Prompted again by Jean Poulot, we went last week to see Coraline, the stop-motion animated film funded by Portland Nike zillionaire Phil Knight (much maligned back there for myriad dubious corporate behaviors). We went, of course, owing to Jean’s animation interest, and I suppose as well a little bit of a kind of Portlandphilia, thinking of friends there, including one, Mark Eifert, who turned down a job on this film as he didn’t want to deal with the long commute to southern ‘burb where Nike’s campus is. And I was again curious about the state of 3D and what people are doing with it.
As with Monsters vs Aliens, I was duly impressed with the technical qualities and capacities, but as well with deeper narrative elements and the underneath subtexts. In this case the animation was a hybrid of stop-motion sort of cleaned up digitally, so that seams in the puppets were erased, and some of the basic crudeness of stop-motion work was tidied up. Visually it was certainly distinctly different from the CGI of Monsters, with the characters more puppet-like in both looks and movement, a natural by-product of the techniques used. On the other hand because they were “real,” the clothes, hair, and other elements looked, well, not like high-grade CGI facsimiles, but like “the real thing” because they were, albeit miniaturized to fit the puppets standing a foot or so high. The result was a pleasingly familiar quality of home-made-ness, which in fact fit the Oregonian setting: gloomy rain forests and cloudy atmospherics.
The story is basically a rather simple moral fable: A little girl – whose character was clearly willfully less than snuggly-cute, but instead somewhat obnoxious, a real kind of brat – Coraline, has parents who are recognizable types, self-involved and giving minimal time to daughter. Dad is a writer computer-geek, and with his wife is writing a catalog on gardening though they can’t stand dirt or gardening themselves. Coraline, moved to the sticks outside Ashland, Oregon, is bored, and in her dreams invents Other Parents who are what her real ones aren’t. Except in due time the ideal Other Mom morphs into a veritable skeletal witch and is bad news. Coraline, after some traumatic adventures bee-lines back to the home hearth, and in a final sop to decency Mom gives her the wool gloves she’d hankered for earlier in film and been refused. Sandwiched into this are a handful of wacky characters who live in the same converted mansion, plus a little boy who befriends our anti-heroine.
The tone of this modest fable is another story, more Brothers Grimm than Disney by a very long shot, so much so that in the audience I was in some young ones could be heard crying. I don’t think, having seen it, I’d take someone younger than 10 or 12 to it – too many dark turns, and frankly I felt the overall content was more adult than child-aimed, and I doubt many kids would really get it, however much they might like the fantasy world constructed. And then, on conclusion I had serious doubts about the actual content of the story which boiled down to “better to accept the real world you have than take chances on changing it.” Tell that to Phil Knight’s south-east Asian sweat-shop shoemakers. I’m sure he does. The Grimm tone of this film seemed reflective of a certain Republican frame of mind, making for a little too much of a down-to-earth landing which subverted most of its imaginative fantasy and left one with a distinctly down-beat feeling at the end. Perhaps Mr. Knight’s Adam Smith’s unseen hand at play?
The 70-year-old Nike founder has done hundreds of separate stock sales since mid-April, collecting $1.05 billion – well ahead of his $780 million cash-out of shares in 2007. That’s the year he placed 14th in Vanity Fair’s ranking of windfalls made by the rich from selling stock or family empires.
At Knight’s current pace of selling his shares, the one-time track star at the University of Oregon is likely to pass reigning cash-out king Bill Gates, who topped Vanity Fair’s windfall rankings last year at $2.8 billion in stock sales. [May 2008, just before the market crash….]
The problem for me was, well, uh, heretically, the film itself. Starting off in a seeming hospital turned airport turned cubicle office-ville, our reluctant central character Monsieur Hulot, Tati’s alternate self, is found lost in the modernized wonder of the new Paris: sterile 60’s architectural glass boxes announcing the future. It is said Tati no longer wished to play Hulot, whose character had made his name in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, and carried on through Mon Oncle and Trafic. But the cruel invisible hand of Mr. Knight’s beloved market dictated otherwise, and in order to obtain the funding Tati was required to shamble along as Hulot, yet again. In this case he materializes as a minor thread in the film, bumbling through the maze of modernity playing something more akin to “Where’s Wally” than a character. Using his 70mm visual acreage to maximum effect, Tati plants his various characters across a deep space, the screen – a least in the opening passages – speckled with minor figures carefully orchestrated, with little comic incidents in the far background, or anywhere else. M. Hulot also may be anywhere else, hence where’s Wally.
The major thread through which Hulot attempts to knit his non-narrative is a bus-load of hokey American tourists, who are duly skewered for being hokey American tourists. We follow them on a their tour of the spanking new anonymous Paris, in which the old Paris occasionally materializes as a reflection in the glassy mirrors of the new: the Eiffel Tower, Sacré–Coeur, and other emblematic icons slide by in the turn of a door. The one “real” slice of Parisian life is an old lady at her flower stand who is used by our tourists as a prop, and likewise by Tati. Several other nationalities are duly skewered.
Following the deep space escapades in the bland cubicle-land, Hulot is whisked away by a friend from the army to a bland glass-fronted first floor modern apartment where socializing seems to consist of watching television, fully exposed to the street. This scene is replicated as in new apartment buildings, in the next apartment and the next. Ha ha. This set-piece falls rather flat.
The film now moves along to a newly minted nightclub, where many a spratfall is made on the basis of its just opened (almost) state, and the screen is crammed with diners, musicians, the staff of the club, and the spectator is tiresomely bludgeoned with increasingly more frantic, repetitious and less funny humor. Of course the bus-load of American tourists arrives, and Mr Hulot/Wally wanders in and out.
At end the club closes, a rich obnoxious American who has played major role in the nightclub sequence retires with friends to a cafe for a cuppa, and the American tourists depart in the bus. The film does not end, it deflates in a merry-go-round traffic circle of not-so-funny montage, and Tati closes the curtain on his career. Well, almost. Despite the allegedly fatal effect on his career, Playtime was followed up by Trafic (more of the same) and Parade.
Back when it was released audiences apparently voted with their feet, and this film, costly by the standards of the day, was a flop from which Tati never recovered. The critics of the day were mixed, but slowly Playtime has clawed its way to a place of reverence in critical circles. In my view the audience was right – this film is a turkey, and despite occasional flashes of brilliance (mostly at the beginning), it fails to sustain anything, uses its threads (Hulot, the American tourists) as cheap devices to string together a sequence of essentially unrelated set-pieces, and collapses in the unfunny chaos of the closing night-club passage. Its handful of funny concepts are usually driven into the ground with repetition, just as its satire tilts towards the overly obvious and far too easy. It was apparently unscripted, and in the pejorative sense of it, looks it. That Tati shows flashes of brilliance in his use of the screen space does not salvage the utter failure to orchestrate time, an essential element of any work which operates in time – be it music, theater, or cinema, or cover for many of his jokes which are facile and worn.
What this seems to say about critics is that if you’ve had a run-in with the business, or worse yet, the audience, this must be ipso facto evidence that you are far ahead of your times. Never mind that the evidence on the screen is that you made a flop, an incoherent pastiche of set-pieces which don’t really hold together, resorted to dim slapstick, repeating of the same jokes to exhaustion and culminated with a long and boring finale which fails miserably to pull it all together. That this was done on 70mm, includes some visual panache here and there, doesn’t really matter. This film is a god awful mess, and the hoi polloi were correct. The critics were and are wrong.
Wally/Hulot lost his way, and is not to be found.