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A look back at Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Jacques Tati’s PlayTime is a film both capricious and harshly modern, with a terrifically Orwellian view of the urban landscape in some places

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Ten years passed before filmmaker Jacques Tati was able to secure funding for his 1967 masterpiece of modernist French cinema PlayTime, and it isn’t any wonder why; it was the most expensive film in the country’s history at the time, shot on (for want of a better word) a “Tativille” wonderland – a backlot that consisted of a decidedly antiseptic airline terminal, high-rise buildings, offices, city streets and a traffic oval, all to serve an altogether non-existent plot. It is, in essence, a film about everything, and nothing. Instead of a story arc or formal narrative it has a cataract of incidents, and in the place of a main character or “hero” and his supporting players is a varied troupe of thousands, so that PlayTime isn’t so much an acting ensemble as a film with extras.

The opening shot of the movie does surprisingly little in “establishing” exactly where we are. A long, cavernous, superficially-lit beast of a room with a shiny floor, that could be the lobby of a banking giant, or perhaps a hospital, but is revealed to be part of a French airline terminal in later shots. This single wide-angle long take remains stationary for some two minutes, and in all this time we aren’t told, or “guided”rather, to the character or characters we should focus on. Instead, we see the quintessential quibbling couple seated camera-left, who turn in unison to observe two nuns walking past; then a waiter or chef; then a man in a suit; then a swarthy cleaner resplendent in blue; then a general (or perhaps, pilot); then a nurse carrying towels; then a woman rushing off screen  and finally a mother pushing a red tweed-lined pram. It’s interesting to note that when the nurse comes into the shot she is accompanied by the sound of a screaming baby somewhere off screen  which adds to the perception (here in the beginning) that we might be in some kind of strangely silent hospital. This scene is testament to the enervation that a film like Tati’s requires from its audience. PlayTime is just that; a cinematic maze of movement and people and things that we must actively participate in; a cacophony of noise, and locations, and montage, where words are spoken over each other and are in some occasions slurred or altogether inaudible. In other words: PlayTime is life. It is, by and large, a scrapbook of ordinary scenes displayed in a heightened kind of reality where anything goes. (Take for the example the window-cleaning scene, where as the pane goes up and down, so does the bus reflected through the glass and, with girlish ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, the women inside.) Tati leaves it to us to see the film how we like, and PlayTime is that kind of picture show that demands repeated viewings; we are sure to notice something new and comical in the corner of a shot that we didn’t see the first time round. As critic David Kehr puts it, “We have to roam the image – search it, work it, play with it.”

When lighting a scene, a cinematographer will create highlights and shadows to steer our attention to the foreground or background of a frame. The airport lobby scene in PlayTime is lit in so bright a fashion that everything we see looks like it might belong to a bizarre (albeit very retro) futuristic chimera. It resembles an elaborate dentist’s office. You can practically smell the prophylactic. But there are no shadows here; just an assortment of key lights on the booths and fillers shining down from the ceiling. We can see the man in his black suit in the extreme background of the frame enter and exit the screen clear and shadowless. We notice the stubborn stray hairs on the foreground-man’s balding head, and the lines that form under his wife’s chin as she cranes her head around to ogle at Mr Pilot With The Ominous Walk.

Costume designer Jacques Cottin seems here to have followed a single-word brief from Tati: “bland”. Every character that walks through the lobby in this scene does so sporting clothing that is classic and very “vanilla”. The women standing by the large windows in the back of the frame are wearing little black skirts and knit sweaters, while the lady in the grey dress rushes for a flight in sensible black shoes; Mr and Mrs sit in matching shades of Prussian; Nurse, of course, is in white; and Cleaner is in blue. Cottin’s colour palette is quite neutral, seemingly to emphasise the monotony of waiting in an airport. Compared to the shots that follow where a beehive of people try to navigate through security, then Administration, then more lobbies, followed by more people – this establishing shot is tame and slow-paced. Tati’s editing choices are unconventional – long takes, marred with short shots – and so PlayTime runs as a mess of one shot on top of another with little regard to continuity in some cases. (When Tati’s alter ego Mr Hulot inspects a curious-looking lobby chair, the camera observes him outside the glass room, then inside, then outside, then at another angle inside, and so on. As we jump in and out of the room with the camera, the whirring sound of a far- off machine is magnified then dulled accordingly, adding to the raucous; it appears Tati is no longer concerned with telling a story, even a short one of a man prodding a chair, but instead is having more fun playing around with shot composition in the editing room.)

In the absence of a lavish musical score, natural sounds become characters of their own in PlayTime. The stomp of crowds, the sputter and roar of car engines, the drone of the machine we mentioned above; or, in some places, the lack of sound. Tati’s comedic timing shines early on in a lobby scene (where a security guard with way too much mileage steals the show); the man Hulet is waiting for saunters down the hallway for forever and a day, and Tati roots the camera in one position so that all we see, and more importantly hear, is the man’s footfall on the marble. Footwear also echoes loudly in Tati’s establishing shot: the quick pitter patter of the grey woman’s sensible shoes as she hurries to catch her flight; the commanding stomp of the pilot; the cleaner’s drag and turn; or the “whoosh” of the nun’s oddly-shaped habits… And penetrating it all are the voices of the couple. If nothing else, PlayTime is a myriad of details. Tati’s wife character doesn’t say anything particularly important or interesting; more casual observations to her husband. This shot makes us sit up and watch closely, to see what happens next. Or who enters next. And from which side of the frame. The sounds act like a per-curser; we hear the clatter of knives and forks long before the chef emerges from a side-corridor. That these sounds might have been dulled in any other movie to focus exclusively on, say, the married couple’s conversation is part of the charm of Tati’s offering; he reduces life to a complete urban mayhem of noise, noise and more noise. Which is really what it is, in the long run. Every character provides their own individual noise to form a collective hullabaloo.

In the end, PlayTime is a film both capricious and harshly modern, with a terrifically Orwellian view of the urban landscape in some places – and considering it took the auteur four years and an astonishing 7 million francs to deliver it to an albeit unsympathetic audience at the time, one can only imagine how many walk-in shots and hustles here and bustles there ended up on the cutting room floor. Take out all the over-editing and the avant-garde set design and the impersonal landscape, and at its core is a man’s observations about the world around him. A moving image through his eyes. Call it post-modern or surrealistic, odd or classically “French”, PlayTime remains completely Tati-ian – and a beast like no other.

Film

Election still wins by a landslide

Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.

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Election

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.

The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.

Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).

But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.

Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.

A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)

More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.

Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.

Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.

What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.

“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.

“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)

Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.

That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.

Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”

But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.

After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.

While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.

Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.

Whose ego is that?

Election was originally released in April of 1999.

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Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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