Friday, July 06, 2007

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Transcendental discombobulation

Jacques Tati's Playtime is the comic twin brother of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released months later. Both are unique visions, arrived at after years of work and elaborate sets (Tati constructed an entire urban center nicknamed 'Tativille' which consisted of glass buildings (one of which contained a fully working escalator), roadways, a power plant, and a traffic signaling system to control it all), and both have as theme the at times antagonistic relationship between man and technology (machines for Kubrick, mostly architecture and design for Tati), and eventual human transcendence.

In 2001 we have brute man discovering technology (promptly taking said technology and bashing a fellow brute's head in), developing it for centuries (the passing of said centuries expressed in a single spectacular cut), ultimately having said technology literally swallow him up, turning him into a machinelike parody of himself. In Playtime Tati echoes that same development, with humans dressed largely in grey or beige, walking in predictable straight lines. In 2001 Kubrick inserts vestiges of lost humanity--banal jokes about chicken sandwiches, an unruly, insistent daughter; in Playtime Tati has a Hulot lookalike drop his umbrella (the clatter rolls across the hall of the indeterminate building (it's only when we see a plane's tailfin do we realize we're in an airport) like a sacrilegious cough).

Tati shows dehumanization in ways that I submit are subtler than Kubrick's. Kubrick's film is set in a world (The future! In outer space!) where technology naturally holds dominion; Tati presents the world we live in, a familiar, even banal setting that we only gradually realize is as unsettling and alien as Kubrick's--perhaps even more so, because we've been lulled into assuming it's familiar, only to learn that our assumption is wrong.

Take the waiting room. Hulot is introduced into the room with an opened door and an invitational wave to step inside; when the door closes, Tati cuts to an outdoor shot that takes in the whole room, glass walls and all, surrounded by a cacophony of traffic noises. It's a funny sight, though you might not immediately realize why it's funny. Eventually, associations kick in--Hulot looks as if he's an animal in a cage, or a specimen in a laboratory experiment, or even a fish in an aquarium. He is something to look at, even observe, safely cut off from the outside world (to add insult to injury, large portraits of unknown men--elderly European executives, we assume--line the glass walls, glaring at him). It's not what Hulot does--waiting in a waiting room--that's funny; it's Tati's framing of the room, seen from a distance and angle one usually associates with viewing zoo cages or aquariums (the traffic sounds serve to emphasize his isolation).

And then there's that damned chair. Plenty of details to take in in Playtime, but what gets me is that chair, a running gag that becomes less funny--or much funnier, but in a less comfortable way--the more you think about it. Its cushions make farting sounds, yes; they also bounce back when pressed, or pushed. It presumably represents the ultimate in fireproof, waterproof, stainproof, rip-proof, wrinkleproof material, an amusing notion until you realize that an entire city made of this stuff can house millions of people for hundreds of years, and when they die away, no trace or proof of their passing will remain. We make every effort to mark the world with our technology and every effort to make our technology invulnerable, Tati seems to be saying to us, that we forget to leave a sign of our own presence behind.

I love the escalator shot where Hulot, his eyes on Mr. Giffard as he descends from the second floor, loses sight of the man as he approaches ground level (the shot is almost an implied instruction on how to view the movie, suggesting that famous claim made for the film, that you get a different image--and a different film altogether--depending on the angle and distance with which you view the screen); I love the fact that when the American tourists arrive, the first thing they do is visit a pavilion that sells the latest technological products ("and so American!" one of them says)--an extremely human trait, still if not more relevant today (take it from me: when Filipinos hit a foreign city, instead of visiting sites and museums they head straight for the shopping malls).

Tativille itself is a dream of a city; nightmarish, true, but part of its beauty is that blankly nightmare quality--it's the perfect background against which to stage an epic minimalist comedy. It's almost twice as big as it first seems with almost twice the details, thanks to the huge expanses of reflective glass--the film looks as if Tati shot it twice, double-exposing the negative to achieve a constantly superimposed effect. It's also a city full of visual echoes, with various shapes and colors multiplied to a bewildering degree--the boxy cars rhyming with the boxy doors rhyming with the boxy furniture and rooms and buildings, everything confined within the quadrilateral frame of the screen itself; the slablike buildings of Paris reproduced in posters for London, Mexico, Stockholm (the slab ultimately echoed in Kubrick's precious monolith) reflected against gleaming floors, windows, walls; Hulot himself is reflected everywhere in a series of lookalikes (at one point a lookalike and Hulot both grab at a pole in a bus to steady themselves; the pole turns out to be a lamppost someone's delivering by hand).

Kubrick's 2001 has its share of humor, some of it based on how uncomfortable humans are with their self-made world (Dr. Floyd talking to his daughter, or attempting to decipher the fearsomely complex instructions of the anti-gravity toilet (echoed in a similar moment in Playtime when the porter is trying to operate an enormous automated intercom system)), but the very best lines are reserved for HAL, who subverts every notion of the emotionless, humorless, unimaginative computer. Tati's Hulot is the human equivalent of HAL, subverting the notion of a mechanized human, constantly throwing a spanner into the smoothly working cogs and flywheels of Tativille.

Halfway through the film Tati presents the opening night of The Royal Garden, a classy new dining-and-dance spot that itself echoes Tativille's general architecture. As with HAL's revolt in 2001, the Royal Garden episode serves to sharpen the themes of the film, bring it all into dramatic focus. The forces of chaos, content to pop up now and then throughout the film's first hour, take over the restaurant in the second: tiles pop out, lights fail, electrical circuitry sputter and sizzle; the chairs, with their pretentious crowned backrests, rip and tear at pants pockets and jackets, or leave a mark on the backs of unsuspecting diners (The mark of Zorro! No--a fatal "M" imprinted on Peter Lorre's back!) Some of the jokes are spectacular, such as the destruction Hulot (he and a number of unlikely characters manage to wander into the joint) causes as he grabs for a hanging decor; others are subtler (and, in my opinion, far funnier), such as the column the architect locates right in the middle of the main entranceway, for everyone to bump into.

If there's a difference between The Royal Garden dinner and HAL's revolt, it's mainly this: Tati thinks it's a good thing, the restaurant's gradual disintegration, its descent into drunken entropy and dissolution (for Kubrick chaos at best represents a means of reawakening Bowman's lost sense of self). It's humanity reasserting himself, Tati having revenge on his oh so elaborately constructed creation, even down to the little instant bistro (an illusion of one, just like the many other illusions, reflections, and accidental coincidences scattered throughout the film) that drops out of nowhere, emblematic of the Paris Tati once loved.

Playtime's final few minutes are arguably the most delightful few minutes in all of cinema (and a far more pleasurable image of transcendence than the fish-eyed fetus Kubrick leaves onscreen staring at us at the end of 2001). It's the fete in his Jour de fete (Day of the fair, 1949) reprised on a massive scale, a cosmic synthesis of the opposing theses of humanity and technology, here done with a carnival air. Tati seems to be throwing his arms wide open in an all-encompassing attempt to embrace everything and everyone, man and machine alike, inviting them to celebrate his vision of biomechanical revelry.

Tati had hoped to bequeath Tativille to future filmmakers, to use for the making of their own projects; instead it was torn down to make way for a highway interchange. A tragedy, perhaps, but to my mind a fitting one: any concrete reminders of Tati's fantastic construct would only be a letdown, after the widescreen experience provided by the film. Tativille belongs on the big, 70mm screen, a dream world to be explored by everyone at his or her leisure, sitting in screening after screening, at different locations throughout the auditorium. 



colinr0380 said...

That was a fantastic piece of writing! I haven't seen Playtime yet but this essay has inspired me to order a copy!

I do like 2001 as well though, especially the scene with the daughter on the video phone which seems the most spontaneous, human and natural performance in the film and which always leaves me wondering whether Kubrick gave the girl lines to read or whether he just asked her questions and got her to respond naturally and then wrote Heywood Floyd's dialogue around it (I guess it would be easy to find out if Bush Baby toys were around in the late 60s!)

I love Solaris too, and while it was conceived as a more emotion driven riposte to Kubrick's technologically driven film, I think they complement each other beautifully. Even though I agree with your points about the way technology is encroaching onto human presence and may eventually wipe all traces out 2001 captures that sense of wonder and excitement with our creations that can lead to that end.

It is a love letter to technology without shying away to its dangers, especially if it is watched in a double bill with Dr Strangelove which feels the exact opposite! (Crazy humans utilising impassive technology compared to 2001's impassive humans confronted by technology that is more emotional than they are!)

It makes me think that the emphasis on the astronaut's breathing is showing the last traces of biological humanity being stripped away, whether it is Poole having his air line cut by HAL or Bowman's breathing disappearing in the final scene as he ages in jumps.

Noel Vera said...

First of all--thanks!

Second, I imagine it's simplest to write the dialogue, then have Kubrick coach his daughter to recite the lines, then using the most interesting takes. Most common way to direct children.

Third, I've always thought 2001 was Kubrick's coming-out film, where he shows his ultimate preference, as I put in this and this article.

Michael Scheff said...

I read your entire review of Playtime and very much liked the
>with Kubrick's film. My favorite part of the film, and the only part
>like really, is the entire restaurant sequence. The M chair imprint on
>the backs of the women wearing low cut back dresses, the pole that
>everyone to crash into it, the smashing of the front door, the fire
>destroys the place --- all hilarious. But in my view, other
>aside, the movie is a failure because the above-mentioned scenes are
>much all that's funny in a film that's supposed to be a comedy. The
>inside/outside shots of the skyscraper ground floor, very funny. But
>about all. And what about the revolting sequence of drivers picking
>noses, etc.Not funny. I could go on, but I haven't seen the film for
>many years I can't really focus on any more specifics More than that,

>something you didn't comment on is the overblown nature of the whole
> Aside from examples like the
> pie fight in Laurel and Hardy's "Battle of the Century", comedy
>by being small. Certainly Tati's previous films each played on a very

>small canvas. A weekend at the beach, a stay at an infernal modern
>etc. etc. What has always troubled me about this movie is the
>inflated ego behind itt. The building of Tativille, so costly and so
>unnecessary. Shooting the film in 70mm, as if it were an epic, makes
>sense. To me it simply implies ego out of control. And all of it
could be
>forgiven if the film were really funny, instead of (very) sporadically

>funny. I don't know too much about the background of the making of
>film, but I bet it torpedoed his career After this, Playtime, then no
> Anyway, that's my take on the film. What do you think. Best wishes

>always, Michael Scheff

Noel Vera said...

It's a valid response, Mike, but for my part, I like follies and expensive failures, especially when they're committed by interesting artists, and when the failures of themselves are interesting. Coppola, for one is interesting enough, but his Apocalypse Now less so (I'm interested in seeing his One From the Heart again, though). I loved Altman's Popeye; I love Scorsese's New York, New York, or Spielberg's 1941.

Cahier du cinema had a term for that kind of film--'film maudit' or films that are so far out they weren't appreciated by their audiences at the time. Well, in the case of the abovementioned flms, they still aren't much appreciated, but I like to think the time isn't right yet.

And that's the case I suspect with Playtime. I love the gigantism, the 'overblown' look as you put it; part of the humor and pathos of the film is that the human figures look so lost in this world. Those little people among these huge buildings, that isn't right, and that's Tati's point, I submit.

And no, I don't think it's meant to be funny in a conventional sense, or even received in a conventional sense; I actually showed it to some kids and they seemed more receptive to what it was trying to do than any adult I know, and that, I think, is because kids don't really have the need for that kind of storytelling ingrained firmly in them.

I remember what had been written about Renoir's Rules of the Game, how the audiences booed and walked out of the theaters because it didn't meet their expectations of the time. The characters were too unsympathetic, the shots went on too long, the comedy seemed to make fun of everything, it wasn't the kind of French comedy they were expecting to see.

That's the problem with an experimental film, or a film out to break boundaries--the audience may not be ready for something too new.

And another thing--did you see Playtime in 35 mm? You said it was years ago, so I'm assuming it's probably on the big screen (either that or on VHS or Betamax). I keep hearing about how it should really be seen in 70 mm--well, that's what I write about.

Per said...

Oh, my God !
What wonderful words about one of the most wonderful movies ever made. I love those five Tati films (never been able to watch 'Parade') and Play Time most of them all. Play Time was my first encounter with Tati, and the first time it was a disaster. I simply did not understand why first the man in the front raw was laughing, when noone else in the theatre did - a while later someone behind me were almost dying from laughter - and so on. "The funniest film in the world" it said on the poster. Well - to a 16 year young kid, who had not done his homework before meeting Tati, it sure was bad. Next day, the local newspaper claimed, I had never had so much fun in one night, and the reading learned me a bit about why. Of course, I went again a week or so later, after first consulting the library, which only had very little to show me about this not very productive director. Allready this second viewing was much better, and during the three weeks, Play Time was shown, I saw it four times, every time seeing something new. -I was beginning to learn. A year or so later, PT was shown as a reissue in a suburb cinema - and now for the first time here in 70mm. -Now I learned more.
There was only one 70mm print available in Denmark, and at the time, I got my own cinema - and had it equipped (1974) for 70mm projection, the distribution rights had expired, and the print had been junked !! -A new 70mm print from Play Time never reached Denmark, unfortunately.
The lot of Tati films have had several reissues in Denmark since then, and I run them all every time, knowing that each time it will be with red numbers in the account books. The Tati fans are not many hereabout.
To say, as Michael Sceff, that making this film in 70 does not make sense, is not true imho. You must remember, that during the sixties, 70mm presentation was the only way to give the audience the six-track stereophonic sound, that is an ever so big part of this very film. You could have 4 track on a 35mm print, but in a much lesser quality.
Having done Play Time in the nineties, or today with the possibilities of digital sound, would have been something complete different, and even how much I would love to watch or even run the film in 70, I'm quite content with the latest reissue, offering restored 35mm prints with DTS 6-track digital sound. -In fact, the sound discs are the same, if You run 35 or 70mm Play Time newest generation. The sound is marvellous, and result quite close to the ultimate. Even being a 70mm fanatic, I'am afraid not many in the cinema will think about (or miss) 70mm.
After reading this blog, I will positively consider running Play Tíme again, before the actual license period expire.
See You all in the dark, when it really is pure magic: -In the company of M. Hulot !

All the best

Per Hauberg
Malling Bio, Denmark

Noel Vera said...

You own or manage your own theater? Ah, life.

Ingrid Hoeben said...

Thanks for writing this lovely article. And thanks for loving his works as much as I do.
Tati's themes were so universal - an individual at the sideline watching society 'deal' with technology, something called communication, etc. Because that is also in Les Vacances / Mon Oncle and these were a success. But I think it's about the package ànd story: even less (apparantely) is happening in PlayTime compared to the other ones. Classic narrative structures so not followed, and editing replaced by sounds & visuals: hard to find broad audiences liking it...This is the way he wanted to make the movie. So you see, an Academy Award is no key to longlife success.

For Hulot and Tati lovers to unite, I created this group on Facebook as an hommage. If you are interested, search for:
I'd like to be part of the Mr Hulot universe, even as a cardboard cut out.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. I think I joined it; if not, please let me know...

Jeremy Anaya Lemonnier said...

Best way to watch Tati is wasted.

Noel Vera said...

That's one way. Another is high.