Monday, October 17, 2011

2001:Play Time

I am home from a symposium on visual communication called Look Better where Jordan Tate (who has a great blog) invited me to present a "silent lecture". I joked with friends that it was inevitable that I would one day be paid to not-speak. It turned out however, to be harder, and take much more consideration to say nothing that I ever imagined. I have uploaded a short segment of the project I presented called, 2001:Play Time - it is not embedded here because of copyright. (Which I edited with the generous help of Erik Spooner and Spencer Holstein.) Instead of illustrating an idea (what I originally set out to do), it tests a theory: I suspect there is a relationship that exists between Jacque Tati's film, Play Time, and George Lucas' original Star Wars film. No one has told me this, and I can't find a single mention of Tati by Lucas, but Play Time bridges a gap between Star Wars and a film that Lucas does site as an influence: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The alienation of control: Kubrick's 2001; Lucas' THX 1138

Lucas talks a lot about his aspiration for his original Star Wars film to recreate the "visual" or "abstract" filmmaking of Kubrick's 2001. And as different as the two films are, and despite having far more dialog, just like 2001Star Wars is far more interesting if thought about in terms of the story it communicates visually than the literal story its script tells. But there was a discontinuity between the two films - an influence on Lucas somewhere between the time he made the very Kubrick-esque film of modernist alienation THX 1138 in 1970, and the more comedic playful films of modern life that marked his great success: the 1973 Oscar winning American Graffiti and the 1977 scifi blockbuster Star Wars.
Playing with the controls: Tati's Play Time; Lucas' Star Wars

When I first saw Tati's 1967 film Playtime the pieces fell into place. Here was an example of visual filmmaking as sophisticated as Kubrick's (and arguably the more radically plot-less of the two), but with a critical vision of modernism that was far less harsh. The modernism of 2001 has a schoolmarm quality: Kubrick's modernity was airless, cold, and serious as a heart attack, and good for us in a bitter-pill sort of way. Play Time was every bit as ambitious an exercise in obsessive modernist world-creation as 2001, but Tati makes it clear that Homo Ludens - man at play - will find his place in the world of the future. 
Modern affection; nostalgic (Les Vacances de monsieur Hulot) and otherwise (American Graffiti)

Star Wars is a film with roots that go back to the earliest moments of scifi film, but back to 1936 in particular. That is the year that Flash Gordon premiered - the space adventure Lucas originally intended to make, but failed to get the rights for. 1936 was also the year HG Wells' deadly earnest war-to-end-all-wars tract was made into to the film, Things to Come; and that Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, Modern Times, came out. As it happens it was the year Jacques Tati wrote and starred in his first film: Soigne to Gauche. Kubrick was an 8 year old, probably listening to radio plays in his parent's home.
Man of the future: Things to Come; Modern Times

When Kubrick told Author C Clarke that he wanted to make first “proverbial good science fiction movie”, he was almost certainly aiming to one-up Wells. 2001 is a Cold War modernist tract that shares the earnest, even patronizing, tone of Things to Come. Play Time meanwhile, was the fully scored promise of Chaplin's late films - Modern Times in particular. Like Chaplin, Tati made Talkies without talk - films where voices were present, but where the slaps of shoes had the same importance as spoken dialog; this was visual filmmaking unwed to the literary tradition of radio plays. 
Talkies sans talk: Modern Times; Play Time

George Lucas has never mentioned Tati as an influence. So 2001: Play Time is not an illumination of visual coincidences and influences, it is a thesis expressed as a projection. But consider: while Tati's film predates Kubrick's by a year, it wasn't released in the US until 1972, when it was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival - the same year Lucas' friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, was honored with a retrospective at the SFIFF. Tati held a discussion as part of his appearance at the festival on October 21st, moderated by Albert Johnson, only a few days after Johnson interviewed the 33 year old Coppola (dressed in an orange velvet suit on October 18th) on the same stage. It is hard to imagine Lucas would not have been around to see his friend and mentor Coppala's moment of triumph, so it is not absurd to believe that he would have seen Tati speak and watched Play Time... but again, this is a thesis, not a proof.
At the gap: M. Hulot; the Skywalker twins

Addendum: I have always enjoyed the idea that Leia's buns were an homage to 19th century Mexican revolutionaries, or as Lucas put it, “a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look.” I recently read a post by Belle Beth Cooper - that aims to be "The ultimate analysis of where Princess Leia’s buns came from." Cooper's post is great. She tracts down images of the ‘squashed blossom’ hairstyle of Hopi women, as well as bebunned images of Batgirl, Flash Gordon's Queen Fria, and (least convincingly) a frumpy character from Dambusters - but I would politely disagree, call Cooper's post "Penultimate". While I believe Lucas was striving to make Leia's look at once timeless, and at the same time jibe with the look of 60s and 70s radicalism of political radicalism, any "ultimate analysis" has to at least include Martine's blond buns from Jacque Tati's 1953 film, M. Hulot's Holiday - even if this is just a thesis, and not a proof.
Nathalie Pascaud in Les Vacances de monsieur Hulot (1953); Carrie Fisher in Star Wars (1977)

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