Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What I Watched With My Mother: The Good Ones Edition

The first movie listed here is the only stone-solid, mind-blowing masterpiece the Siren watched with her mother during this visit. But great as it is, the Siren's got a bit more to say about another, less celebrated film (doesn't she always?). So she's saving that last one for another post.

Play Time (in 70-mm at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center)
The Siren spent years refusing to see this movie in anything other than widescreen, which meant she'd never seen it. And here was the opportunity, smack in the middle of Mom's visit. It says a great deal about my mother that, told we were going to see a 1967 French movie with no stars, no plot and sparse dialogue, made by a director she'd never heard of and screening a good hour's commute from where I live, Mom agreed for all the world as though I'd said "Let's watch Auntie Mame on DVD." And of course, it was worth the years of stubborn patience, it was worth the journey, it was worth standing around the Walter Reade lobby while a sheepish projectionist explained that 70 millimeter can be a bit recalcitrant. The Siren's rendering the title as two words in honor of historian Rick Perlstein, who was urging Chicago residents to see it at the Music Box: "Motion, motion, motion. Even read it as two verbs, a double command: 'Play.' 'Time.'" The print wasn't pristine but the movie dazzles all the same, a stunning feat of imagination that turned the Siren into a kid at a birthday party, gobbling treats at top speed in fear she wouldn't get to it all in time. And in fact, she didn't; at several points a huge laugh from the audience alerted the Siren that she'd been concentrating on the wrong part of the screen. The only time the Siren risked the time it took to glance at Mom and see how she was doing was after Hulot locks himself in his friend's high-tech foyer, a feat the Siren herself once managed in a 19th-century New York building by forgetting a key. Mom was shaking with laughter. The Siren had always heard Play Time described as a satire, and that it certainly is, both pointed and accurate in showing how so-called modern conveniences have complicated the hell out of everything. But there's an essential goodness in this movie--if not flat-out optimism, then an allowance for grace, for kindness, for people to delight you no matter how lost and bewildered we all are. Monsieur Hulot eventually gets his meeting with his heel-clacking bureaucrat. Lovely Barbara does meet up with Hulot during the peerless restaurant scene. As the restaurant falls to pieces around him, the loudmouthed American businessman, far from running the staff ragged and gasbagging about French incompetence, turns calamity into a chance for a Boys' Own Treehouse; if only making Play Time had worked that way for Tati himself. When the lights came up, the Siren turned around to behold every member of the previously severe, holiday-weary audience wearing a huge grin.

What Mom said: "That's one of the best things we've ever seen together."

Bonus: Sheila O'Malley, the Balzac of the Blogosphere, seems to have the same hotline to the Siren's brain as Kim Morgan, where we come up with the same obsessions at the same time. Here's her take this very week on Play Time: "It does not bemoan the fate of modern man, it does not say, 'Oh, look at how we are all cogs in a giant wheel, and isn’t it so sad?' It says, 'Look at how we behave. Look at how insane it is. We need to notice how insane it is, because it’s hilarious.'" From Peter Lennon, who had a go at the English dialogue before Art Buchwald took over, here's an informative, if rather acrid, glimpse into the making of the movie. Finally, check out this charming Japanese poster at Adrian Curry's splendid Movie Poster of the Day.

Des Gens Sans Importance (Boxing Day)
Directed by Henri Verneuil, this 1956 mix of noir and social drama was the last of the Jean Gabin movies the Siren had lingering on her DVR. And, unexpectedly, it has a Christmas link: Gabin's youngest son awakens as his parents are fighting, walks in to see an empty Santa costume on the table, and says, in a voice of stunned disappointment, "Il n'existe pas, Père Noël?" And that counts as one of the LESS melancholy moments in this tale of how Gabin's harsh life as a trucker takes on a brief glimmer of romance when he falls in love with a truck-stop waitress (the improbably gorgeous Françoise Arnoul). Gabin was born to play weary, star-crossed romantics, and Des Gens is most elegantly shot, particularly in the night-driving scenes. The characters are fully, richly drawn; even Gabin's worn-out wife and bitchy daughter have their reasons. But, it must be said, the film is so relentlessly downbeat it makes They Live by Night look like Meet Me in St. Louis. Can be firmly recommended on the merits, but approach in full knowledge that it's going to depress the hell out of you.

What Mom said: "I'm going to bed."

The Happy Time (Christmas Day)
This was a rewatch of a movie that lives on the Siren's DVR until such time as it comes out on DVD (which may be a while; it's based on a play, which was turned into a musical, lord only knows what the rights look like). The Siren chose a movie she'd seen because she needed a palate-cleanser; she saw long ago at the urging of Karen Green, who knows. Set among French Canadians in Ottawa at the turn of the century, The Happy Time is nobody's idea of a forward-thinking depiction of gender roles. Still, it's delicate of touch and sweet of temperament. Sex is constantly present (it's basically about puberty, in the person of Bobby Driscoll as Bibi) but it's handled with wit, not a leer. (Maman to Grandpère, when he appears dressed for a night on the town: "You should be in bed." Grandpère: "It's only a matter of time.") The Siren loves the entire cast, but particularly Charles Boyer (of course, the Siren always loves him) as the benevolent Papa, Marsha Hunt as a beautiful, age-plausible Maman, Marcel Dalio (can you believe this cast?) as Grandpère and, as the womanizing Uncle Desmonde, Louis Jourdan, whose reaction to a full-force slap is the funniest moment he ever had on film. Tyrone Power's bride Linda Christian is here too, surviving a bad blonde haircut almost as well as did Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai. Opened up nicely, but unobtrusively, by director Richard Fleischer, who loves front porches almost as much as the Siren does.

What Mom said: "That was adorable. Poor Bobby Driscoll."


Vanwall said...

Thanks for more movies with Mom.

I liked "Play Time" as a kid because it was so silly-fun; I like it now because it has more relevance as time goes by.

"Des Gens Sans Importance" is one of Gabin's I haven't seen, it's on a list somewhere. I will save it for a less difficult time.

Finally, I have loved "The Happy Time" forever, and my love for it grew as I did, and realized what a crackerjack cast it had. A wonderful film that should get more play. Your Mom is right, poor Bobby Driscoll, tossed on the rubbage heap of Disney-wood. He held his own in this film, which was considerably more adult than at first glance.

mas82730 said...

Not to call Brando chopped liver, but someone once said that if Gabin had played Don Corleone......

Caftan Woman said...

Ah, "The Happy Time". The final shot of Boyer hugging his son goes straight to my heart. My daughter was 20 when I showed her the movie and she felt the same. Mother-daughter movie bonding is indeed one of life's treasures.

...Or sister movie bonding. One of my kid sisters is a Tati nut and introduced me to "Playtime" courtesy of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and the classics they screen throughout the year. A delight.

Tony Dayoub said...

" several points a huge laugh from the audience alerted the Siren that she'd been concentrating on the wrong part of the screen."

With all due respect, dear Siren, there are no wrong parts of the screen in PLAY TIME. I'm elated that you and your mother got to see it together.

The Siren said...

Tony, it's funny, I THOUGHT about that before going with the word "wrong" but kept it only because I did want to see the bit that was cracking everyone up. I am determined to see this one again; it's so full it demands that.

Vanwall, Des Gens is so well put together but should only be seen when you have a perverse desire to wallow in how damned unfair it all is.

Mas, out of curiosity, does that thought end, or trail off? I know neither one of us wants Brando out of that role but Gabin is an amazing Alternate Universe choice. Would he have made the Don tougher and grimmer, or even more romanticized?

Caftan Woman, my favorite scene was the brothers banding together against the sadistic schoolmaster. It's the only time you see Boyer angry in that movie; he keeps his cool but boy do you see the suppressed rage.

It's horribly ironic that this was one of Driscoll's last good movie parts, since puberty was a big part of what finished him as a star. So, so good in The Window.

pvitari said...

Kander and Ebb (Cabaret) turned The Happy Time into a 1968 musical of the same name. It starred Robert Goulet, David Wayne, Julie Gregg, Charles Durning and other folks whose names will be familiar.

Robert Goulet sings "The Happy Time" -- enjoy:

Dave said...

I worship at the throne of Tati. It took me years to actually see "Holiday," but once I did, I was hooked. I could see "Mon Oncle" for the rest of my life.

We even had a Tati festival of sorts here in San Francisco a couple of years ago, with good new prints of all the Hulot pictures, and there's nothing like seeing them with a full house.

The best thing I can say about Tati (and almost no other filmmaker) is that, coming out of one his films, I see the world through his filter for the rest of the day.

Dave Enkosky said...

I gotta say, as much as I appreciate Play Time and admire Tati's skill, his movies generally leave me cold. I can't remember ever laughing at a Tati film. Of course, I still think he's a brilliant visual stylist.

Daniel Shaw said...

I saw Playtime end of the 80s, early 90s, at the Paris in NYC. My first Tati film was at the Thalia,in the 60s, I was 11, my father had seen Mr. Hulot's Holiday about 10 times by then, he took me and I was hooked. So I saw them all (and even got all his films on DVD a few years ago, from someone in Brazil on Ebay).

But Playtime is something else altogether. When I walked out of the theater after living in Tati's world, I was still in his world - I couldn't leave it. The space, the movement - the way every piece of the picture somehow had a life of it's own and was connected to every other piece - it was a little bit like tripping.

What a genius, what a treasure.

gmoke said...

Saw "Mon Oncle" as a kid when it first came out. My sister's birthday party, my parents took a gaggle of kids to the movies. Upper East Side of NYC theater. Lovely, the fantastic plastic factory and the modern house with a gravel garden.

"Traffic" again when it first came out with the baby's bottom mistaken for cleavage, the mechanic pretending to space walk as the moon shot is televised, the neat little car with headlights that double as parabolic cookers.

And "Playtime" which is such a joy. Saw that, again, on its first run through the US. What a magnificent critique of the modern world. The reflecting lights from all the glass boxes containing travel posters of places we'll never go or when we arrive will all be other glass boxes. The restaurant falling down around the customers.

And then Tati's cameo as Monsieur Hulot in, I think, "Love on the Run," with his stutter step on the train platform.

Finally, his controversial return in the animated "The Illusionist," controversial because of its relation to his private life.

Ah, Tati. Always worth watching.

As for me, the mark of a great film is when you leave the theater and you're still seeing the world through the vision of the movie.

DavidEhrenstein said...

So glad you and Mom saw Playtime the way it was meant to be seen. On home video -- even the sharpest DVD -- it's like looking at a postage stamp reproduction of the Sistine Chapel celing rather than the real thing.

As Noel Burch first pointed out Playtime is a different experience depending on what part of the frame you're looking at and even where you're seatd in the theater.

After seeing it for the first time I felt the same was EverandAnon. It's impossible to "shake off."
It's a towering masterpiece of cinema.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Poor Bobby Driscoll ended up a junkie buried in Potter's Fielf.

The Siren said...

Paula, it's just a guess but I bet the rights to the Happy Time movie are tangled because of the musical.

Gmoke, EverandAnon, Dave, Dave Enkosky and David Ehrenstein...I feel like I should have something on the sidebar assuring readers that they need not be named David to leave a comment! Anyhow, I saw Mr. Hulot's Holiday as a high school sophomore French student, and we reacted terribly. Didn't get it. At all. Were bored senseless. I feel bad about it to this day. Clearly I owe it another visit.

David Ehrenstein, I don't think Mom remembered the terrible details of Driscoll's fate but everyone knows he ended badly. Possibly the worst down-spiral of a child star ever, in a horrendously crowded field.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Need I gell you that M. Hulot's Holday deserves another viewing?

It's an entirely different film from Playtime in that its scope is ever so mcuch smaller. ButTti sets up gags with such delicacy the only film director one can compare him to here is not Cahplin but Ozu.

The Siren said...

DavidE, most definitely it does. Actually, so does Play Time.

Dave said...

This may be of interest to some here. Villa Arpel was recreated for an exhibition:

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

All of Playtime is amazing, but the restaurant scene really takes it to another level. As the party gets going, I could feel the temperature in the room where I was watching increase - sounds got sharper, the air got thicker, and I could hear my heart beating faster. A very physical reaction.

Sheila O'Malley said...

// at several points a huge laugh from the audience alerted the Siren that she'd been concentrating on the wrong part of the screen. //

How awesome. I am envious of your large-screen experience. I still feel I haven't seen it properly. Thank you for linking to me. I love it when obsessions spontaneously dovetail.

And I love it when you call me Balzac.

mas82730 said...

Well, Siren, after watching 'The Godfather' on TV a movie-nut pal of mine said Brando's performance was a put-on, that Brando no longer took acting seriously (I mean he had just slummed in 'Candy' for chrissake!), that his Don was a stunt, the padded cheeks, the stained teeth, the Method mumble, which, by 1972, was beyond parody, that the great Gabin would have put Brando's performance to shame. I disagreed, weakly as I recall, pointing out that both Gabin and Brando possess that quality of quiet menace, violence held in check, about to explode etc. But my friend remained adamant about Brando's 'sham' acting and wouldn't budge, so we agreed to disagree. In truth, maybe only three actors could have pulled off what's became a mythic role -- Brando, who actually did it, but also Gabin and Jimmy Cagney, both fascinating to contemplate in the part.
Red-faced, I have to confess that, overdosed on Pringle's and very cheap champagne, I fell asleep the one and only time I watched 'Playtime' on a small screen. Now you and Sheila O'Malley (and every other cinephile worth his silver nitrate) have convinced me that I need to revisit this wonder called 'Playtime'. Sober and un-plied with junk food.

Rozsaphile said...

I'm afraid my own sole large-screen experience with Tati is similarly mismatched. In 1974, while back in NYC on a short vacation, I was desperate to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Yes,it was one of those Harryhausen monster flicks, marketed mostly to children. (You can guess why I needed to see it.) The film had played a few Manhattan dates, but was by this time showing only in outer Queens -- a locality that (for me) might have been as remote as the film's "Marabia." Anyway, the kiddie matinee of Sinbad was double-featured with Tati's Traffic -- surely one of the oddest couplings ever. I did enjoy Tati's visual whimsy, even as I sat there dumbfounded by the oddity of the pairing.

Lemora said...

Thank you for introducing me to The Happy Time! Boyer, Jourdan, Dalio, & Bobby Driscoll! How could I have never heard of this!?

Bobby Driscoll was my first crush, in "Peter Pan," in 1953.

Does anyone know why Disney cancelled his contract in the spring of 1954? The internet sources I've found are vague, suggesting a bad case of teenage acne, but that's it. Is it possible he was using heroin at the time he did "Peter Pan" at fifteen?

The Siren said...

Lemora, I don't think he really got into drugs until after his first child stardom was over...but I haven't read any sources I'd call definitive. The arc of child stars is so depressingly similar. They get identified in the public mind as one cute self and then it's so, so hard for them to grow up on screen. It makes you look at the rare ones who did make an adult career (Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney) with more admiration than ever.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Disney was quite ruthless. When an actor no longer interested him he was tossed out the door. He undoubtedly saw Bobby Driscoll as replaceable -- just as he later did with Tommy Kirk.

DavidEhrenstein said...

THe last of Bobby Driscoll

yojimboen said...

The Happy Time

Pt One
Pt Two
Pt Three
Pt Four
Pt Five
Pt Six
Pt Seven
Pt Eight
Pt Nine
Pt Ten
Pt Eleven

C_Oliver said...

Worth repeating: poor Bobby Driscoll.

His life would've been ideal subject matter for a Paul Schrader biopic, though of course the Walt Disney Company would never have given permission to restage his films.

misospecial said...

Playtime: Joy. As the restaurant scene begins to pick up speed, the carefully controlled mechanism of the modern city busts a spring and there is a collective thrill as life becomes undone, full of possibility. Tati begins in that icy office building, all hard surfaces, angles, and unauthorized noises, and ends up on a carousel, the city itself alive. So exhilarating! Thank God there will be no Hollywood remake.

Re The Happy Time, which I have not seen: Is it a cousin to Meet Me In St. Louis and Summer Holiday?

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Just a belated footnote on Tati's masterpiece. I've recently been commissioned to write several essays for a huge Taschen production--a set of books, actually--relating to the Tati archives (edited by Alison Castle, who edited The Stanley Kubrick Archives), and for the record, the "official" spelling of the title, according to Macha Makeieff (the rights holder to the Tati estate), is now PlayTime--i.e., one word but with a capital T. One advantage to this, as peculiar as it looks, is that it clarifies that the title isn't in English but in franglais--something that Tati himself was quite explicit about. P.S. The final script, a whopping 447 pages long, calls it only "Film Tati No. 4," but in his correspondence Tati referred to it as PLAYTIME--i.e., one word, all in caps.

The Siren said...

C_Oliver - god you're right.

Misospecial, The Happy Time is like both those movies, if they suggested more sex. Do follow Yojimboen's links and watch, it's adorable.

Jonathan, thanks so much for stopping by and clearing up the title mystery, which until now I couldn't find a definitive answer for. I'll look forward to the books on Tati. I really did spell it as two words purely as a hat-tip to Rick, because he loves the movie so and was so adamant and I could not be said to have an opinion. PlayTime it is from now on.

barrylane said...

Re Bobby Driscoll

Why was Disney ruthless. An acotr for hire does his work and receives his pay. They go on to other things. Disney was if anything, a benevolent employer. He was neither parent nor guardian angel. Nor was any other studio head.