Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.

Surpassing Sequels: Followups That Followed Through

Sequels are just a recent product of an unimaginative Hollywood, right? Wrong! …well not just anyway. Sequels, prequels, spinoffs, franchises, etc. have been a part of the movie money machine since the beginning. Paul Wegener’s great silent German expressionist classic about a rampaging Jewish clay man, The Golem (1920), was actually the third movie in a series. Snack on that. There are at least two other movies before 1920 about a rampaging Jewish clay man.

Whenever you see a list of great movie sequels you invariably run across many repeating titles. You’d have to be an idiot not to include The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Godfather: Part II (1974), or The Bride of Frankentstein (1935). These films in particular are wonderful because of their ability to not only recapture the magic and what was great about their original incarnations, but because they were able to expand upon the mythos and even improve on their themes. They created new, complex conflicts built upon stones already laid. It is not too terribly often that one gets to see a sequel that surpasses its predecessor, but it might happen more than one might think. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Mad Max: the Road Warrior (1981), Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (1982), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), and I’ll argue Iron Man 3 (2013) are only a few movie followups that, in my humble opinion, improved on the originals. The Toy Story and Back to the Future franchises also did a fine job of retaining their integrity throughout. The Four Musketeers (1974) was the perfect continuation (although I wonder if it should count because it’s just the second half of the book), and Hellboy II: the Golden Army (2008) has even more monsters than the original and is funnier (I am biased towards more monsters and being funnier).

Then there’s your more divisive ones. From Russia With Love (1963) is technically a better film than Dr. No (1962), but it’s only because Dr. No derails itself in the last act and gets really campy in the homestretch. I still probably prefer Dr. No though. Superman II (1980) is a good sequel because it uses the established characters to present a novel dilemma (the one ripped off by Spiderman 2) and because it keeps a far more consistent tone. If the first Superman did not shift gears and become too cartoony after Lex Luthor showed up, the first movie would have still been better. And Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is still a far better sequel than Temple of Doom (1984).

If memory serves Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985) was the better of the two made-for-tv ewok movies, but it really doesn’t matter because both were pretty awful.

So what’s this all about? A good sequel should expand, not simply rehash. I just wanted to remind everybody that not all sequels are complete garbage. Furthermore, I would like to share some of my favorite movie sequels that sometimes get forgotten or missed when people think of sequels.

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12.) Technically 1985’s Return to Oz is not a better movie than Wizard of Oz (1939), but it’s such an off the wall departure from the tone of the original that it deserves to be mentioned. Made by a completely different studio decades after Wizard, Return to Oz was directed by Walter Murch and even if it seems a bit random, it’s completely in keeping with L. Frank Baum’s world. It’s a much darker and stranger tale with a much younger Dorothy (GOING IN FOR SHOCK THERAPY!!!!) and although it is actually more uneven and more dated than Wizard of Oz, it has a lot of its own charm. Dorothy was played by a very young Fairuza Balk. The real stars of this film are the wonky 80s special effects and cool puppetry from the Jim Henson studios.

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11.) Jacques Tati‘s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) was followed by three sequels starring the bumbling Mr. Hulot (Tati). All are wonderful, but the first sequel, Mon Oncle (1958), is regarded by many as his best. It is quiet and subtle and beautifully set up. Tati’s penchant for comic juxtaposition and clever mise-en-scène is as sublime and sharp as ever. The color photography is textured and pretty, and the amusing clash between the rustic, old world and sterile, malfunctioning modernity makes for wonderful satire. Playtime (1967) might beat it though for sheer breadth of and scope of comic beauty and satirical examinations of alienation in society.

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10.) Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa knows his period action epics. The man behind such fantastic movies as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ran (1985), and many others served his sequels up pretty good too. 1961’s Yojimbo starring Toshiro Mifune was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars so you’re probably familiar with the storyline of a super cool nameless warrior who lives by his own rules and plays warring gangs against each other. It’s sequel Sanjuro (1962) continues this ronin’s story and—because of a malfunction that ended up looking really cool—it introduced the blood spray geyser gimmick for a whole generation of action and samurai films to copy.

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9.) Before Sunset (2004) is the excellent sequel to Richard Linklater’s classic romantic drama Before Sunrise (1995). The first movie followed two strangers, a young American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a young French chick (Julie Delpy), as they simply walk around Vienna for one magical but short-lived night. Even though they know they will probably never see each other again they cannot help but plant the mysterious seeds of romance. The sequel picks up a decade later after the American has written a book about that magical night and is touring around. The girl meets him in Paris at a signing. The sequel goes in real-time and it is the perfect second installment for these two characters. They have aged and they have grown and life is more complex than it was, but that special connection that existed between them is still powerful and captivating. It is a pleasure to revisit these two endearing personalities. I eagerly anticipate Before Midnight (2013).

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8.) I love The Muppet Movie (1979), but Jim Henson’s The Great Muppet Caper (1981) might be even more fun. It was a successful follow-up to The Muppet Movie because it gave the characters a chance to go overseas and get mixed up in a heist storyline with all the classic moves…only with Muppets. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal, everybody is back and in Great Britain. The Muppet Movie is still great and you can’t beat the song Rainbow Connection, but Caper is directed with more style and it seems to be having more fun playing with the conventions of the crime genre and it’s less episodic. Another personal note: it’s still before Gonzo became too front and center. Gonzo was always my favorite, but I liked him better as a side character. When he’s the main focus he loses his mystique. I feel the same way about the Fonz on Happy Days.

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7.) Joe Dante’s Gremlins—along with Temple of Doom—resulted in the MPAA employing the PG-13 rating system in 1984. Gremlins is a dark and cynical horror-comedy, and so is 1990’s Gremlins 2, but it’s much more anarchic and cartoony. It’s more satirical than merely cynical and it manages to effectively parody itself, it’s predecessor, consumerism, TV, and sequels in general. It’s wilder and more unhinged and if Christopher Lee’s presence isn’t enough, Tony Randall voices the Brain Gremlin. People still like Gremlins, but for my money the sequel is far more daring and fun. Gremlins, as I always understood them, were more mischievous and wild than simply horrific. I hearken back to the classic 1943 Bob Clampbett cartoon Falling Hare starring Bugs Bunny and one of his few devilish matches: a gremlin.

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6.) Chan wook Park’s vengeance trilogy does not share characters so much as it shares themes…of vengeance. Oldboy (2003) is the second film in the trilogy (sandwiched between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) and it is the most famous in the west and I’d say it’s my favorite of the three as well. It’s a dark and complex revenge story of man who is kidnapped and upon his release he must figure out who abducted him and why. Memories, love, loss, pain, anguish, action, chills, suspense, tragedy, you name it. This intense South Korean flick has got it all.

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5.) The Rescuers (1977) never got me. I liked some of the songs and the animation is strong and emotive (the last time animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston would work together for Disney), but the colors are yucky, the villains are ugly and uncharismatic, and the whole mood of the film feels a little off-putting…but I liked the mice. In 1990 they brought back Bernard and Bianca (voiced once again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) for The Rescuers Down Under. Evenrude the dragonfly is gone, but funnyman John Candy plays an obnoxious albatross and George C. Scott is a mean poacher out to get a giant eagle. The memorable mouse duo embarks on a dangerous mission to Australia to rescue a young boy. It’s a sleight film, but it works and I like it a lot more than the original. It’s fun, funny, and the animation is great.

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4.) Here’s a fun one. Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki won me over with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), which was a surreal comedic tale of Finland’s worst band and their road trip to the states to obtain an audience, but the sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) is just as good. Their old manager allegedly has been born again as Moses and so goes on a mission to find all of the Leningrad Cowboys and take them back to Europe…but not before stealing the nose off the Statue of Liberty. Just as surreal the second time around this sequel gets a littler kookier to boot. This movie also has one of the best sight gags I’ve ever seen.

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3.) If you like your horror with a side of humor then you already agree with me when I include Sam Raimi’s 1987 classic, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (a half-remake, half-parody type sequel of the first Evil Dead). The first film was more a straight horror film with some campiness, but the sequel plays with the material in much bolder ways. It’s kinetic, gory, AND FUNNY, and the special effects are better. I wish the whole movie could have been just Ash (Bruce Campbell) alone in the house fighting the demons of the Necronomicon…I suppose they needed a bigger body count though. The scene where Ash battles and cuts off his demon-possessed hand and replaces it with a chainsaw is hilarious. As much as I enjoy this super energized tribute to supernatural slasher flicks (complete with gratuitous homages to the Three Stooges), I might even like the next sequel Army of Darkness (1992) even better.

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2.) Satyajit Ray made a stellar directorial debut with Pather Panchali (1955), and he continued to do something truly special with the followup films Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). The story follows the development of Apu, a young boy growing up in squalor in 1920s India. It is a powerful and potent trilogy. You will run the emotional gamut watching it. What makes the sequels so interesting is that as the character of Apu grows, so does Ray as a filmmaker. Pather Panchali is almost documentarian in its approach and style, while Aparajito becomes more a narrative-driven plot and finally Apur Sansar is almost Hollywood-esque with its calculated rises and falls (the good Hollywood).

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1.) The best sequel of all time I list here. It is one that I am shocked and appalled does not appear on more lists. It is Troll 2 (1990). I know what you’re thinking. Troll 2 is an odious train wreck of a film that completely disregards anything concerning the previous movie…and most things concerning any movie. Everything about it is terrible. Acting, writing, direction, production, special effects, dialogue, structure, you name it, it has screwed it up royally. It is so terrible that it’s actually quite wonderful. Who am I kidding? I love this movie! I really love it. Where the first Troll (1986) was simply a really bad, forgettable movie (that curiously featured Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a character named HARRY POTTER), Troll 2 is a devastating rape of the art-form and has developed a huge cult-following. Nobody even remembers that there was another Troll. Troll 2 completely eclipses all previous troll efforts. How many movie sequels can totally obliterate the first movie? People love Troll 2. People have Troll 2 parties. There’s a documentary about it called Best Worst Movie (2009) which is also pretty awesome. Few bad movies have had the impact and staying power on the cult fan base that Troll 2 has. So while some may say it’s a failure as a movie, I wouldn’t say it’s a failure as a sequel.

There you have it. Go watch some movies. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion. Also, am I only one who liked Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) more than Desperado (1995)?

http://www.listal.com/viewimage/1263332

http://saradobie.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/return-to-oz/

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http://twynkle.com/movies/928/backdrops/203918

http://www.the-other-view.com/oldboy.html

http://www.miradas.net/2007/n59/estudio/leningradcowboysmeetmoses.html

http://bestworstmovie.com/nil-blog/film-interview-george-hardy/