Film and Television Features

Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)

As Jacques Tati’s first widescreen picture and anomalous adventure set in a spaciously sterile, almost alien, urban Parisian landscape, Play Time signifies change.  The film conceptually captures a future that is less imbued with a raw criticism or reverence but more of an unusually delicate and kindly comical waltz in ode to humanity.  The consistent medium-to-long shot camera framing also seems to approach objectivity in the spectacularly ambitious 70mm format, which is favorable for Tati’s choice lack of close-ups.  This distant-shooting is also advantageous, as it allows the camera to observe human interaction and folly without an invasive heavy-handedness.  Of course, while Play Time may certainly be enjoyed as lighter entertainment today, it was more of a revolutionary exercise during the year of its release in 1967.  Essayist Kent Jones discusses its alarmingly new take on cinema, most recognizably as a departure (though not entirely) from Tati’s former signature character, Monsieur Hulot, the well-intentioned, sleuth-looking, accidental oaf.  Hulot remains in the film, but he becomes a peripheral marker and a mere wanderer within the crowds of opulent tourists (including a few cleverly planted imposters of himself) and daunting architecture.   The relationship between humanity and its edifices shines well yet enigmatically; the film purports that inhabitants of an environment reflect it and vice versa.  Vertically imposing blue-grays encased in glass or monochromic walls consume the bulk of cinematic space.  The archetype for this modernized architecture in the film was the newly built Esso Tower in the La Défense Business District in Paris, a glass, sleekly industrial stack-shaped design of domineering height.  Moreover, Jones highlights the conscious detachment from a single character-narrative, which is primarily unraveled through Tati’s radical implementation of foreground and background.  In Play Time, it’s almost as if there is no distinction.  Every minute detail and person is intentional.  The film’s leisurely pace is illusory and can be accredited to its lack of conventional plot to the casual observer, but the roving series of incidents are also layered with dueling conversations and witty, synchronized visual comedy involving a life of modernity – human movement, newfangled gadgetry, neon signs, glass panes, etc.  Considering the deep focus that illuminates background that is ordinarily obscured, Tati has said, “Look about you, and you’ll see there’s always something funny happening.”  Play Time remains a quintessential film for repeated viewings.

During a pleasantly chance encounter with critic Kristin Thompson last December in Madison, Wisconsin, she proposed the immense spectacle of Play Time was optimally viewed on a large projector screen.  Lacking familiarity with the director’s work at the time, her initial notion was somewhat puzzling, but I took note of her words, which are further justified by French film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum.  In the essay “The Dance of Playtime,” he writes, “...There’s something inappropriate and contrary to Tati’s design for the film about its being viewed in private spaces, especially on any screen smaller than oneself.  Playtime assumes a precise contiguity and continuity with the public space of a theater.”  Rosenbaum’s comments recall an experience similar to a musical performance in an orchestrated venue.  Despite the imposing verticality and spaciousness, the film feels kinetically designed, a literal work-in-progress. A communal experience therefore augments the relationship between the film’s inhabitants and cinema-goers, creating a distinct mirroring of human response.  He concludes, “...We’re all laughing to some degree at ourselves, and the sense of mutual recognition is crucial.”  By watching the feature on a smaller screen at home, a defining element has been regrettably lost.  Perhaps this justifies arguments against the new wave of streaming portable media; there are some characteristics of cinema that cannot be properly replicated outside of a theatreRosenbaum’s acute eye draws Play Time’s visual identity to two renaissance paintings of Pieter Bruegel The Elder (also a touchstone in Tarkovsky’s Solyaris) – “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and The Procession to Cavalry” – through the ideology of “life and history unfold in a plethora of small, almost indiscernible details.”  If this also substantiates the idea of the optimum public screening without the ability to rewind or jump forward, Play Time then documents a unique moment and a sense of ‘real time’ as reminder to devote undivided attention to the depth of the screen.  But despite this urgency and sense of the community in Play Time, there’s a darker and more sordid history to the construction of its massive outdoor set nicknamed ‘Tativille’ that isolates it as the most expensive French film to-date (in ’67).  Desiring complete control over this exclusive entity, Tati lost large investments, which further stalled production.  The mere impractical existence of the set-piece facilitated comical visions of Tati presiding over his own personal playground, corresponding to the film’s title but opposite democratic focus.

While the absence of an identifiable Paris in the foreseeable future may be Play Time’s grandly sad statement, Tati’s set morphs the city into a funhouse.  In the Criterion introduction, critic Terry Jones notes the Parisian landmarks are reduced to reflections in doors and windows.  For example, a quarter of the way through the film, when the photo-happy American tourist Barbara is ushered into the trade exhibition, the Eiffel Tower can be momentarily glimpsed on the glass pane of the entrance door.  It is framed like an immaculate glowing postcard, which forces Barbara to pause for a moment before she is sucked into the utter novelty of the glass eyesore of a building.  In this short sequence, Tati provides a fundamental example of the ‘Old Paris’ becoming peripheral and marginalized due to the modern world’s obstruction.  If Tati is trying to set an example of coexistence through his choice medium, Kent Jones also recognizes the director’s odd fondness for architectural evolution by writing, “(Tati) needed to convey not just the texture of these new spaces but also their scope in order to demonstrate exactly how they would house that most precious of all resources, human individuality.”  Citing Play Time to substantiate the relationship between individuality and this modernity seems somewhat dubious, however.  The most recognizable person in the film is M. Hulot, a resident of the Old Paris, who is jumbled amongst his imposters and flocks of American tourists dressed in an unspoken code.  Their collective presence can be characterized as a brand of uniformity, seemingly inherent to the newness represented.  An identity crisis can be carried further in Jones’ intriguingly conclusive remarks about the film “heroically unwilling to distinguish between the functional and the frivolous.”  Jones’ quote finds a strange relevance within the Italian historical fantasy novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (that I happened to be reading upon watching), published just five years after Play Time.  The short novel exhibits significant stylistic differences, but both works pair ideas of fantastical architecture, the minutiae of lifestyle, and the attention to spatial properties of objects and people.   The ‘Continuous Cities’ section in chapter seven resonates most strongly; a fictional representation of Venetian traveler Marco Polo describes the ‘invisible’ city of Leonia, a place obsessed with modernity that seeks to discard the old and cleanse itself.  A giant load of refuse accumulates on its outskirts and continues to grow, “submerging the city in its own past, which it has tried in vain to reject…”  One must wonder if Tati’s novel vision of Paris will suffer the same fate.  Is there hope in returning to Old Paris?  Will the two harmoniously persist in a strange convergence?  With Play Time, Tati satires, adores, and portends change.