I spent the first week of 2017 catching up on things I hadn’t played from 2016. But all play and no work makes Ian a dull boy, so it’s time to get back to writing, even if it’s of the casual sort.
Fair warning: In this post I’m going to dip into some unapologetic formalism as a way of best expressing some otherwise entirely subjective reactions. Obviously, there are pitfalls to this. Formalism puts off some. Unabashedly subjective attempts at criticism puts off others. But, whatever—this is my blog, and sometimes I like to post things that aren’t lesson plans. (Also, a note: I’m going to have fewer of those posted in the foreseeable future. I’ve posted most of my best lessons from past courses at this point, and I’m only teaching one class this term, one I’ve taught before.)
Below the fold, I play with some vocabulary, and offer thoughts on three more interesting games of 2016. These are short takes, and it is quite likely that I will be writing more on some of these in the near future.
So, this isn’t a proper lesson plan. It’s just a quick cheat sheet. When teaching PlayTime, I pair it with Kristin Thompson’s chapter “Play Time: Comedy n the Edge of Perception” in her book Breaking the Glass Armor. (I consider myself incredibly lucky that I can pair one of my favorite films with a piece of writing that I consider to be one of the more astute and persuasive pieces of academic film criticism ever written.) My lesson, therefore, largely revolves around the conclusions of Thompsons’ analysis: that “the comic and the non-comic become indistinguishable” in PlayTime, and that the way the film “forces us into new viewing procedures” holds the potential to “successfully transform our perception in general.”[i] To view PlayTime, in other words, is to encounter a new way of seeing the world, one that might persist beyond the theater.
How do you successfully persuade students that PlayTime requires specific viewing procedures from its audience, ones unlike those we use when viewing a more traditional narrative film? My tactic is pretty simple: I pull student attention to moments that reward close viewing. Thompson herself lists a bunch of these in her chapter. I like to point to additional, different ones, so that I can show students new, unexpected visual rewards—therefore making both me and Tati seem smarter than we otherwise would! Please feel free to steal these.
Wong Kar-wei’s In the Mood For Love depicts the story of a man (Chow) and a woman (Su) who, both suspecting that their spouses are involved in extramarital affairs, become close companions to each other in their loneliness. As the story progresses, however, their platonic friendship spills over and they begin to fall in love.
Their story unfolds in carefully controlled sequences that are almost dreamlike in nature as, together, they fabricate a fantasy world for themselves in which they pretend to be in love as their spouses are – and then continue, even when the façade of romantic affection becomes a reality. One of the most obvious visual cues in the mise-en-scène that indicate the portrayal of these moments is in the lighting. In all of these sequences, the lighting is more dramatic: it is low-key, sharp, and almost always artificial, as these scenes overwhelmingly take place under cover of night. This type of lighting is fundamental in setting the mood in these sequences; the subtle expression of emotion and the tension of physical bodies is highlighted, literally, by its use.
Jacques Tati often liked to say that the only real star of his film Playtime (1967) was the set itself. With his brilliant manipulation of its mise en scène, those words hold to be quite true. The minimally dialogued, loosely plot-based film is mainly structured around the changing of settings. As the movie goes on, an apparent pattern emerges among the scenery—it almost entirely consists of grey, pristine buildings, from the steely Orly Airport to the shiny new Royal Garden restaurant. Tati establishes this foundation in order to build up and play with the dichotomy of public and private space. Throughout the film, he juxtaposes these two ideas and questions the boundary that divides them.
The only moment of private space we see in Playtime is when Monsieur Hulot’s acquaintance from the army invites him into his recently bought apartment. However, Tati takes this scene and challenges the extent to which the space could be deemed personal. First off, the design of the apartment complex remains consistent with the public buildings that we have previously seen—grid-like, silver, and clean-cut. In the below collage of the six main scenes in the movie, the apartment (middle picture of the top row) blends right in with the other buildings of this ultra-modern world. By making the aesthetics of families’ homes parallel that of public locations, the distinction between them becomes slightly blurred, for our expectations of how the two different spaces should look are challenged. Tati creates a disturbance in what we think we know—if we are not certain of how a private space should appear, do we even know how they function?
The comedy of Jacques Tati and of his character Monsieur Hulot is so laden with humor that laughter is often rendered difficult to muster. This seems contradictory: isn’t there a one to one correspondence between funny things and laughter? Common sense would suggest that the answer is yes, and yet the screening of Tati’s Playtime early in the quarter proved this to be not necessarily true. Tati stuffs a remarkable amount of humorous material into each shot of the film, but not all of it provokes immediate laughter. The goal of this blog post is a close examination of another Tati film, Mon Oncle, with an eye towards his construction of comedic moments. This post will take Monsieur Hulot as its central figure in an examination of his interactions with the spaces through which he travels.
Monsieur Hulot’s home in the old city is characterized by an improvisational nature; the style of comedy associated with this location follows suit. This improvisational nature is evident from Tati’s introductory long shots of the building, even before Hulot has appeared and begun to interact with it.
In the Mood for Love (2000)is a beautiful study in restraint. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film details the intimate relationship that develops between two lonely neighbours, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Neglected and later betrayed by their spouses, they foster a special kinship which social mores dictate must be concealed. This is a society that operates not by brute force but by much more subtle ways; through its institutions, through the eyes and ears of one’s neighbors, through the personal values individuals feel compelled to uphold, and the dark desires they actively repress.