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.