Posted on 1/14/08 12:34 AM
I don't like Queen but I listen to them a lot. I pluck plastic to their songs in Guitar Hero. I relish the jukebox scene in Shaun of the Dead. Freddie Mercury even encourages me to buy fitness water in Propel commercials. The music of the Merc has hit a sweet spot in cross-media ubiquity; it's power glam rockage that has been echoing throughout culture since Queen's introduction in 1969.
Another band, Sparks, comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, started up slightly before Mercury got his act together. I like Sparks. They still make odd, interesting music (if never as good as their 70s output) to this day, with their 21st album debuting this May. My reasoning is this: every time Queen goes in ticky-tacky bombast mode that I don?t really jive with, Sparks cuts the crap and descends further and further into feverishly catchy pop anarchy. So anyways, my point is that Sparks sounds a lot like Queen, Queen sounds a lot like Sparks, but Sparks started first and some music scholars claim that Queen ripped them off. But who's to say?
The Queen/Sparks riddle carries over into movies. Besides the obvious who's-ripping-off-who between Pixar and Dreamworks, there's also directors Edward Blake and Jacques Tati. It's been long argued that Blake's The Party is a movie-long homage to Tati's Playtime, though I'm not so sure since Party came out in April 1968, less than a year after Playtime. I know the shit peddlers behind Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans work just as fast, but that's still an awfully quick turnaround.
Anyways, Playtime is the third in a comedy series featuring Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati), this time placing Hulot at the mercy of a mechanized neo-modern Paris. The Party revolves around Hrundi Bakshi (Peter Sellers, putting on one of those accents he so loves), an Indian actor barely accustomed to America, let alone the upper class Hollywood party he innocently crashes. Both protagonists are quiet, mannered, bumbling. Both wear pants that are too short with brown coats that make them stand out. And both movies are structured the same way: characters randomly encounter each other, ratcheting up the comic tension until the film explodes with a wildly out-of-control party, live jazz in tow. In the ultimate clash of ego and altruism, Tati took this concept to an extreme: virtually every shot in Playtime is a medium or long one, a dazzling panorama of natural actors that requires multiple viewings to see and comprehend all. Tati didn't want any one person to have the spotlight. It was to be shared by all, a beacon as big as the world.
When I watched The Party for the first time (recently), I wondered why the hosts don't just throw out the uninvited, destructive Bakshi. Or kick out the clumsy, increasingly drunk waiter who destroys everything he touches. Don't get me wrong: The Party is charming, and frequently funny. And it's probably the best portfolio for Sellers' beautiful slapstick comedy. But the fact that I had to suspend disbelief, however minor, to get through The Party made me realize how much I love Playtime's completely natural flow of comedy. Hulot is similarly destructive to Bakshi, but it never feels like somebody should be after Hulot and kick him out of the joint. Tourists, teenagers, old friends, families wanting to explore Paris -- Playtime is a movie populated entirely by the good guys. There's nobody for the audience to sneer at. Nobody in the movie means any ill will. This is Tati's glorious argument: like Hulot, if your intentions are good, and you have come to be amused, confounded, and overwhelmed by the world, you belong.
There's a love story in The Party that feels out of place. Movies ask us to invest emotions in fake people, but what happens when the people feel fake? Stereotypes in comedies work because they're used to mine uncomfortable laughs or exploit somebody else's ignorance. Assuming a broad, rude stereotype like Bakshi can embody beauty and romance is a far-fetched leap.
There's also a love story in Playtime, threaded throughout its maze of subplots. Aside from Hulot, the main character is an American tourist named Barbara. The two frequently cross paths but Tati never overplays the relationship, aware audiences are automatically curious about the possibilities between a man and a woman (sorta like when The X-Files first started, watching and Mulder and Scully, and we thought to ourselves, "Hmm?"). There's a reason why the love subplot feels more real in Playtime than in The Party. Hulot himself feels real. Both he and Bakshi are nearly identical in mannerism, but one is a Frenchman played by a Frenchman, and the other is a Brit in brownface.
It all boils down to this: Monsieur Hulot is a cartoon; Hrundi V. Bakshi is a caricature. Incredibly, that makes all the difference.