Sunday, October 1, 2006


The weekend began with a viewing at the WHC of Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967), a film that satirizes modernity but which now plays like a valentine to the modernist city as envisioned by the '60s. Remember Kubrick's "futuristic" 2001 sets -- how they now simply look like the '60s at its most "mod"? The same is happening here -- structures are all glass, which lets Tati have much fun with "inside/outside" bits, featuring as well the tableau nature of life behind picture windows. There are many purely visual jokes -- like the glass door that, shattered, leaves only a knob for the doorman to operate, swinging it "open" for guests at the posh restaurant where the majority of the film takes place, and where "all hell" breaks loose in various ways, but no amount of delineating the hi-jinx will help you get a handle on it, because the raison d'être of this film is the amazing overlapping choreography of countless 'background' players, of layers of action happening in any given scene, none of which adds up to much except a series of sight gags and visual double entendres ("double voires"? -- seen in more than one way?) as when a man washing a window moves it thus causing the ladies in the bus reflected in it to swivel and ooooh as if in a amusement park ride. Or when glass doors for a moment "reflect" famous Parisian sights (the Tour Eiffel) and then, just to make sure we're awake, the Taj Mahal.

In the midst of all this, some times, is Tati's Mr. Hulot, a tall, rambling middle-aged gent who moves with an odd locomotion that would be at home in an animated film. Indeed, most of his scenes play like cartoon "black-outs," as when Hulot, in a case of mistaken identity, gets ragged on by the campy Germanic manager of the "Slam Doors in Golden Silence" display (the segments of "market fair" -- displays of innovative commodities -- is just generally hilarious), or when Hulot tries to track down a peripatetic employee in an office space that seems like Kafka meets Chaplin -- and if that suggests something truly striking to you, then you're getting the idea. That segment of officedom was to me worth much of the restaurant routine but the latter ultimately convinces like any shaggy-dog story, "where's this going" doesn't matter any more. We're there and there we stay.

The graceful, clean, chaotic but choreographed world of Tati came to mind during my other weekend encounter: me, Mr. Hulot-like, in the modern metropolis, in this case NYC, trying to get to Brooklyn and back -- a task occurring in the midst of more chaotic comings-and-goings and not arrivings (the 4 or 5 train f'r instance) than Tati's hero ever faced. And the setting! Tati has the restaurant ceiling begin to fall in at one point, permitting the laughable Fatty Arbuncle-like character to maitre d' his own "private bistro" behind the lattice-work wood that has dropped down, but what would he do with the Gotterdammerung that is the NYC subway system? I'm constantly, out-of-town rube that I am, amazed at the sheer variety of denizen of the underground where we all crawl about as if a species of rodent spared by some apocalyptic Armageddon in the world above. The gleaming surfaces of Tati's futuristic fantasy of Paris have been smashed by the abused and begrimed urban overload of our day where, even when it puts forward its 21st century élan, any number of overlays of earlier urban construction clash and roister and rarely harmonize -- except to say "shop" "eat" "drink" "go" "don't go."

The concert I braved all this to attend (Elf Power at Union Hall in Park Slope) was energetic with the casual bravado of 6 or 7 musicians squeezed together in a space that looked about the size of my bedroom to play to a group of fans crammed into a space not quite double my living room. Under such circumstances, a rousing "20th Century Boy" was appreciated by this aging listener (I was in middle school in T. Rex's heyday and graduated HS the year both Elvis and Marc Bolan ceased to walk--though they might still float upon--the earth) as a tribute to the '70s era prog-glam rock from which EP takes its dominant impetus. (I realized later--it was Bolan's birthday!)

And Union Hall itself, with those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves upfront, giving a passerby the impression that grad-student anarchy has overwhelmed the Reading Room, is not so much an anachronism as it is a kind of 21st century version of the genteel past (the '30s or '40s maybe? when culture was the enclave of white guys who drank, smoked and caroused with other white guys in smoky, paneled libraries), in other words an inversion of the '60's vision of the 21st century. But you'll have to talk on that cell phone further down the block, buddy. Ok, doorman, give me my hat, raincoat and umbrella, it's time for me to lurch to the next stop on the line... a "tiki bar" in Manhattan?

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