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.