Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

52-film Challenge, week 5

I have seen many (and at the same time, also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.

Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.

In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.

It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.

Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.

The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.

Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.

It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.

Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.

Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.

Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).

M. Hulot gets the overhead view of the maze he is in.

Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.

As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.

Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.

Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.

At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.

Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.

So much glass everywhere in our modern world.

The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.

The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.

It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.

I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, but this scene is very funny.

The Daughter of Dawn (1920, dir. Norbert Myles)

52 film challenge (week 4)
⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is one of the films that film-history majors watch, and pretty much nobody else (at least not anymore), but it’s actually a little bit fascinating.

This silent film is a non-patronizing look at life among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes — set in a time before they were herded into reservations and their previous way of life forcibly taken away from them, but acted by people this had happened to some 50 years earlier.

The story is a pretty straightforward “love triangle” story, but what’s amazing about this silent film is that the entire cast, without exception, is portrayed by Native Americans (some 300 all together), and featuring authentic outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes.

The acting is of course variable, but convincing enough to impart the story of one brave who feels he “deserves” the chief’s daughter and attempts to force her into marriage, while the young girl has already fallen for another brave. True love wins out, which itself is something of a radical idea given the time when the film came out.

The portrayal of the women of the tribes is surprisingly much less patronising than expected; the villain of the piece Black Wolf does have another who pines for him (Red Wing), but he callously ignores her in favor of the Daughter of Dawn (yes, that’s her name). He spends most of the movie creeping around and observing from a distance in the standard silent-movie way, helping us uncover developments, whereupon he discovers his rival While Eagle and plots his downfall.

The Daughter of Dawn and her true love, White Eagle.

The simple story is kind of excuse to recreate something like pre-reservation life among two tribes, including great landscape shots of the plains (the film was made in Oklahoma), hunting scenes featuring actual wild buffalo, daring stunts, and some time spent on the day-to-day life of the people. Director Norbert Myles seems to have wanted to a documentary-style drama rather than stigmatize the “savages” as was more the style for the time.

Actual First Nation peoples! Actual outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes themselves!

On a story level, this wasn’t that far removed from The Searchers (1954), but apart from the interesting historical context and backstory of the film itself — it was presumed lost for almost 90 years before mysteriously resurfacing in 2012 — it’s not a film most non-native people would seek out.

It’s pretty well-made and sympathetic for a 1920 silent film, and benefits strongly from an authentic Native American cast. The plot is very well-worn nowadays, but I would imagine it captured audiences’ imaginations — and maybe won over a few “paleface” hearts and minds — in its day.

The Tragedy of MacBeth (2021, dir. Joel Cohen)

52 Film Challenge, week 3
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ve been saving this film since it came out since the trailer alone told me what I needed to know about it — neo-expressionist, Escher-influenced, exceptionally-sharp B&W mixing stagecraft and filmcraft (and witchcraft) with stunning performances and visuals that I would eat up like candy.

At just over an hour and 40 minutes, this might be seen by some as an attempt to get theatre-resistant souls to give this major Shakespearean outing a fair shake —

but the substantial trimming of the text is so skillfully done that the stark and incredible visuals fill in what’s not there with great artistry. The speeches that I recalled most vividly from the many productions I have seen in theatres were still there.

About the only bad thing I can say about this is an unfair complaint: I never find Shakespeare’s lines quite as musical when they are done by American voices. That is not to, in the least, denigrate the performances of the leads — Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth (stunningly well portrayed) and Denzel Washington as MacBeth himself, though he failed to connect with me quite as much as some of his predecessors in the part.

I liked the variations, sincerity, and styling Washington gave to his speeches, and he joins a company of fine actors, from Bertie Carvel (in a very fine turn as Banquo), to Alex Hassel as the impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, impossibly expressive Ross, to Harry Melling as Malcolm (another good turn from this maturing actor). This being filmed entirely on a soundstage (in California, sadly) gave it a beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere, even when scenes were set outdoors. A triumph of cinematography, this.

Alex Hassell as Ross nearly steals the picture, except when Frances McDormand is on.

Visually, pacing-wise, and performance-wise, this version punches all of my buttons and while I have seen a handful of filmed MacBeths before, this one is far and away my favourite. It’s like no version of the show seen before, and combined with some sparing but incredibly clever effects to enhance the witch(es) — with a nod of awe to Kathryn Hunter for her stellar performance — it is as riveting to watch as any of Laurence Olivier’s Technicolour (or B&W) Shakespearean movies (one of which actually has Melling’s grandfather in a notable role).

Holy crap, this scene.

A mention must be made of Carter Burwell’s musical score, which is minimal and rarely calls attention to itself but which is yet another element setting the mood, which is what Coen has really brought to this production (other than some well-placed scissors to the script). Although there were a few fleeting moments when I wished a line or an actor’s look had been done a bit differently, or if a scene had lingered just a bit more, these were but quickly drowned by the glory of the effects, the sets, the cinematography, the lighting, and all the other elements.

Finally, I am not yet settled on Coen’s main addition to the tale, that being some staging that suggests a non-traditional interpretation of the third murderer. But perhaps I will drink in this sweet wine of a film again and ponder on it. This unconventional movie took some risks, and for me most of them paid off handsomely.

Ugetsu (Monogatari) (雨月物語, lit. “Rain-moon Tales”) 1953, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

2023 52-film challenge: week 2

The late 1940s and much of the 1950s was an interesting time for the film world, particularly in the West. In addition to filmmaking advances from other countries, interest in ”foreign” films and styles of filmmaking/storytelling grew at international competitions, increasing diversity and influencing North American and European filmmakers for decades afterwards.

The main characters (L-R): foolish Tōbei, prideful Genjūrō, Genjūrō’s wife Miyagi, their son Genichi, and Tōbei’s wife Ohana.

This movie, usually shortened to just Ugetsu, is an interesting film because it weaves some timeless story ideas together: a clever allegorical tale of the delusions of men — and the subsequent wartime suffering of their wives and children, shown in a almost-feminist sympathetic light — alongside a more traditional Japanese ghost story, offering up a meaningful anti-war theme based on the lives of the innocent victims of war.

The story is based on tales from a book written in 1776 (when another more famous war was going on), and is set during Japan’s prolonged civil war, which finally ended in 1600.

We focus on a small family: the potter Genjūrō, his wife Miyagi, and their young son Genichi. The other two main characters are Genjūrō’s brother-in-law Tōbei and his wife, Ohama. Both of the two men have big dreams: Genjūrō dreams of having money by selling his pottery in larger towns, while Tōbei is almost feverish with a desire to become a samurai.

Genjūrō’s more modest and achievable aims at least are rewarded; Tōbei’s goal is sort-of achieved in a rather comical way, but their visions of success both drive them to leave behind their families to seek their fortunes, causing mostly suffering compared to the poor-but-happy lives they already had.

Tōbei, as is his habit, stumbles into enough dumb luck to finally get rewarded as a samurai general, complete with armor, horse, and retinue.

Genjūrō, in town to spend all his money on gifts for his new wife, slowly discovers that she and the villa don’t actually exist any longer; he has been seduced by a ghost, and living in a dream world that makes him forget his real wife and son. A priest he bumps into gives him a reality check, and paints prayers upon his body to help dispel the ghost and the dream-world.

The backdrop of all this is the civil war. Miyagi and Genichi, left behind by Genjūrō in his quest for larger towns to sell to, are forced from their village, with Miyagi robbed and stabbed by soldiers. Ohama, who loses Tōbei in the crowd of the city, must fend for herself and is eventually turned into a prostitute.

Tōbei, who finally has a little money from selling Genjūrō’s pottery, blows it on armour and tries to get into a samurai camp, only to be rejected.

Meanwhile, Genjūrō has had an encounter with lady of royalty who seduces him back to her villa, and uses her sensual regalness to trick him into marriage.

The triumphant Tōbei wants to return to his village to show his wife his new hero status, but his men persuade him to stop by a brothel for the evening first — where he finds his wife Ohama as one of the working women there. He is shocked back to reality by the discovery, and promises to give up his status in order to buy back her honour.

Genjūrō returns to the now ruined village and finds Miyagi and his son in their former house, relieved that at least his kiln has survived the soldiers’ devastation. He takes some food from the joyful Miyagi, who refuses to let him confess his sins, and quickly falls asleep beside his son.

In the morning, he awakes to find only Genichi still with him. A village elder discovers them and tells Genjūrō that Miyagi died from her injuries some time back, and is buried outside. The elder has been taking care of Genichi since.

Genjūrō and Tōbei reunite in the village, and promise to work hard for the benefit of Genichi and Ohana, who has had her honor restored via Tōbei’s giving up on his false success.

The film is shot with interesting lighting, camera angles (extensive use of crane shots, allowing for a mythical look), and extensive use of both traditional western soundtrack and spotlighting ancient Japanese music.

Although Ugetsu is mostly of interest to film history students these days, the movie is nonetheless a still-compelling tale of morality woven with supernatural elements. The clues that Lady Wakasa is not who she seems start with her Noh-theatre style and hikimayu-style “eyebrows,” while Tōbei’s story is told in traditional Japanese comic-underdog style.

The skill in the filmmaking blends these oddly-compatible journeys together well, and (surprisingly for the time) does not shirk from showing how their families suffer because of the mens’ chasing of dreams.

As an introduction to director Mizoguchi, it makes me want to check out his other international hit, Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Because of its towering international achievements in awards and screenings outside Japan, the film has consistently placed in many “all time greatest films” lists — and is still on the revered Sight&Sound top-100 list, having resided there at different rankings since the first such list in 1962.

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