Tag Archives: Playtime

Jacques-in-the-Box

tati

Newly released on Blu-ray from Studio Canal France is Intégrale Jacques Tati, a box set collecting all six feature films by the greatest director of comedy in the sound era. (No? Then who?) Following on the heels of last year’s complete Eric Rohmer Blu-ray/DVD box from Potemkine, France has clearly become the go-to country for distributing career-spanning home video retrospectives devoted to important individual filmmakers. This is perhaps the result of French directors being more generally independent and often owning their own negatives in comparison to filmmakers from other countries. (By contrast, in the past decade there have been at least four different substantial DVD box sets put out by different American companies devoted to a single studio-hopping director like John Ford; a scenario like this can prove to be a nightmare for movie lovers/collectors.) But I digress. If you own a Region-B or multi-region Blu-ray player, you should own this complete Jacques Tati box set, an early frontrunner for best-of-the-year status. What makes this release so essential, in addition to being able to see all of the films again in superb quality, is Studio Canal’s impressive thoroughness in assembling the set: three of the titles can be seen in multiple versions — three for Jour de Fete and two a piece for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, resulting in a grand total of 10 feature films. There is also an entire Blu-ray disc of extras that includes all of the delightful but underseen short films that Tati made from 1934 to 1978. Intégrale indeed.

jour

Jour de Fete, Tati’s underrated first feature, is a terrific slapstick comedy about Francois (the director himself as a forerunner to his beloved “Monsieur Hulot” character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color although it was not actually seen in color until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a revelatory new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together three versions of Jour de Fete on a single disc: the original 1949 black-and-white release, the 1995 color-restored version, and a 1964 release that is mostly in black-and-white but with limited color tinting overseen by the director himself.

hulot

1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was the beloved first outing for the director’s legendary Monsieur Hulot character. The film opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court where he revolutionizes the serve.) Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together the original 1953 version of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday with Tati’s 1978 re-edit of the film, which saw the inclusion of newly shot, seamlessly integrated footage (such as an anachronistic spoof of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws).

mononcle

Mon Oncle won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1959 and yet, in spite of that honor and in spite of the fact that it remains a quintessential example of Tati’s unique brand of cinema, I don’t think it’s quite as great as what had come before nor what would come after. The plot, minimal as ever, has to do with Monsieur Hulot visiting the family of his brother-in-law, who live in a nightmarish, American-style post-modern home. A lot of the sight gags — especially those involving the malfunction of high-tech gadgets around the house — are brilliant and point the way towards similar gags in Playtime but, because the action is confined almost entirely to a single setting, this lacks the awe-inspiring epic quality of Tati’s supreme masterpiece. Still, it’s an important evolutionary step between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime and remains crucial viewing. Included together on a single disc is Tati’s original 1958 version of the film as well as My Uncle, a version featuring American dialogue and signage (both of which are minimal) and running nine-minutes shorter.

playtime

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent champion, has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?” The image quality of Studio Canal’s transfer is every bit as impressive as the one put out by Criterion a few years ago, although flesh tones are slightly warmer here (for those who care about that sort of thing).

trafic

Some commentators have complained that Traffic represents a concession to the marketplace: after the costly commercial failure of Playtime — with its radical everybody-is-a-star premise — Tati brought Monsieur Hulot back for more of a conventional leading role in this follow-up, which would also be the character’s last outing (his name actually precedes the film’s title in the opening credits). Taken on its own terms, however, this 1971 comedy is not only very funny but offers a Western civilization-as-traffic jam metaphor almost as potent as that of Godard’s Weekend. The road-trip premise has something to do with Hulot delivering a car from Paris to Amsterdam for an auto show and predictably engaging in roadside mishaps along the way but, as in all of Tati’s work, this is only a pretext for a series of comedic vignettes that are both self-contained and related by theme; I am personally inordinately fond of the stopped-car nose-picking montage.

parade

Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest final feature, was made for Swedish television in 1974. Because it has primarily been seen only in a crude early video process (one of three formats on which it was shot) and because it features a single-location setting (a circus big-top), Parade has often been unfortunately dismissed as an unworthy swan song to an extraordinary career. But I would argue this gem is much better than its reputation suggests, not only summarizing a lot of the key themes of Tati’s work (including such democratic and utopian notions that anyone can be funny and that life itself is a performance), but also poignantly bringing it full circle: Tati himself plays the ringmaster of the circus and, at the age of 66, shows an impressive physical dexterity in recreating some of the slapstick gags of his pre-cinema, vaudeville career. The Blu-ray of Parade is happily the most revelatory title in this set in terms of image quality: it is based on a 2013 restoration that combines Tati’s use of video, 16mm and 35mm film stocks and is leaps and bounds better than previous home video editions. So, a lovely film then and a fitting coda to the career of one of the cinema’s true comedic geniuses.

Below are my ratings of all of the individual films in the Intégrale Jacques Tati set. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

Jour de Fete: A+/A
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: A+/A
Mon Oncle: A/A+
Playtime: A+/A+
Traffic: A/A+
Parade: A-/A-

Intégrale Jacques Tati can be ordered from Amazon in France here: http://tinyurl.com/l7m3vx8


Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

mauds

20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.


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