Jacques Tati's "Playtime," like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "The Blair Witch Project" or "Russian Ark," is one of a kind, complete in itself, a species already extinct at the moment of its birth. Even Mr. Hulot, Tati's alter ego, seems to be wandering through it by accident. Instead of plot it has a cascade of incidents, instead of central characters it has a cast of hundreds, instead of being a comedy it is a wondrous act of observation. It occupies no genre and does not create a new one. It is a filmmaker showing us how his mind processes the world around him.
At the time of its making, "Playtime" (1967) was the most expensive film in French history. Tati filmed it in "Tativille," an enormous set outside Paris that reproduced an airline terminal, city streets, high rise buildings, offices and a traffic circle. It was the direct inspiration for "The Terminal," for which Stephen Spielberg built a vast set of a full-scale airline terminal.
Although Spielberg said he wanted to give Tom Hanks the time and space to develop elaborate situations like Tati serendipitously blundered through, he provided Hanks with a plot, dialogue and supporting characters. Tati made "Playtime" without a story, with dialogue (mostly in English) that is inaudible or disposable, and without a hero.
His film is about how humans wander baffled and yet hopeful through impersonal cities and sterile architecture. "Playtime" doesn't observe from anyone's particular point of view, and its center of intelligence resides not on the screen but just behind the camera lens. The most sympathetic person in the movie is a waiter who becomes a source for replacement parts. More about him later.
Tati filmed his movie in 70mm, that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable. He shot entirely in medium-long and long shots; no closeups, no reaction shots, no over the shoulder. He shows us the big picture all of the time, and our eyes dart around it to find action in the foreground, middle distance, background and half-offscreen. It is difficult sometimes to even know what the subject of a shot is; we notice one bit of business but miss others, and the critic Noel Burch wonders if "the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully."
"Playtime" is Rosenbaum's favorite film, and unlike many of its critics, he doesn't believe it's about urban angst or alienation. In a lovely passage, he writes: "It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform..."
Consider how this works in the extended opening scene. We see a vast, sterile concourse in a modern building. In the foreground, a solicitous wife is reassuring her husband that she has packed his cigarettes and pajamas, and he wearily acknowledges her concern. We understandably conclude that this is the waiting room of a hospital; a woman goes by seeming to push a wheelchair, and a man in a white coat looks doctor-like. Nuns march past in step, their wimples bobbing up and down in unison. Only slowly do these images reveal themselves as belonging to an airline terminal.
A tour group of American women arrives down an escalator. A clerk on a stool with wheels scoots back and forth to serve both ends of his counter. Impenetrable announcements boom from the sound system. Mr. Hulot's entrance is easy to miss; while babbling tourists fill the foreground, he walks into an empty space in the middle distance, drops his umbrella, picks it up and walks off again. The bang of the umbrella directs our eye to the action. The whole sequence is alert to sounds, especially the footfalls of different kinds of shoes and the flip-flops of sandals.
Looking and listening to these strangers, we expect to see more of Mr. Hulot, and we will, but not a great deal. Tati's famous character, often wearing a raincoat and hat, usually with a long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, always with pants too short and argyle socks, became enormously popular in the director's international hits "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Mon Oncle" (1958, winner of the Oscar for best foreign film).
But nearly 10 years passed before Tati found uncertain financing for the expensive "Playtime," and he wanted to move on from Hulot; to make a movie in which the characters might seem more or less equal and -- just as important -- more or less random, the people the film happens to come across.
"Mon Oncle" has an ultra-modern house as its setting, and in "Playtime," we enter a world of plate glass and steel, endless corridors, work stations, elevators, air conditioning. Hulot goes to call on a man in a modern office and is put on display in a glass waiting room, where he becomes distracted by the rude whooshing sounds the chair cushions make. He takes an elevator trip by accident. A man approaches the building guard to get a light for his cigarette and doesn't realize a glass wall separates them.
Glass walls are a challenge throughout the film; at one point, Hulot breaks a glass door and the enterprising doorman simply holds the large brass handle in midair and opens and closes an invisible door, collecting his tips all the same.
Other characters are mistaken for Hulot in the film, a double is used for him in some scenes, and Hulot encounters at least three old Army buddies, one of whom insists he visit his flat. This generates a wonderful scene; the apartment building has walls of plate-glass windows, and the residents live in full view of the street. We see four apartments at once, and in a sly visual trick, it eventually appears that a neighbor is watching Hulot's army buddy undress when she is actually watching the TV.
But to explain or even recount these moments is to miss the point. They aren't laugh-out-loud gags, but smiles or little shocks of recognition. The last long sequence in the film involves the opening night of a restaurant at which everything goes wrong, and the more it goes wrong, the more the customers are able to relax and enjoy themselves.
The sequence involves a multitude of running jokes, which simultaneously unfold at all distances from the camera; the only stable reference point is supplied by a waiter who rips his pants on the modern chairs and goes to hide behind a pillar. There he is implored by other waiters to lend them his clean towel, his untorn jacket, his shoes and his bowtie, until finally he is a complete mess, an exhibit of haberdashery mishaps.
Some characters stand out more than others. Hulot, of course. An attractive American woman. A loud American man. A short and deliberate little man. A long-suffering restaurant owner. A very drunk man. But scenes don't center on them; everyone swims with the tide. In "Mon Oncle," there is a magical scene where Hulot adjusts a window pane, and it seems to produce a bird song. In "Playtime," we are surrounded by modern architecture, but glass doors reflect the Eiffel Tower, the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre and the deep blue sky. The sight of the sky inspires "oohs" and "ahs" of joy from the tourists, as if they are prisoners and a window has been opened in their cell.
"Playtime" is a peculiar, mysterious, magical film. Perhaps you should see it as a preparation for seeing it; the first time won't quite work. The best way to see it is on 70mm, but that takes some doing (although a print is currently in circulation in North America). The Criterion DVD is crisp and detailed, and includes an introduction by Terry Jones, who talks about how the commercial failure of the film bankrupted Tati (1909-1982) and cost him the ownership of his home, his business and all of his earlier films. Was Tati reckless to risk everything on such a delicate, whimsical work? Reckless for you, reckless for me, not reckless for a dreamer.
"Playtime" is now playing in 70mm and DTS sound at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport.
Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1968) opens in a shiny space: nuns breeze past; a woman in a white uniform clacks through, bearing towels; a baby cries. People wait. The feeling is “hospital.” A second woman in white delivers towels, and we see that her destination is actually a restroom; then a flock of tourists invades and the tail fin of a jetliner glides past a window and we know we’re in an airport. The whole building has slipped on a disguise and then let it drop, but only we noticed. The bored travelers, the cleaner with nothing to clean, the woman with the dog hidden in her baggage—all are oblivious.
The mutability of the physical world is a big theme in visual comedy, from Chaplin’s transformation of an alarm clock into a tin of food, by sheer pantomimic effort of the imagination, to Buster Keaton’s battle with the shuffling landscapes of a recalcitrant movie narrative. Playtime can be read as an extended exploration of this power of transformation.
But listen: my own approach here is not a critically pure, disinterested one, should such a thing even be possible. As an occasional filmmaker myself, I’ve dabbled in visual comedy, so maybe my admiration for Tati has a flavor slightly different from that of the normal human. Anybody can enjoy a great juggler’s show, but another, lesser juggler has perhaps a sharper eye for the truly difficult feats. Of course, just because something is difficult doesn’t make it worth doing, so I’m also interested in the motivation behind Tati’s fabulous tricks.
Playtime covers a day, a night, and a morning in a studio-built Paris known to the film’s crew as Tativille, a name I shall use partly for its charm and partly to distinguish it from the real Paris, which it resembles so closely that some people wonder why Tati had to build it. By setting himself the task of fitting his gag sequences into roughly twenty-four hours, Tati was forcing himself to work in a fairly rigid frame, and he made his job still harder by avoiding all obvious jokes unless he could render them startling by pulling them off when least seen coming (Tati as Monsieur Hulot suddenly slips three times, unexpectedly, in the midst of long, slow sequences, and always recovers, equally unexpectedly, before full pratfall status is attained). Also, his gags are themed not only by the situations they play out in but according to an unstated pattern.
The opening hospital-airport confusion sets the tone for the film’s first movement, a purgatorial comedy of frustration in which the people of Tativille are beset by problems brought about by the unergonomic design of the city and the universe’s tendency to put on false faces to confuse and deceive. Attempting to meet a business associate, Hulot becomes lost in a labyrinth of office cubicles, in which the sole landmark is a receptionist who further perplexes him by swivelling through 360 degrees, so that each time he sees her his internal map is altered. Later, he spots his associate and sets off in pursuit, unaware that he’s chasing the man’s reflection in the glass frontage of the next building.
A little more than halfway through Playtime, Tati slowly reverses the pattern of perplexity, allowing the characters to become aware of the world’s capacity for transformation and letting them take control of it. The process begins with the introduction of the Royal Garden Restaurant, which is built, opens, and collapses on the same night.
We first see the restaurant from outside, where a crowd gathers to watch a team of glaziers move a huge sheet of plate glass into position. As the men advance sideways, shifting their hands to grip the glass, some onlookers hum an Egyptian dance tune, and this accompaniment transforms the workmen into animated figures from a hieroglyphic frieze. Already, the idea of conscious transformation is in effect. Meanwhile, Tati blunders into his long-lost associate while the man is walking his dog, and their business is swiftly concluded in this informal setting.
A loud American tourist is introduced, and seems to be something of a boor. Yet his insistence on sitting at the restaurant table he likes, as opposed to the one he has reserved, is an early clue to his desire to make the world work. So when the restaurant falls apart around his ears, he’s the first to see it as an opportunity for enjoyment. A collapsing ceiling cordons off part of the room, and he uses the imprints left on the diners’ backs by the poorly designed chairs to determine who will be allowed entrance to his private establishment. Soon he has his own music playing, and everybody is having a whale of a time.
What blows me away is how Tati finds the perfect, unanticipatable gags for each situation, fitting the joke not only to the particular place and character but to the journey from strife to pleasure.
My own limited experience is that the hardest task for the gag writer, the one that has you beating your head against the softest available wall, is to come up with specific jokes that deliver essential plot points, or exploit essential situations, or serve a particular tonal need, or build on previous gags. Tati’s gags do all of the above, all of the time. While his plot is slender to the point of deniability, there is nevertheless a sequential structure to the film. The transition from jokes about failure and frustration to jokes about imaginative transformation (or “play”) isn’t instant, so he’s allowed to mix the two, but the giving way of discomfort to joy is modulated with amazing dexterity.
There are two ways to come up with visual gags. One is by picturing the scene in your head as you sit with pen and paper, or computer. The other is by interacting with the physical objects and space of the scene itself. The silent comedians generally started with the former, producing a brief synopsis, but relied heavily on the latter to shape the action of their stories. Tati preferred to do the same, and that is why Tativille had to be built. To direct scores of actors at a time (always by showing them what to do), and build up their little story lines, immaculately interwoven, would take time, and the real Paris and its airport could not be closed down for months. In a way, Tati’s first draft of his screenplay was his made-to-order city, specially designed to offer certain comic possibilities, and his second draft was the shoot itself, in which a comic revolution overturned the city and made it into a nursery.