Stop Making Senses: Thoughts on the Formal Experimentations and Non-Talking Heads of Jacques Tati and David Byrne

Curator's Note

In 2020, a time of pandemic and isolation, the streaming release of a film version of David Byrne’s Broadway show, American Utopia (Lee, 2020), on HBO, brought with it a reassuring sense of expressivity and play. Positioned as both a thematic sequel and callback to Byrne’s breakthrough 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984), American Utopia self-identified as a culminating performative event. The filmed version of the stage play contains constant formal and thematic reminders to the earlier film, from the selection of an auteur director (Demme in 1984, Lee in 2020) to the recurring use of mobile, modular set designs, and repeating songs such as “Psycho killer and “Burning Down the House.” While Stop Making Sense stubbornly insisted on its primary identification as a live rock music performance, American Utopia’s embrace of Broadway theater suggests Byrne’s illustrious career movement from elusive New York’s 1970s art rock No Wave pop star to one of contemporary art’s elder figures.

In 1984, Stop Making Sense had presented Byrne as an unknowable marionette-like pop star front man object. Byrne's twitching body, large suit, facial ticks, and dazed expression suggested an uncanny valley between performance, pop stardom, and the lurking angst of suburban living. American Utopia responds to this distancing by humanizing Byrne. From the moment the show begins, Byrne directly address the audience with a series of first-person stories, anecdotes, and tales from his life. The casual nature of the monologues suggest a synthesis of theater and standup comedy. Byrne acknowledges his relationship with the audience but appears to make no further claim on maintaining the walls between his theatrical presentation and his “real” self. Stop Making Sense had riffed on the notion of a lead singer of a rock band operating at once both within the formal band structure as well as circulating and oscillating in his own private landscape. American Utopia purports to counter Byrne’s decades of inscrutability and unknowability by forgrounding audience access and insight. Here, after thirty-six years, the film seems to say, is the "real" David Byrne.  

But this is yet more artifice. As American Utopia progresses, it becomes clear that Byrne’s revelation of his “real” self is as much an artifice of performative theatricality as was his wide-eyed, wordless pop star of 1984. This is made clear in a key sequence, when Byrne steps forward to give a long address to the audience regarding their presumptive suspicion that the music is pre-recorded and not being played live by the eleven musicians walking around on stage. This is a reasonable assumption. There are no visible cords or amplifiers. The instruments are light enough to be carried around at all times by the performers. Could these eleven musicians really produce the sonic landscape Byrne is performing in? Byrne addresses this concern as a stage magician would. By anticipating this suspicion, Byrne introduces each musician, one by one, making each musician demonstrate their instrument individually for the crowd to see and here. The purpose of this "revelation" is clear. No hidden strings. No tricks. The audience can see the music is "real."  It is live.  And then, one by one, the instruments come together to play.

This moment is important on two levels. It reminds us that Byrne is both showman and auteur, directing and conducting that which circulates around him on stage during the performance. But it also serves as a reminder of the suspicious and perhaps even antagonistic nature that develops between audiences and the artifice of the theatrical and cinematic worlds in which they partake. This has, of course, been a theme in Byrne’s music from the beginning. The illusory honesty of entertainment maintains distancing signifiers. In American Utopia, Byrne reminds us of this artifice by including the bare feet of the performers, the metallic chains that ring the stage on three sides, the introduction and removal of stage props, and an eclectic mix of theatrical makeup on the performers. Byrne’s effort to “make sense” of the music parallels the audience’s desire to “make sense” of the performance. Is Byrne rejecting his Stop Making Sense persona by allowing us to participate in the construction rather than witnessing it? Or is this a continuation of set construction revelation?  The act of isolating each instrument is, of course, an exercise in folly. When the full orchestration is once again complete, all instruments subsume into the larger collective of song and performance. Echoing the moment when Penn and Teller "reveal" how the trick is done, and then perform it again anyway, Byrne reminds his audience that "insight" is irrelevant. Whatever momentary awareness is offered by the isolation of image and sound by focusing on each musician is pyrrhic at best. The audience and Byrne both return, in the end, to the constructed aural landscape, the American utopia fantasy that obfuscates, at least for a few hours, the reality of suburbia, mediocrity, and the quotidian everyday.

A progenitor for this approach can be found in the formal experimentations of French filmmaker and actor Jacques Tati. In particular, the way in which Tati entered his own films as the comedic, befuddled, middle aged, pipe smoking Monsieur Hulot character.  Introduced in 1953’s Les Vacances de M. Hulot, Monsieur Hulot Tati’s nearly dialogue-free style and auteur presence as both writer and star was likened to the silent film antics of Charlie Chaplin. Yet Tati’s insistence and emphasis on mixing diegetic and non-diegetic sound signify a playful screen landscape focusing not on character and performance but on space and place. Despite little formal connection to his compatriot, Robert Bresson, Tati’s scrambling of sound/image exemplifies a rethinking of what scholars such as Michel Chion have observed as the supremacy of image over aural landscaping. It is here that an engaging connection can be drawn between Tati’s Hulot and Byrne’s stage characters presented in both Stop Making Sense and American Utopia.

Hulot’s movement through space in both Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967) are repeatedly signified by unusual nondiegetic sound and noise interactions. In Mon Oncle, the absurdism of modern living riffs on suburbia as land of both alienation and wonder. In Playtime, the urban cityscape becomes a land of strange boxes, glass encased performance spaces, and car-clogged streets of colorful poetic movement. In both films, Hulot serves as proxy audience signifier, reinforcing the collapse of artifice and performance through emphasis on the artificiality of aurality. Tati makes this point by ironically emphasizing the stimulative nature of visual set design, color schemes, and location construction. The large, kinetic house of Mon Oncle and Tati’s entirely constructed city set built for Playtime privilege space over character at the same moment Tati’s sound play destabilizes the diegesis.

Monsieur Hulot’s gradual development across films from comic protagonist in 1953 to increasingly detached and irrelevant wanderer in 1967, suggests a multi-filmic deconstruction of narrative form. Hulot’s importance decreases, giving way to the increasingly spectral comic experimentations of Tati. Hulot’s movement through increasingly stylishly and self-consciously realized suburban worlds suggests the overwhelm of modernity as its own form of narrative play time. It is only when audiences stop trying to make sense of screen media’s diegetic logic that Tati/Hulot’s comedic signification can be recognized. If there is a central point to this gradual shift in Tati’s work, it is that the everyday quotidian events of modern living can manifest their own form of consumptive pleasures. If only we stop to look. And listen.

Byrne’s concert film experimentations offer similar insight. In Stop Making Sense, Byrne’s playfully kinetic spasms, oversized suit, and lyrical odes to suburban ennui directly evoke Hulot’s bemused befuddlement with the mysterious of suburbia and the French bourgeoisie.  As with Hulot/Tati, Byrne exists within the concert film as “star.” But Byrne/Byrne is also oscillating as performer-auteur constructing his own reality through artifice and pantomime. Byrne’s initial emergence onto an empty Brechtian stage with boombox in hand to begin to play “Psycho Killer” reminds the audience that we are entering a soon-to-be constructed space with our performer/auteur as observer, flâneur, and guide. As with Tati’s houses and urban landscapes in Mon Oncle and Playtime, the film’s gradual and subsequent self-assembling sets, circulating and substituting band members, and changing lighting arrangements collectively produce the same playful destabilization of form.

Tati’s nearly hour-long tour-de-force dinner restaurant set piece in Playtime offers perhaps the clearest analog to Byrne’s kinetic crescendo. The nearly wordless set piece in Tati’s film features nearly fifty members of French high society gradually become more and more unglued, chaotic, and possessed as frantic jazz music plays. The set itself begins to come apart as the scene builds into a discordant frenzy explicitly at odds with the high budget song-and-dance musicality such a scene would presumably contain in 1967. This rejection of expectation while simultaneously embracing new modalities of performative illogic and confusion serves as a direct parallel to Byrne’s self-aware descent into formal dysregulation in Stop Making Sense. In American Utopia, Byrne’s return becomes the same intertextual signifier as does Hulot’s belated wanderings in and out of scenes in Playtime. Both remind the audience of each auteur’s earlier text. Tati’s films become a collective experimentation of form over time, just as Byrne’s concert films unite to offer comment over the thirty six year gap between them.

By destabilizing set, narrative, and diegesis, and by privileging aurality through the confusions (and confessions) of their on-screen personas, Byrne and Tati identify a playful mode of address that operates at once both a metatextual riff on form as well as a retreat into childlike play. Both resist and reject notions of satirical intent. Each is responding to their respective emergent artistic contextualization. Byrne’s playful celebration of the manic absurdities of suburbia are as at odds with New York’s 1970s rebellious punk No Wave movement as is Tati’s stubborn refusal to reject set construction grandiosity in French New Wave. Yet neither descend into nihilistic chaos. Tati’s films offer the consumptive pleasures of screen spectacles and comic set pieces. Byrne’s performances still produce coherent, expertly performed pop songs. Both effort to foreground the artifice of collective theatrical construction through sound and image. But both insist that this destabilization is simply seeking new systems of coherency. Tati and Bryne produce the same thesis. To find play time, to stop making sense, is to cast off the requisite requirements of both form and formality, to seek movement and meaning beyond established systems of coherent communication.

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