Observe-Engage-Adapt: Hulot's Method in Playtime

Curator's Note

Hulot is a blurred man, a passer-by, a Hulotus errans.

(Chion, 2003:47)

Observe-Engage-Adapt: Hulot's Method attempts to bring the “blurred man” into focus by showing how Hulot explores, interacts with, and interprets his world with a recognizable habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) – an objective, durable and replicable disposition that repeatedly enables him to come to terms with the physical and social obstacles, contradictions, and antinomies he encounters in Playtime.

I approach making this video essay as a 'reflexive practitioner.' I want the practice of making a video essay to help transact discourse across several related fields in which I am a participant. It speaks to the videographer in me making films in a variety of styles and contexts because paying close attention to the film in the ever-so-malleable space of the NLE informs on composition, rhythm, editing, and myriad other cinematic crafts. It speaks to my practice as a professor teaching digital audio and video production in a digital arts program at a university because I am practicing my craft in these modes, creating teaching materials, seeking to contribute to, and help validate, emerging modes for sharing knowledge. And it speaks to my scholarly interests and participation in related fields (for me) such as discourse analysis, semiotics, rhetoric, and sociology by challenging me to find visual and aural ways to connect theory and practice in the analysis of 'texts' (Stillar, 1998). 

Editing the digital footage is a practice (selecting, cutting, sequencing, etc.), but also a reflexive design activity in which editing serves a more intangible goal of making evident some kind of pattern for a viewer's consideration. I use the fairly neutral term 'pattern' to name something I think distinguishes the video essay from other forms of scholar and practitioner inquiry: that is, the selections from a source, combined in whatever new ways, are done to manifest a specific, observable or experiential pattern – greater than the sum of its parts – to the viewer. This understanding of pattern is, I believe, akin to what Cristina Álvarez López (in a curating essay) means by the role of 'concept' in video essay practices:

"The idea that drives this audiovisual essay is quite powerful. However, it is one thing to have an idea about a film, and another —which may be related to the former, but goes further and requires a more inventive approach — to build a concept for an audiovisual essay. This is what Lindenberger achieves. When I say concept, I mean it in an extensive way: I refer to the piece’s structure and rhetoric, to the relation between its different, material elements and its editing operations, to all that gives the piece an independent, autonomous, singular form. The concept is what differentiates an audiovisual essay from a mere collection of clips used to demonstrate, prove or serve as examples of a point. The concept is, in short, what transforms the initial, analytical research into a creative process."

Two companion pieces that I worked on prior to making Observe-Engage-Adapt: Hulot's Method illustrate the difference between 'idea' and 'concept' referred to here. I made two 'compilation' videos with the Playtime source: one focusing on Hulot's meeting and greeting people (Hulot's Nod to Everyone ) and another focusing on door sounds (Door Sounds). These efforts were made to illustrate and demonstrate simple ideas – a cataloguing and concatenation of instances. They were also early attempts at creating essays that do not rely on voice-over narration or onscreen text. 

Yet repeated viewings (and spending many hours with Playtime in my NLE) led me to another pattern—one that moved my work, I hope, from the ideational to the conceptual. Specifically, I saw striking similarities across numerous instances of how Hulot behaves when encountering people, things, spaces, and events. Each encounter seemed to be made up of three distinct phases or beats, easily distinguishable primarily through Tati's physical performance. Over and over again, his character hovers and explores from a distance; then becomes engaged and immersed in action; and finally, must resolve some complication or confusion that emerges from the first two phases. Usually, this means recognizing that something is not what it seems (e.g. the handles on a glass door are not the horns of some animal, a woman's small neck fur is not a dead rodent, the living room is not a ski slope, a lamp is not a hand-post, etc.).

It may be a case of seeing everything as a nail if a hammer is one's only tool, but I saw, again and again, a repetition of these phases in Hulot's activity. I asked, as Tati himself does in the interview I sampled from: “Now what's going on? What is he doing?”

In attempting to answer this question, I gave names to the phases based on the commonalities in his behaviour, and came up with a 'mini-grammar' with functional labels: observe – engage – adapt. The observe phase sees Hulot explore, look, listen, and ponder: it is an objective phase in which he is still hovering as a temporary outsider. The engage phase sees him dive in, act, interact, and immerse: it is a subjective phase in which he is an agent in experience. The adapt phase sees him react, respond, and learn: it is a 'meta-phase' in which we see him accommodate and adapt to some new kind of knowledge of the world based on his experiences in the first two phases. The third phase, as I note in the video essay, sees Hulot embrace paradox: things are not what they seem and that is okay.  Hulot, “on the same level as everybody else,” as Tati points out, repeatedly shows us how to come to terms with the ironic, the absurd, the paradoxical: not to transcend them, but to live through and with them. Perhaps in this way “comedy is for everybody,” as he says. 

In my title I've called this a 'method,' but I think Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and disposition are more the point. Playtime is not didactically teaching a method, of course, but in Hulot's character we can recognize a way of seeing, being in, and understanding the humour and ironic charm of everyday places, people, and things. 

Stylistically, I strove to make my video essay echo some production choices from Playtime. My aim in this video essay was to manifest this pattern as economically as possible. Playtime has so many voices, but not traditional dialogue per se, so I did not want to provide an explanatory voice-over narration. Playtime uses seemingly diegetic sound in such motivated ways: single sounds are given greater prominence as a way of directing the eye via the ear (e.g. the flip flop of a traveller's slippers, the door that sounds like a locking cell, etc.), so I used certain repeated sounds from the film to mark the different sequences in my essay to create cohesion and coherence. I created a picture-in-picture, looping segment to lay out my basic conception of Hulot's behaviour, and followed this with a series of similar instances with onscreen labels. I included a few instances without labels as a way to invite my viewers to 'see' the pattern in these terms themselves. The shots I chose to illustrate Hulot's 'method' tended to be fairly long, single shots. This not only contributed to a slower, more languorous rhythm in my essay, it partially reproduces the editing tempo of the film itself. Tati creates shape, arc, and trajectory within the single continuous shot through his physical performance, not through cuts. The sequence and structure of his habitus is lost if one cut into the shot.

The 'body' of my video essay is framed by remarks and observations that Tati has made about the Hulot character, particularly that Hulot “never invents anything” (He does not cause the world to be humorous) and that his efforts were an attempt to “be the attorney of a human being” (He advocates for seeing the world, and our place in it, as humorous). Perhaps then, in that spirit, this video advocates for Tati's vision of a democratic cinema with Hulot “on the same level of everybody else” (Tati 1977, Savoy Hotel London interview).


Hulot's Method” is a playful 'structuralist' investigation of patterns in Tati's physical performance in Playtime. It is meant to be playful because to be too serious, too analytical with comedy would be a sure way to deaden the humour. It is 'structuralist' in the sense that it proposes three recognizable and recurring 'units' in his performance and proposes that these units combine into a larger structure that functions in the meaning potential of the film.

My investigation is also playful because, of course, this film (and more particularly, Tati's physical performance) cannot be reduced to a structuralist formula. Reading Tati's remark in an interview that “Hulot never invents anything,” however, encouraged me to look closely at what he does do. In the context of that interview, Tati was contrasting his style with that of Chaplin. It is worth quoting more from the interview:

Take, for instance, a gag in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. Monsieur Hulot arrives at the cemetery. He needs a crank to crankstart his car, so he looks for one in his trunk. While looking for the crank, he takes out a tire tube, the tube falls to the ground, the leaves stick to it, the tire tube is transformed into a funeral wreath, and—this wreath—the undertaker thinks that M. Hulot has just brought it. You are going to say here: “Monsieur Hulot did not find any gag in this material.” That’s right: he didn’t find any. What he did could have been done by any absentminded man who had no comic intention. The comic invention comes from the screenwriter or from the situation, but what happened to Monsieur Hulot could happen to a lot of people. There are many Hulots in life, come to think of it. He didn’t invent anything! In Chaplin’s case, if he had found the gag good enough to put in his film—which I am not so sure about—he would have made the same entrance as Hulot, but, seeing that the situation was turning into a catastrophe (there is a religious ceremony and his car trouble interrupts it), he would have ended up with a tire tube in his hand after opening the trunk and would have stuck the leaves on the tube by himself. For the viewers, he would have transformed the tube into a funeral wreath, and it would have been accepted as such by the undertaker supervising the service. And the viewers would have found this character wonderful because, at the very moment when no one could have come up with anything to get him out of this situation, he invented—on the screen, for the viewers—a gag. And it is this gag that would have caused the laughter and would have made people say, “He was great.” You cannot say that about Hulot. He was not great, because it could have happened to you, to anybody: you are looking for something in a car, something falls out of it, you pick it up—that’s normal. This is where you feel that there are really two completely different, totally opposed schools, because Hulot never invents anything and Chaplin is always inventing something (Cardullo 2011: 44-45).

My slightly tongue-in-cheek investigation of Playtime identified and named units (phases) to describe regularities in how Hulot behaves. He is not inventing, but what is he doing? I wanted to be more precise than the standard view of Hulot as a bumbling innocent unleashing havoc in his world. I believe this is a mistaken view of his character, particularly in Playtime

A potential problem with being precise – with identifying and naming units – is that others can hold you to them, test them, interrogate them. And, quite rightly, this is what my reviewers have done.

If I propose that Hulot's engagement with the world of Playtime is structured in terms of three distinguishable phases, then I am inviting a viewer to consider whether or not the examples I choose from the film actually do fulfil the functions I propose. For example, in the clip where Hulot observes the black chairs, then squeezes and sits on them, and then stands again and shrugs, it is necessary for me to prove that this fits the pattern I propose. It has been pointed out that when he stands up again to look at the chairs he is merely just 'observing' again. However, I think that his shrug signifies a different function: he is 'adapting' by literally shrugging off the absurdity of a chair that makes rude noises whenever he sits in it. Notice that the 'shrug' – the adaptation – could not precede his observation of the chairs, nor his engagement with them (by squeezing and sitting). Reaction is of a different logical type to observation and engagement. Watching carefully, we will see a similar reaction (shrugging, nodding, acknowledging, etc.) in each example explored in my video essay.

Interpretation then hinges on whether the units of the structure I propose are clearly marked or not. To help with this, I edited my video essay to include a picture-in-picture preview of each instance to show the parts of Tati's performance that I felt indicated the dynamic movement from observation to engagement to adaptation. Each reviewer noted the clarity of this editing strategy in my original video essay with reference to the 'chair' gag, so I have expanded it to my other examples. (Whether this does the trick or I am over-egging the cake is an open question.)

Another point that came up with reviewers was the relationship between the structure I propose for Hulot's behaviour (observe – engage – react) and the narrative structure of film in general (exposition - rising action - resolution). This is a very interesting question and one that is particularly challenging when posed of a film like Playtime. The film is episodic: this happens, then that happens, then something else happens, etc. Any sense of narrative development in the sequence of events relies more on differences in degree (repetition and amplification events) rather than differences in kind (exposition versus complicating versus resolving events). The narrative of Playtime advances through parataxis rather than hypotaxis. The world and the characters are really roughly the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Hulot is hardly a protagonist who faces some life-altering experience at some climactic moment. I would argue that this 'flat' narrative structure requires other devices for giving shape to the film and for shaping a narrative experience for the viewer. One such device is the durable structure of Hulot's habitus: his repeated sensing (observing), diving in (engaging), and acknowledging consequences (adapting) provides the viewer with a coherent exemplar of the comic corrective: a way of acknowledging that how we experience our world is at least partially a consequence of how we frame it. Hulot shows us that the world is paradoxical – that things simultaneously are/are not what they seem and that attending to world (observing), getting involved (engaging), and embracing paradox (adapting) is one – quite humorous and delightful – way of structuring experience whether that experience be watching Playtime or our quotidian experience of the often equally absurd world beyond the cinema. After all, as Tati reminds us: “What happened to him can happen to everybody.”

Works Cited:

• Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

• Cardullo, Bert. 2011. “Comedy Belongs to Everybody. An Interview with Jacques Tati.” in World Directors in Dialogue: Conversations on Cinema. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.: Toronto.

• Chion, Michel. 2003. The Films of Jacques Tati. Guernica Editions Inc.: Toronto.

• Stillar, Glenn. 1998. Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

• Interview with Jacques Tati (Savoy Hotel, London, 1977). Retrieved January 15, 2015.