Friday, May 13, 2011


For some people Jacques Tati's PlayTime (1967) is a huge disappointment.  (A famous commercial failure, it bankrupted Tati, costing him his house and even the rights to his own films.)  For other people it's their favorite film.  The confusion is (and always been) how are we supposed to watch it?  As Roger Ebert points out, in many shots you don't know what you're supposed to be seeing.  And the movie--almost free of dialogue, and what little there is muffled in favor of naturalistic sound effects--is designed to dumbfound its audience--and perhaps awaken it to deeper perceptions of the modern world?  Who knows.  Perhaps it's only a throwback to the elaborate sight gags of the silent era--back when, before sound, it didn't matter to audiences whether a movie was French or English.

You have to expect the unexpected--and accept that the film is going to catch you with your guard down.  What appears for quite a long time to be a hospital turns out to be an airport terminal.  Characters--ostensibly principal characters--are introduced in the background of crowd scenes--and ultimately disappear back into the masses--without a trace--or, to be accurate, with a faint trace if, in previous scenes, their actions (and humanity) warrant it.  A movie that is at least partly about the city of Paris, PlayTime (the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release) was shot on a gigantic set outside Paris--all the more remarkable because the "set" includes an airport, several city streets, a huge exposition of some sort, and a climactic, carousel-like traffic circle.  The only glimpses of Paris landmarks--the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe--are reflections in large plate glass store windows and glass doors.  Watching the film for the first time is all the more difficult on TV, instead of a giant wide screen, for which it was designed. 

At the time of its release, Tati helpfully explained that the movie is meant to be a movie from another planet, where movies are made differently.  In the intro to the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, Terry Jones points out that the film is constantly teasing its audience with "false Hulots" (M. Hulot being Tati's trademark character in his more commercially successful films, Mr. Hulot's Holiday and My Uncle)--lookalikes dressed in trenchcoats and hats and carrying pipes and umbrellas--of different nationalities and races--so our eye is tricked into looking places that other movies try to draw our attention away from--for instance, backgrounds and the left side of the frame.  It's also worth noting that buildings, no less than people, are the "characters" in this film--but you'd have to see the film to fully understand how that might work.

Jones also notes that, if My Uncle depicts the destruction of the old France (world) and its replacement by a modern one, in PlayTime the old world has already been demolished.  The question the movie puts forth, though, is what kind of humanity (in all the word's shades of meaning) inhabits the new world?  Interestingly, unlike Kubrick's 2001, where human characters are less "human" than the machines, PlayTime shows the human spirit very much alive--in its curiosity about the world, its ability to make the best of hard and confusing times, and, mostly, its ability to draw people together--to connect--despite a sterile, colorless, and alienating environment created by no doubt well-meaning architects.

To enjoy PlayTime, which runs just over two hours (a bit long for comedy), you have to appreciate its ambitious comic choreography.  You have to let go of characterization and plot, as inappropriate to the film's spirit, at least--perhaps tellingly as inappropriate to modernity, as well.  Ebert notes--and I think he is right--that the only way to prepare yourself for watching PlayTime is to already have watched it at least once before--not too many movies you can say that of.  Several bloggers and commenters I've read, who discuss the movie, say pretty much the same thing--that they were unimpressed and frustrated by the movie on first viewing, but enchanted by it when, for whatever reasons, they saw it again (and again).

Watching the movie on DVD this afternoon, I felt the movie's depiction of huge glass-encased offices, where everything can be seen but little can be understood, and tiny cubicles that splice and dice living space was not just reflective of Tati's dismay at the boxy architecture of the late twentieth century but predictive too of the twenty-first century's virtual environments.  Moving from the movie to Facebook and then to my Blogger home page, with their clean lines and Apple-inspired sense of style, was, for me, a jarring and illuminating experience.

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