All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy

It is exactly how it says on the tin: Jacques Tati’s fourth feature Playtime is a means for him to play around with a scope of production hardly ever seen of a movie before. Sadly since as well, given that the amount of personal investment Tati put into it was not returned to him financially. But what he did have to show for it is an unexpected marvel and something that just as much engages with the viewer’s sense of play as it does with the director’s. Playtime has a sense of ambition and eagerness that I consider very few movies to matched up with, giving us a fleeting vision into a cold world that Tati certainly had a healthy amount of pessimism towards but still found a way to make the experience a buoyant one every minute we spend there.

That ambition is met on both Playtime‘s production design (by Eugène Roman) and the choreography of the cast populating that very same production design, a working city with electricity and roads and all practically created wholesale (with the help of some model work for certain shots) by Tati, Roman and the rest of the crew by the name of “Tativille” and certainly the raison d’etre of Playtime as a work of art. The Paris of Playtime is a cold and sterile geometric zone, one embodied by straight lines and a muting of colors only occasionally punctuated by color as a joke such as a lamp light blasting pink or such (the one exception – at least for the first half – being a flower stand relegated to a street corner and treated as quaint by certain passers-by). This is the case from the outside, with the two buildings in which the first half of Playtime takes place, a pair of business centers so indiscernible from each other to the point of one of our characters getting lost between them. This is the case from the inside, as in the middle point where we get to meet the quiet domestic life of another character in little glass squares alike his 3 neighbors in the building. Squares and boxes are in fact kind of a visual cue into what to look out into in this movie’s vast 70mm widescreen compositions by cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding, made up exclusively of wide shots with various foregrounded elements. And certainly the reflective surfaces are a basis in so many of Tati’s blunt critiques of this industrial future, providing invisible barriers between characters or sadly reflecting the Paris’ most iconic landmarks in more than once. But it’s not just the design and composition that meets Tati’s ambition.

It’s also the way that people move around in those between those lines just maintains the rigidness of it all. Tati, of course, is of the screen’s great physical comics and his control over these ecosystems in which we watch the movements of characters pass through angles and go through motions with synchronicity to the alienating environment is quite a miracle to see performed on such a large scale. And it seems like every single inhabitant of this world Tati’s crew built from the ground up is perfectly positioned to perform their tiny little gags in whatever corner of the screen they’re relegated to, whatever box they’re contained in whether their home, a cubicle, or a window. It’s like a perfect exacting dance between the lines of the screen. And there’s so much going on that it makes Playtime such an essential big-screen watch (and rewatch and rewatch, as my latest viewings that inform this review were two theatrical screenings within 6 days of each other) as it’s the best way to have the imagery send you every bit of information possible and let your eyes just explore the frame (as well as a proper presentation of the film’s 6-track stereo sound which delivers several of the gags on its own separate plane over the continuous dialogue laying out a sea of population. Gags are even made out of the incongruousness of the visual and the sound like a man walking down a long hallway and a character getting up expecting he about to approach because he hears the echoing footsteps or the distraction of where a baby’s cry is coming from).

There will of course never be a single viewing in which you will see every single joke that Tati and his collaborators have fit into this movie, which makes it all the more impressive where one single man was able to marshal the motions and behaviors of the actors with impressive business that feels human and natural in this inhuman and artificial environment (my particular favorite is a sequence where one man is sliding on a rolling chair along a long help desk for an ostensible travel agency – one that features posters of exotic locations focused on the exact same looking building in each location – and we see from behind a map that his legs are dancing and jittering from end to end to serve every customer at the desk and calling on the numerous phones. By the time, he gets to calmly walking from one end of the desk to the other with the chair slowly following him, I absolutely die).

And it is at this point I realize how much I’ve talked about Playtime without even feinting towards the screenplay and what it’s about.

But, to discuss Playtime in terms of plot is an exercise in futility: Tati, co-writer Jacques Lagrange, and satirist Art Buchwald (the latter recruited specifically to write the occasional English dialogue we catch) are clearly less concerned with the particulars of narrative in their writing. Certainly there’s structure and there’s characters we definitely recognize all throughout (although there’s also one specific character we keep misrecognizing, Tati’s famous character Monsieur Hulot, whom we lose track of among fellow bypassers in hats and mackintoshes). There’s even characters we enter this city with at the beginning of the movie and leave likewise with at the end, as is the case with a throng of American housewife tourists who land in Orly airport and waste no time exploring the central buildings that make up the film’s setting. But the real concern is allowing the perspective to flow naturally from one place to the next after hovering around and watching them run for a while. The closest we have to protagonists are Hulot or one of the housewives Barbara (Barbara Dennek) and they are more or less just amble into our view to follow before the camera determines there’s another point of interest to linger on.

As for that structure I’ve referred to, there are essentially three major movements to Playtime outside of the prologue at Orly Airport (in which the third plays as a sort of how-to instruction on watching the film, beginning with a nearly empty hallway and slowly introducing characters and sounds and gags so that we’re eased into the rhythm of all the stuff that’s going to be going on for the rest of the movie) and an valediction. Those three basically being the exploration of those maze-like business center interiors, the voyeuristic viewing of the apartments where the television-esque presentation of all the spaces gets played with by the observative behavior of their inhabitants and the attempt to use angles hiding the presumed wall between these homes (and in a movie that feels like a lot of its themes are developed from Tati’s musings in his previous film Mon Oncle, this one feels the most vestigial from that picture while still more belonging in this one), and the third and undeniable high-point of Playtime:

The climactic dinner at the Royal Garden restaurant, ostensibly on its opening night as we first watch it while construction workers and electricians are still putting on their finishing touches to the place and then rushed off to the kitchen out of the view of the first of the posh guests arrive, regardless of if the dining room is ready or not. Obviously, it’s very much not, initially communicated to us by a wonderful visual gag that has a black negative spot on a white tile floor (the warm browns of the walls are perhaps an early indicator of how different this will be from the scene’s virtually colorless predecessors). But then, the more movement starts coming in as guests flood the dining room and waiters start dancing around the table, everything just gets more and more chaotic to the most frantic track of Francis Lemarque’s jazz-infused music and frankly the building starts to collapse all around them: short circuits, demolished ceiling fixtures, and shattered glass doors all in between the ruining of suits from faulty chairs or waiters’ uniforms from hectic movements. It is the dizziest and most engaging part of the movie, the moment where Tati’s criticism of modernity just lets the faults of modernism speak for themselves and includes an arched eye towards classism (I am most impressed by a gag where the maître d vehemently refuses a black man entrance, which the man takes in stride and turns around to leave revealing the suit that the house band is expected to wear and forcing the maître d to shift gears to hospitality), a barrier that is broken down by the very destruction of scenery which invites all sort of “unrespectable characters” like drunks and bohemians and teenagers and the growing gregariousness of a particularly loud American businessman (Billy Kearns) who begins to hold court and invite all the possible misfits in this place.

That sequence is a jolt of electricity alike the neon signs throughout (including one in a pharmacy/bakery next door that looks hilariously too sickly in its green lighting to feel particularly comforting or appetizing) to the point that before we know it, the final minutes of Playtime in the wake of the party feel more relaxed and it’s probably not for nothing that its final major sequence is literally a makeshift carousel in a roundabout (Lemarque’s music once again giving according score to that mood) as we follow the housewives en route to the airport, doing away with the rigidness of when we entered and focusing on the smoothness of the circle and featuring the strongest colors in the whole movie. The movie has become looser and at ease, less anxious over this previously alien landscape we saw. And I think it’s this final playful beat that causes me to assume that there’s maybe the slightest optimism in Tati that we can make it work as long as we’re willing to embrace humanity and its flaws and let it overpower the need for things to be perfect and orderly. It is one of the few elements that I think prevents this from feeling like a work of cynicism.

There are plenty of movies that demand the audience work with it to create their own story in between the moments and many of those ambiguous works make for some of my favorite watches. But none of them make it nearly as fun and inviting as Playtime and the true joy of watching this is how much of it is just inexhaustible on an aesthetic level, inviting us to revisit Tativille as many times as we like and pick and choose what we’d like to see from it. Jonathan Rosenbaum has said that Playtime (his favorite movie) is a different movie depending on where you sit in the theater and given the two differences between my theatrical viewings… I get it! But you will always receive Tati’s sense of glee at creating this world, his consideration of how the future of things looked circa 1967, and his desire to make sure no matter where this world goes, we never forget to find room for play.

Stop Making That Big Face!

screenshot_2_42427

Faces Places sounds weirdly like exactly the sort of documentary that I would normally be averse to. On the surface of it is just a couple of artists trying to document their artistic project. Which is hardly a terrible concept (though still sounding self-congratulatory), especially when you see how it affects the witness to that art (which is obviously also documented) and they’re all emotional and receiving the nice and warm fuzzies from the way in which they are artistically immortalized: the artists in question take photos of their face, print them into blowouts, and paste them against large flat surfaces that usually mean a lot to the person whose face it is showing up in (not entirely immortalized, one of the artists mentions that the pastings have a finite lifespan and there is a scene where one of their works ends up not lasting until the next morning). But it’s something that I’d much rather experience or witness on my own, like most fine art. You can’t really get the full power of the work from watching a movie about it, frankly*.

The way Faces Places gets to circumvent around this for me is the fact that it is the latest film by French New Wave legend Agnès Varda, one of the brains behind this artistic project, the other one being photographer and graffiti artist JR, who Varda shares credit with. This sharing of credit is not for anything: JR and Varda remark early on about how it took them so long to meet each other (after a hilarious and disarming montage of “what if?” scenarios behind their fateful meeting – the one that brings the biggest smile to my face is the quaint little comedy about JR wanting to buy chocolate éclairs and losing them to Varda), having long had admiration for each others work, and sharing wonderful chemistry together as dear friends and as collaborators. They are of similar spirit and soul – socially conscious, approachable, curious, extremely stylish and photogenic in an unassuming way. Indeed, the charm behind Varda’s presence was definitely the first reason this movie was on my radar. I did not expect Faces Places would have the lovely opportunity to introduce me to another personality that would make for a charismatic screen companion to her and now I’m totally following JR for the rest of his career.

screenshot_12_42434

If Varda gets to take over on the cinematic front, JR is the specialist in the form of flyposting murals as art (both are photographers) and he seems so much more confident in performing the labor and verbalizing the project and ideas to any subjects that would like to be photographed. Varda however proves to be just as creative in ideas for this new medium as she did in cinema back in the 50s and 60s, especially since many of the areas they visit and work in have some memorial attachment to Varda. There is one point where they discuss Varda’s past relationship with the late photographer Guy Bourdin (who modeled for Varda) and it becomes the basis of an attempted tribute to his memory. This particular flypost is also the one that seems most collaborative at heart for Varda and JR, both of whom have a particular history with the area of the Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach of Normandy. JR, for instance, is the one who discovers the fallen German bunker where they perform the tribute.

Another thing that makes Faces Places‘ status as an Agnès Varda project much more attractive to me is how, like Varda’s most notable works of the 21st Century The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, it functions as autobiography and reflection of her current age. Constantly, Varda can not help but remark and sometimes interpret otherwise harmless statements by JR as commentary on the fact that she is 88 years old and losing her sight. Which is probably what makes her so eager to immortalize several people by this project, her coming knowledge that nobody in this world will last and that it’s important to leave a big imprint.

And certainly the director of La Pointe-Courte would know better than anybody else how everyone has their story in the world and they’re equally as important as the latest Star Wars picture. With each stop, we are privy to the lives and history of the area we watch transform before us – a row of abandoned houses left to decay before being brought to life by the neighboring community in a festive celebration. An industrial plant given a mural within a trench illuminating the hard teamwork and collaboration of two different shifts that otherwise don’t really interact. Three women working the docks of Le Havre being able to tower over the men in their field by stacks of shipping containers, before eventually sitting in the spot that their own hearts would inhabit. We meet these faces and learn what the interior lives behind these faces are. The visual results of Varda and JR’s work are wonderfully modern and moving, looking like splashes on a usually dull concrete surfaces despite only being in newspaper blacks and whites and greys.

lead_960

In any case, that project is once again only what Faces Places appears to be in the surface and as we watch JR’s wonderful SLR-camera-looking van drive down the road to affable music by Matthieu “M” Chedid, the more obviously it peels back to look at Agnès awareness that she can’t see or move the way she once did and what does that mean for her artwork. Which is why it’s extremely touching to see her interact with JR, who tries to respond to her bubbly statements and imaginations with his own bouncy and spontaneous postures and movements without seeming like a cartoon (during a late-in-the-film tribute to one of my favorite movie moments JR suddenly jumps up mid-run into a crazy perpendicular legs-up-in-the-air pose and I thought he was the coolest guy in the world for that).

JR may be the young person in the duo, but Varda’s still a child at heart and the real conflict seems to be how Varda knows her body isn’t going to be able to follow her soul. It’s the source of some amount of tension: particularly in the metaphorical usage of her eyesight and JR’s trademarked sunglasses that he’s never seen without and which Varda attempts to pester him into removing, while also reminding her of her friend and the only other living French New Wave titan Jean-Luc Godard. And all three of these things – her eyesight, his sunglasses, and Godard himself end up orbiting the content of the final third of Faces Places, combining together for an ending to their voyage that feels at first cruel and cold until JR decides to help Varda re-author it through his generosity into a moment of serenity between two good friends.

JR and Varda will certainly not last together as a pairing for longer than the end of this decade. It feels blunt but fair to recognize that Varda will probably not live much longer than the next 3 years. And yet the most powerful thing I can’t help leaving Faces Places with is the inability to picture one of them without the other – and I’ve been a long time fan of Varda’s without even knowing who the hell JR is – and the knowledge that even while I consider that maybe more than a few of their “storyline” in this documentary is “staged” (I’m just that distrustful of documentaries, especially documentaries by narrative filmmakers centering on themselves), few relationships in this world are probably as pure, artistically charged, and loving without being romantic as Varda and JR.

tumblr_p0wlp7ux6y1qaihw2o1_500

*NB Dec 2018: I have now been lucky to witness one of JR’s artworks in person. Bless up!

Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets-wallpapers-4

It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

screencap-valerian-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-08-screencap

Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

screencap-valerian-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-13-screencap

Tonight, Tonight

I so so so so mean to boost my usage of this thing, after being beaten down to only using it once a month. So, when I have to reboot my output in anything, I always figure to start from the beginning…

No. No. No.

… not the very beginning. Because, what the hell can you say about Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon other than that it’s a bunch of guys leaving a factory.

No, you want to be shown something you’ve never seen before. Something fantastic. It’s why people want to be told stories. They want to be surprised and amused.

But hell, you run that same risk in the likes of A Trip to the Moon. It’s so short and straight and to the point, not so covered in nuance and theme deliberately, that the idea description is just to say it is about scientists who happen to go to the Moon and fight aliens before returning. That’s the main content of the film and essentially the only thing it is about.

But its imagery is unforgettable, completely engrained into the idea of what science fiction film and what a dreamlike surrealism film allows to be a “reality” for the viewer. I mean, an image from cinema that is as engrained as that of Death and the Knight Playing Chess or Harold Lloyd Hanging Out of the Clock Tower lies below…

atriptothemoon

BOOM!!!!

With a little touch of the fantastic and the magic, the moon is a face with a rocket ship sticking out of its eye. This is undeniably unforgettable imagery and this was well in the beginnings of celluloid, something which is practically cinema’s endangered species now.

You see, it’s the little technicalities like that that truly make it easy to love Une Voyage dans la Lune. It’s fun and pretty to look at. It’s such an obvious little fantasy, even when you ignore the fascinating magic tricks Melies obviously put together to bring it to life… the falling of the rocket ship, the costumes of the Moon Aliens… Those are eye-catching, but also eye-catching is the obviously novel aspects – the woman in short shorts being the workers to shoot the moon out, the professors being such long-bearded old men in robes that make them look more like Wizards than Scientists, oversized ships and rocket guns and staffs and one large-eyed moon…

What more can I say beyond that without going into the intricacies that bore my friends whenever I talk about them? When you’re wowed by magic, you don’t immediately find out the magician’s secrets. So, why should I ruin a magician’s secrets this time around just because I happen to be writing a film blog?

It’s human nature to dream and Une Voyage dans la Lune happens to be the first dream captured in film and shared with everyone.

Why don’t you check it out?

Pure Magic…