Did I tell you the one about the Plexiglass Dollhouse?

Play in The Plexiglass Dollhouse

The cast:

The man who is doubled over (yellow)
The woman who is overstretched (blue)
Nude descending a staircase (orange)
The Pantone Chair man (red)
The man-who-is-thrust-through-the-floor-of-a-bedroom (semi-transparent)
The woman who looks like a table [after Breuer] (blue)
The woman with an iron fist (red)
The woman who is really twisted (cerise)
The uncertain man [with an arse like David] (green)
The Plexiglass Dollhouse* (transparent)

*As with Tati’s constructed set in Play Time, the Plexiglass Dollhouse itself is a player in the drama. (Though, obviously on a much, much, much smaller and less bankrupting scale!)

In this post I present some of the gags arranged physically in the Plexiglass Dollhouse and their spin-off gags observed through the lens of my camera, with reference to the gag types and structure identified in the work of Jaques Tati by Malcolm Turvey in his detailed study: Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. (Columbia University Press. 2020.)

My hyperbolic sculptures are objects but they are also, given their figurative style, their titles and their setting (a dollhouse), like dolls, susceptible to character casting. The models can be moved and configured into different object relationships based on design principles of colour, form and composition and/or on a highly subjective reading of character, to stage different jokes. For me, the models are void of character. That is to say, I do not weigh them with an emotional charge or personality but, their titles (or names, if you will), suggest this possibility to the spectator. Their relationships with one another are ambiguous – The Pantone Chair man and The woman who looks like a table [after Breuer] can be said to ‘go together’ in a table-chair relationship but what they are doing (or not doing) is open to speculation. Any emotional or psychological connection between the two is subject to the viewer’s interpretation. 

While the intended gag is physically designed and the comic tableau vivant arranged, the gag-composer cannot control the natural lighting conditions nor program the viewpoint of the spectator, leaving her composition exposed to the risk of further mischievousness and trickery (joke toppers and topper-toppers (1)) authored by the viewer themselves. The interior of the house is viewable through 360 degrees on every axis and, being highly reflective and enjoying multiple levels of reflection, the Plexiglass Dollhouse substantially enhances the potential for the unstaged gag. With deference to the comedic democracy (2) Turvey describes in Tati’s work, no single figure in the Plexiglass Dollhouse is more important than any other – though, again, as with the set of Play Time, the Plexiglass Dollhouse may hog the limelight a little!

The figures are modelled from polymer clay in a range of bright colours and baked in a domestic oven. Developing the work, I plan to cast these figures in tinted PU resins, varying their degree of transparency from completely clear to completely opaque. The optics of such casting opens up the play to more sight gags and light relations with the Plexiglass Dollhouse itself.

Chance meeting sight gag: Viewed from a certain angle at a certain moment, the reflected light renders The man who is doubled over, tripled over:

In another instance, The man-who-is-thrust-through-the-floor-of-a-bedroom, viewed through the roof from a bird’s-eye perspective, appears to be kicking The man who is doubled over on the bottom:

And in another arrangement, with a shift of the spectator’s point of view, The man-who-is-thrust through-the-floor-of-a-bedroom seems to be patting The man who is doubled over on the bottom:

Physical pun & intentional object analog gag: The woman with the iron fist mistakes The woman who looks like a table [after Breuer] for an ironing board:

Object-relation double entendres: The man who is doubled over and The Pantone Chair man:

and its joke-topper: The man who is doubled over, doubled over, and the Pantone Chair man reflected.

Physical pun: the joke inscribed in the name of each figure plays out physically in its design. For example, The woman who is really twisted really is twisted:

There is a deliberate cartoon violence to the modelling of the figures that acknowledges Michael Snow’s post-production assaults on his actors in ‘The Living Room’ and ‘Corpus Callosum’: the twisted woman, the overstretched woman, the man who is doubled over, are distorted to the point of outrageousness wherein their figurative human/like/ness is threatened. (See “Stunts, Pratfalls and Cartoon Violence: Part 1“) 

Fragmented gag: Nude descending a staircase.
In Tati’s work, Turvey explains the fragmented gag as a gag protracted in time over a series of scenes. He further points out that sometimes Tati is so daring with his fragmentation that he pushes the extension in time so far as to risk the audience losing track of the origin of the sequence. (3) In The Plexiglass Dollhouse, alluding to Duchamp’s work, I translate fragmentation over time into spatial fragmentation in the case of the Nude descending a staircase


Summarising Tati’s great strategic innovation in cinema comedy, Turvey writes: “In effect, his films are designed to tutor his audiences in the active mode of observation required to discern the comedy of everyday life in the real world. This strategy has no precedent in prewar avant-garde, and it is perhaps Tati’s most original contribution to comedic modernism”(4). My play in the Plexiglass Dollhouse over the course of this residency, takes cue from this strategy, attempting to encourage the spectator to go beyond the staged gag, to pay attention and seek all around for the both the intentional and unintentional gags in the set-ups and their spin-offs. Not all the jokes are easy to see (despite the fact that the house is completely transparent!) but within this design, the spectator has the opportunity to play both comic detective and gagman seeking the staged joke and finding (and creating) others in the course of their active observation.

1. A joke topper is  a remark, joke, etc. that tops, or surpasses, those preceding https://www.yourdictionary.com/topper  It follows that a topper-topper exceeds the topper.

2. Turvey explains that, rather than organising the comedy around one star comedian à la Chaplin or Keaton, with supporting cast (and objects) playing subordinate roles,Tati departs from the Hollywood formula by distributing the gags widely amongst his cast (and objects). Fringe performers deliver gags and Tati goes further to construct scenes in which, like a proto-audience, these characters by virtue of their physical position in a scene and their character’s comic awareness (a disposition alert to the comic potential of the everyday) are sometimes the private receiver of the punch-line. The comedy is not only dispersed throughout the cast but also spatially within the frame. In Play Time there is neither hierarchy of performer nor hierarchy of physical position of a gag within a scene.  Foreground, mid-ground and background are all potential gag platforms and the viewer must remain on their toes so as not to miss out on a joke. Furthermore, Monsieur Hulot’s role in Play Time is frequently eclipsed by the hilarious antics of anonymous others, his identity confused and its uniqueness dampened by the fact that his trademark costume (felt hat, trench coat, ankle-grazing trousers) are sported by five or six others in the film.  In these ways, Tati encourages cultivation of a comic alertness in his audience with the ‘proto audience’ serving as a model for this state. “Just as Tati devolves gags away from Hulot onto other characters in order to make them take part of the comedy, so he prompts the spectator to participate in the type of humorous mistakes and confusions suffered by characters in comedian comedy films.” Malcolm Turvey, Play Time Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism (Columbia University Press, 2020), 99

3. Malcolm Turvey, Play Time Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism (Columbia University Press, 2020), 120-121. “Burch is pointing to at least two distinct types of gag structure used by Tati – the running gag, in which an already completed gag is subsequently repeated, as in the example of Francois cycling into Bondu’s bar or Hulot being chased by dogs; and the fragmented gag, in which a gag is broken into parts that are dispersed across a sequence or even the entirety of a film.”

4. Malcolm Turvey, Play Time Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism (Columbia University Press, 2020), 102