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 involving years of work and elaborate sets (Tati literally built a small town nicknamed 'Tativille' made up of glass buildings (one of which contained a fully working escalator), roadways, a power plant, a traffic signaling system controlling it all), and both have as theme the at times antagonistic relationship between man and technology (machines and computers for Kubrick, architecture and design for Tati), and eventual human transcendence.

In 2001 we have brute man discovering technology (promptly picking up said technology and bashing someone's head in), developing it for centuries (the passage of time expressed in a single spectacular cut), ultimately allowing said technology to transform him into a machinelike parody of himself; in Playtime Tati echoes that process with humans dressed largely in grey or beige, walking in predictable straight lines. In 2001 Kubrick inserts traces of humanity--jokes about chicken sandwiches, a demanding distracted daughter; in Playtime Tati's Hulot lookalike drops his umbrella, the clatter rolling across some indeterminate hall--it's only when we see a passing tailfin do we realize we're in an airport--like a sacrilegious cough.

Tati shows dehumanization in I submit subtler ways. Kubrick sets his world in the future, in outer space, where technology naturally holds dominion; Tati presents a more familiar world, a banal setting we gradually realize is as alien as Kubrick's--perhaps even more so, because we've been lulled into the assumption of familiarity, only to have that assumption yanked from under us.

Take the waiting room: Hulot is invited with a wave and enters through an open door; when the door closes Tati cuts to a long shot that views the room glass walls and all surrounded by a cacophony of traffic noises. Funny sight, though why it's so may not be immediately apparent. Eventually, associations kick in--Hulot resembles an animal in a cage, or a laboratory specimen, or a fish in an aquarium, something to look at or observe while cut off from the world (to add insult to injury portraits of unknown men--elderly European executives we assume--line the glass walls glaring down at him). It's not what Hulot does--waiting in a waiting room--that's funny; it's Tati's framing of the room (from a distance and angle one usually associates with zoo exhibits--the traffic sounds only serve to emphasize his isolation).

And then there's that chair. Plenty of details in Playtime but what gets me is that plastic and metal creation, a running gag that grows less funny--or grows funnier but in a less comfortable way--the more you think about it. The cushions squeal and emit vulgar sounds; they bounce back when squeezed or pushed. The furniture presumably represents the ultimate in fireproof waterproof stainproof rip-proof wrinkleproof material, an amusing notion till you realize that an entire city made of this stuff can house millions of people for hundreds of years, after which no trace or proof of our habitation will remain. We make every effort to make our machines invulnerable, to mark the very world with our technology (Tati seems to say to us) that we forget to leave sign of our own more organic presence behind.

Love the escalator shot where Hulot, his eyes on Mr. Giffard as he descends from the second floor, loses sight of the man when approaching ground level (the shot feels like a wordless instruction on how to view the movie, alluding to the claim that you get a different image--a different film altogether--depending on the angle and distance from which you view the screen). Love that when the Americans arrive they first visit a pavilion selling the latest tech ("and so American!" one of them exclaims)--an all too recognizable foible even today (when Filipinos hit a foreign city, for example, they first visit the shopping malls), and strangely pointless considering the trend towards uniformity and featurelessness represented by Tativille.

Tati's city is both a dream and a nightmare, with much of its unsettling beauty derived from its streamlined blankness--the perfect background against which to stage an epic minimalist comedy. The film looks twice as big with twice the details, thanks to the huge expanses of reflective glass--as if Tati had shot it twice, double-exposing the negative to achieve a constantly superimposed effect. It's a city full of 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; the slablike buildings of Paris reproduced in posters for London, Mexico, Stockholm (ultimately recalling Kubrick's enigmatic monolith) reflected against gleaming floors windows walls; Hulot himself reflected everywhere in a series of lookalikes (at one point Hulot and his lookalike grab at a pole in a bus to steady themselves, and the pole turns out to be a lamppost being hand-delivered across town).

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 an antigravity toilet (echoed in a scene in Playtime where a porter tries to operate a bewilderingly vast intercom system)); the most ironic lines however are reserved for HAL, who subverts the notion of an emotionless, humorless, unimaginative machine. Call Tati's Hulot the human equivalent of HAL: he subverts 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 fine dining establishment 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, snapping the narrative into focus. The forces of chaos, content to pop up throughout the film's first hour, take over the restaurant in the second: tiles pop out, lights fail, electrical circuitry sputter and spark; 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" stamped on Peter Lorre's back!) Some gags are spectacular, such as the destruction wreaked by Hulot as he grabs for a hanging decor; others are subtler (and in my opinion funnier) such as the column located in the middle of the main entranceway, perfectly placed to force everyone to walk around or bump into.

If there's a difference between The Royal Garden dinner and HAL's uprising it's this: Tati thinks the restaurant's descent into drunken entropy and dissolution is a good thing (for Kubrick the chaos serves to awaken astronaut David Bowman's sense of self), humanity reasserting its prerogatives, Tati taking revenge on his elaborately constructed creation, down to the little instant bistro that literally drops out of nowhere, a ready-made symbol 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. 



Anonymous 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.

Anonymous 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.

Unknown 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...

Unknown said...

Best way to watch Tati is wasted.

Noel Vera said...

That's one way. Another is high.