Thursday 13 July 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (15), France: Creator of Forms (ii) Tati - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues


6(15)  France :  Creator of Forms  (ii) Tati

Jacques Tati (1907-82) performed pantomime parodies of sports stars in the French music hall in the 30s. Some were made into short films. After the war the only short that he had also directed was expanded into his first feature Jour de fete (1947), filmed on location. Tati plays the village postman who makes a short lived attempt to introduce modern American efficiency systems, as viewed in a mobile cinema at the village fair. 

This introduces what became Tati’s on-going satire of the ‘coldness’ of modern technology and architecture. More significantly he developed his own method of staging and filming gags. In addition to mastering the essential art of comic timing, rather than using slapstick staging and editing methods in driving the gags home, Tati uses framing and the placement of objects in the foreground to subdue the gags and let them develop leaving the spectator to intuit and even ‘invent’ an understated joke.  

He took four years to develop this form of comedy before filming Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot/ Mr Hulot’s Holiday (1953). The introduction of the warm understated character of M. Hulot, and the often uniquely inventive subtleties of the sight gags, lifted Hulot/Tati, the comic outsider and disruptor of everyday life, to international success. What drove Tati was his dissatisfaction with the traditional idea of the comic star. As Dave Kehr explains, “Hulot is not a comedian, in the sense of being the source and focus of the humour; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humour in the world around him.”

At first viewing, Les Vacances might seem to be simply a loosely assembled series of individual comic incidents strung together, rather than a tightly constructed comedy like those of say Keaton and Harold Lloyd, or more broadly a Hollywood style film with a typical narrative development. Les Vacances, Kristin Thompson suggests, is “as tightly constructed and rigorous as the best work of Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu, or Eisenstein” (Wide Angle, 23)*. She describes how Tati developed a carefully arranged variety of images in settings with meanings that are not causally connected: shots of empty beaches, streets and seascapes inserted between humorous action. These are not placed as continuity shots in a typical narrative referred to above but are an integral part of what Thompson refers to as forming a dominant  structure in which a series of cues/seeming discontinuities are placed as an indication that the film is moving outside the norms of comedy film construction in the way social themes are evoked.  A source of humour can be one boring (traditional) action or unpopulated image (examples nominated above) can be defamiliarised by being followed with a bizarre one (109).

Thompson further elaborates that “one of the most distinctive aspects of Les Vacances is that the concept of a pared down, banal environment is a convention usually associated with modern dramatic and tragic themes.” She notes that the art film “has adapted the device of the sterile environment and banal routine to create symbolic commentary on modern life. Tati is a flip side to Antonioni in his trilogy […] Instead of asking us to interpret the banality, Tati makes it funny” (ibid ).

Tati spent much of ten years (three intensively) in the planning and execution of Playtime (1967). He sold the rights to all his previous films to raise the funds to build a huge glass and steel structure to epitomise his vision of modern Paris, given the nickname “Tativille,” which can be seen as misplaced ambition or one of the great achievements of set design.  His stated ambition was “to make a film without the character of Hulot, with nothing but the people whom I see, whom I observe, whom I pass in the street, and to prove to them, that in spite of everything, every week or month something happens to them and that the comic effect belongs to everyone“ (quoted by Roy  Armes 151). So in the finished film Hulot is reduced to the level of the rest of the people and the effects come not from comic contrivance of a sequence of farcical incidents but from “observation of life reproduced with as great a fidelity as possible.” Under the director’s control stylisation is replaced with realistic effect. Tati himself was realistic about his film: “either it comes off [on the big screen] or it doesn’t.” Bellos  writes that “Playtime is not fundamentally or essentially a satire of high-rise architecture […] Tativille was the future of the city-a future that has now arrived” (248-250).

What is already to some extent apparent in Les Vacances, in Playtime Tati is opening a window on the world by clearing a space free of plot-line tyranny, forced identification with star actors (there are no conventionally placed central characters in Playtime ) and manipulation of emotions through rhetorical tricks of mise en scene and montage, as Kehr notes, leaving the audience to invent their own movie from the material offered. In this sense his next film after Les Vacances, Mon Oncle (1958) is only transitional.

Tati had a liking for Dutch documentarist Bert Haanstra’s film Zoo (1962) in which a hidden camera inside the animal cage provides the means for a montage of faces constructed to form a gallery of unconscious and untutored comic acts (Bellos 236). The stylistic reliance on observation and lack of intervention is greatly elaborated upon in Playtime, described by Kristin Thompson as “a comedy on the edge of perception” governed by its (parametric) form as a guiding principle in which “artistic motivation becomes systematic and foregrounded across the entire film” also in films by Bresson, Godard, Mizoguchi and Jancso. This means that the film is perceptually not fully graspable on a single viewing, not as a result of opaque plot and story, but because “the stylistic devices are allowed independence from narrative functioning and motivation,” and even allowed precedence over plot. Deflecting attention outwards from a simple cause and effect chain, Thompson points out “has ideological implications […] - the shift from the literal to the metaphorical” in Tati’s representation of the uniformity of modern urban life.”

The subject of a typical shot in Playtime is everything that appears on the screen - often dozens of individually active human figures in long shot - as Rosenbaum notes, requires continual scanning by the viewer something the parametric form encourages. Tati uses restricted technology in systematic ways in a dense mise-en-scene involving both disorienting cuts combined with long takes in his strong preference away from exaggeration towards comic understatement. “Tati’s use of gadgetry and innovation is remarkable for its ambiguity, especially in Playtime, but also to some degree in his earlier films, he exploits the new almost equally for its comic potential and for its aesthetic pleasure” (Bellos 253).

Tati’s use of the wide screen is designed to challenge the audience’s comfortable viewing habits. The camera does not lead the eye to where the action is since it is no longer a single narrative event but is to be found in a multiplicity of details and movements whose significance is not always obvious straight away. “Tati believed that it was the wide-film format that gave him this liberty” (ibid 260).  As noted elsewhere, Robert Altman took his mise en scene in a similar direction in films like Nashville and A Wedding.

After premiere openings on 70mm with stereophonic sound, Playtime subsequently circulated on 35mm widescreen and monaural sound prints. It was cut several times by Tati, (who had encumbered himself with an impossibly heavy debt load), from 185 mins to 103mins. I have found it available on a dvd 119 min version. 

Tati had no control over the shortened 35mm version being shown and had to give up showings of the complete 70mm versions when the rights to all his films were auctioned off (Rosenbaum 168).  Rosenbaum, who spent time working for Tati, writes that he instinctively said to him in an interview that  “Playtime is nobody.”  It became clear that “the birth of Tati the director had been ransomed by the death of Tati the performer.” This became “an existential crisis of the first order“. 

Tati devised Hulot only for Les Vacances but the public refused to let him be abandoned and, Rosenbaum says, Tati “became sick and tired of him.” In a sense then the radical ‘excesses’ of Playtime were a direct response to the popularity of Les Vacancies combined with Tati’s feeling, referred to by David Bellos, that Mon Oncle (above) was not the kind of film he wanted to make (229).    

* Noel Burch identified Playtime as the first truly ‘open’ film by which he meant the formal parameters of the film are no longer subservient to the narrative but take on an equal or greater importance in determining the structure of the whole film. This contrasts with the ‘closed’ film in which the style is determined solely by how it serves the narrative (the ‘zero point’ of style to be found in classical narrative). Thompson finds the early marks of the open film was already in Les Vacances in what Burch identifies as the “beginning of modern cinema around 1950 along with Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.”  See also Part 4, parametric form in ‘Forms of Narration’.



Kristin Thompson  Breaking the Glass Armor 1988  

Kristin Thompson - “Parameters of the Open Film Les vacances de M. Hulot  Wide Angle v2/1 1977                                                                 

David Bedos  Jacques Tati, pb ed. 2001.                                                                              

Jonathan Rosenbaum  “The Death of Hulot’  essay in Placing Movies 1995                                       

Dave Kehr  “Playtime”  in The International Dictionary of Films Vol 1 Films  ed. C. Lyon 1984         

Roy Armes “Jacques Tati: The Open Window of Comedy” in The Ambiguous Image 1976               

Noel Burch Theory of Film Practice 1973


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson


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