the opening night of an upscale club in which almost everything that could go wrong with the launch of a new restaurant does (this final act will be extra hilarious if you have ever worked in the hospitality/restaurant business). Jazzing up the remarkable feats of comic choreography and nimble filmmaking (of particular note are the clever sound work and masterful set designs) are trenchant jokes about tunnel visioned tourism and manic consumerism.

modern urban cubicle absurdist slapstick

Play Time's only flaw might be its length given that its sight gags are both fleet of foot and piggybacked repetitive... making that two hour plus running time a little incongruous to such a buoyant sense of, well, play. Underlining the wonderment of its achievement is a subdued but gently amusing coda as the tourists leave Paris. It's like that slightly woozy last wind of energy before you collapse from a memorable all-nighter out with friends.

If you haven't seen it, you must. But another warning. It's not a film that will be loved by anyone with a short attention span. DVDs are a godsend for insatiable movie lovers but everything has a dark side and many great films can deflate quite a lot if their power isn't allowed to snowball. DVD culture has encouraged a staccato viewing experience. We're accustomed to stopping and starting movies and sometimes whole days can pass before we finish one. Most carefully crafted movies are meant for one sitting, unlike television which caters specifically to the idea of these break times. This is especially true of an intricate construction like Play Time. Tati's comedy has abundant stray laughs but its very best gags are all cumulative in potency. It gets beaucoup mileage out of super long set-ups which maximize each punchline. Even when you can see them coming for minutes ahead of time, they're no less funny in the telling showing.


James Hansen said...

Hoorah! I'm so glad you dug this, and totally agree about the viewing experience. There's a lot going on in the frame at all times, so you really need to see this on as big a screen as possible and in one sitting. That said, it can still be totally amazing on TV/DVD which the the way I saw it the first time around. Seriously though, this might be my favorite comedy of all time. There's some hyperbola for ya. :)

Katey said...

I saw this on 70 mm in college.

It was unreal.

Brian Darr said...

I love love love this movie. I watch it whenever it comes to San Francisco- roughly about every other year. Seen it once in 35mm and three times in 70mm, but never on DVD. I tried Tati's Mr. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle on home video but the latter especially seemed to suffer for just the reasons you lay out in your excellent final paragraph of this post. I know Trafic is now out through Criterion, but I'm hoping a print might have been struck and will visit town, so I won't have to resort to that.

Chuck W said...

This is, without a doubt, Tati's seminal masterwork. Pure cinematic perfection, through and through.

James Hansen said...

To speak for Nathaniel and myself, we did see this on 70mm at Walter Reade last week. I loved it the first time I saw it on DVD, but the 70mm really gave it a completely new vibe. Katey said it right- UNREAL.

Guy Lodge said...

You have made me so happy with this post, Nat... I adore "Playtime."

I used it as a case study last year when I taught a scriptwriting workshop to a group of architects -- long story -- and their minds were thoroughly blown.

Jason Adams said...

Thanks for the rec on this, nat. I watched it over the weekend and must say it did not disappoint. I am SO unbelievably jealous right now to see that you saw this on a big screen though - I wish I'd known it was playing and to see it then! ARGH! Now I'm just gonna have to keep myself alert for the next time it plays, because the whole time I was just dying to see these shots in 70mm like it was meant to be seen. I can't even imagine how it'd blow your mind that way. But even on DVD it rocked. I'm gonna post a bunch of screen-grabs from it later today if I get around to it.