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Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1968) opens in a shiny space: nuns breeze past; a woman in a white uniform clacks through, bearing towels; a baby cries. People wait. The feeling is “hospital.” A second woman in white delivers towels, and we see that her destination is actually a restroom; then a flock of tourists invades and the tail fin of a jetliner glides past a window and we know we’re in an airport. The whole building has slipped on a disguise and then let it drop, but only we noticed. The bored travelers, the cleaner with nothing to clean, the woman with the dog hidden in her baggage—all are oblivious.
The mutability of the physical world is a big theme in visual comedy, from Chaplin’s transformation of an alarm clock into a tin of food, by sheer pantomimic effort of the imagination, to Buster Keaton’s battle with the shuffling landscapes of a recalcitrant movie narrative. Playtime can be read as an extended exploration of this power of transformation.
But listen: my own approach here is not a critically pure, disinterested one, should such a thing even be possible. As an occasional filmmaker myself, I’ve dabbled in visual comedy, so maybe my admiration for Tati has a flavor slightly different from that of the normal human. Anybody can enjoy a great juggler’s show, but another, lesser juggler has perhaps a sharper eye for the truly difficult feats. Of course, just because something is difficult doesn’t make it worth doing, so I’m also interested in the motivation behind Tati’s fabulous tricks.
Playtime covers a day, a night, and a morning in a studio-built Paris known to the film’s crew as Tativille, a name I shall use partly for its charm and partly to distinguish it from the real Paris, which it resembles so closely that some people wonder why Tati had to build it. By setting himself the task of fitting his gag sequences into roughly twenty-four hours, Tati was forcing himself to work in a fairly rigid frame, and he made his job still harder by avoiding all obvious jokes unless he could render them startling by pulling them off when least seen coming (Tati as Monsieur Hulot suddenly slips three times, unexpectedly, in the midst of long, slow sequences, and always recovers, equally unexpectedly, before full pratfall status is attained). Also, his gags are themed not only by the situations they play out in but according to an unstated pattern.
The opening hospital-airport confusion sets the tone for the film’s first movement, a purgatorial comedy of frustration in which the people of Tativille are beset by problems brought about by the unergonomic design of the city and the universe’s tendency to put on false faces to confuse and deceive. Attempting to meet a business associate, Hulot becomes lost in a labyrinth of office cubicles, in which the sole landmark is a receptionist who further perplexes him by swivelling through 360 degrees, so that each time he sees her his internal map is altered. Later, he spots his associate and sets off in pursuit, unaware that he’s chasing the man’s reflection in the glass frontage of the next building.
A little more than halfway through Playtime, Tati slowly reverses the pattern of perplexity, allowing the characters to become aware of the world’s capacity for transformation and letting them take control of it. The process begins with the introduction of the Royal Garden Restaurant, which is built, opens, and collapses on the same night.
We first see the restaurant from outside, where a crowd gathers to watch a team of glaziers move a huge sheet of plate glass into position. As the men advance sideways, shifting their hands to grip the glass, some onlookers hum an Egyptian dance tune, and this accompaniment transforms the workmen into animated figures from a hieroglyphic frieze. Already, the idea of conscious transformation is in effect. Meanwhile, Tati blunders into his long-lost associate while the man is walking his dog, and their business is swiftly concluded in this informal setting.
A loud American tourist is introduced, and seems to be something of a boor. Yet his insistence on sitting at the restaurant table he likes, as opposed to the one he has reserved, is an early clue to his desire to make the world work. So when the restaurant falls apart around his ears, he’s the first to see it as an opportunity for enjoyment. A collapsing ceiling cordons off part of the room, and he uses the imprints left on the diners’ backs by the poorly designed chairs to determine who will be allowed entrance to his private establishment. Soon he has his own music playing, and everybody is having a whale of a time.
What blows me away is how Tati finds the perfect, unanticipatable gags for each situation, fitting the joke not only to the particular place and character but to the journey from strife to pleasure.
My own limited experience is that the hardest task for the gag writer, the one that has you beating your head against the softest available wall, is to come up with specific jokes that deliver essential plot points, or exploit essential situations, or serve a particular tonal need, or build on previous gags. Tati’s gags do all of the above, all of the time. While his plot is slender to the point of deniability, there is nevertheless a sequential structure to the film. The transition from jokes about failure and frustration to jokes about imaginative transformation (or “play”) isn’t instant, so he’s allowed to mix the two, but the giving way of discomfort to joy is modulated with amazing dexterity.
There are two ways to come up with visual gags. One is by picturing the scene in your head as you sit with pen and paper, or computer. The other is by interacting with the physical objects and space of the scene itself. The silent comedians generally started with the former, producing a brief synopsis, but relied heavily on the latter to shape the action of their stories. Tati preferred to do the same, and that is why Tativille had to be built. To direct scores of actors at a time (always by showing them what to do), and build up their little story lines, immaculately interwoven, would take time, and the real Paris and its airport could not be closed down for months. In a way, Tati’s first draft of his screenplay was his made-to-order city, specially designed to offer certain comic possibilities, and his second draft was the shoot itself, in which a comic revolution overturned the city and made it into a nursery.