- Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism by Malcom Turvey
Midcentury French filmmaker and comedic actor Jacques Tati wanted us to avoid getting consumed by the distracting exigencies of modernity and instead take the time to notice, enjoy, and get involved in the fleeting moments of subtle comedy that permeate our everyday situations. This is the basic premise of Malcom Turvey's excellent new book Play Time, the first monograph on Tati "in English in almost twenty years" (9). To those unfamiliar with Tati, Turvey's book is essential reading for an in-depth understanding of the comedic style of this cinematic auteur. Tati is most famous for creating and playing the character Monsieur Hulot, a bumbling gentleman who often finds himself confused and making mistakes when trying to navigate technological and urban modernity. To those familiar with Tati, Play Time offers an expertly executed contextualization of Tati's oeuvre within the ongoing scholarly conversation about the role of humor in modernist aesthetics and its response to the emergence and development of capitalist modernity. Turvey argues that Tati developed a "modernist form of comedy" born out of the hilarity of our encounters with the particular form of everyday life engendered by modern technology and capitalist production (10). That modernist sensibility, according to Turvey, can be found in the ways that Tati both distributes and directs attention across his densely packed shots, often hiding, rather than showcasing, gags. This "comic opacity," in Turvey's account, instills in Tati's viewers a "playful, participatory attitude toward the modern world" that would help them counteract the acquiescent detachment Tati saw as constitutive of modern experience (103, 9).
Chapter one places Tati's work within the context of a long history of modernist engagements with the comedic. This chapter demonstrates that comedy was an essential element of the cinematic surrealism of Fernand Léger and René Clair as well as the circus worlds of Pablo Picasso. Intrinsic to the surrealism and nascent modernist comedy of Léger and Clair was a preoccupation with the body as an object rather [End Page 585] than a vessel of mind—and vice versa: objects in their work often take on human, or at least animate, qualities. We might find versions of Turvey's work in this chapter also in Michael North's Machine-Age Comedy (2009); engagement with Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai's recent theoretical work on humor and Maggie Hennefeld's on silent-film comediennes might have helped to further differentiate Turvey's argument as well as widen its male-dominated conceptualization of pre-Tati comedic modernism.1 But Turvey's take is nevertheless fresh, informative, and essential for understanding how Tati's cinema extends and revises much of this earlier art. Turvey's reading of Clair's "situational comedy," the comedy Clair thought was afforded by "groups," and his attendant "lack of interest in the individual or psychology" is especially excellent, setting up well the more direct discussion of Tati beginning in the following chapter (49).
Chapters two and three constitute the engine room of the book, elaborating the "democracy" thesis regarding Tati's films. Critics have indeed long characterized Tati's comedy as democratic, since his tendency toward long takes, long shots, a static camera, and staging multiple simultaneous actions within one frame "allows viewers the freedom to choose what to look at in the image" (6). However, Turvey puts a finer point on this undertheorized observation, bringing masterful technical virtuosity and analytical rigor to his close readings of the structure and style of Tati's gags. A key term for Turvey is participation. He argues that whereas the European avant-garde of the 1920s found in American popular culture a source of modern vitality—e.g., Léger's fascination with Charlie Chaplin's "Charlot" character—"postwar European intellectuals and artists of Tati's generation were more inclined to perceive American mass culture as hegemonic and totalitarian, engendering passivity and annihilating individuality" (54). Tati's response to the sense that the midcentury...