Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Playtime

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1967.

The cinema is loud. Not just your Hollywood blockbusters, I’m not talking about your Star Wars and your Die Hard, but rather your 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wild Strawberries. There are many calls to action, so many tragedies, studies, commentaries, epics, and films otherwise fraught with portent and even more that aspire to such loftiness. Now surely there are at least as many films with trivial messages or none whatsoever (the cotton candy of the cinema.) Yet the "loud" movies think they are important and want to convince us, appealing to us by educating, dumbfounding, terrifying, confusing, or shocking us. Playtime of course has an intellectual purpose as well, but Tati does not beat us over the head with it. To understand Playtime one does not need to wade through a Joycean array of symbols, attend to a lecture on the ills of society, or submit to an anguishing cinematic experience. Such is precisely why Playtime catches us by such surprise, because it appeals to us by most rare means: subtlety and charm.

What is it about? The scholarly and academic answer is that Playtime is about how technology and newfangled gadgetry, modernist architecture, and city planning isolate and alienate us from our neighbors. In this line of thinking, Playtime is a scathing critique. That is a rather misleading answer. Another director might have seen the same effects in the same places on the same people that Jacques Tati saw and made a "loud" movie, but not Jacques Tati. The tone of Playtime is not, “Good God man, look what we’re doing to ourselves! We must stop! The humanity! Alas, alack!” Nor is its theme even quite specific as the academic jargon above, but something more general and more personal, rather like taking a gander at a new building and saying , “Hmm. I remember when things were all open and we just kind of mingled. When did these come up? I get in how? How odd. Well I’ll give it a whirl. Uh oh, well I seem to have left something outside. What do you mean I can’t get back out? What a funny situation I am in, no? Why did you build this again?”

Still we would be remiss not to discuss the physical world of the film which does much of the characterizing of urban life. The world is clean, but to the point of sterility. The cars flow in smooth traffic patterns like clockwork or a circus circle. Lights blink neurotically and obnoxious buzzers jar the ear. There is much glass, but it does not function to let you observe something pleasant on the other side that an opaque wall would have blocked, rather it serves to cut you off, usually from someone you want to talk to. This is a central theme of the movie, communication, specifically how our supposedly efficient designs sometimes make it more difficult and less personal. Take the scene when, against all odds, Mr. Hulot runs into an old friend who invites him into his apartment. The focus of course is on the “stuff”: the apartment, its view, the television, the lamp, the projector and so on. Mr. Hulot does not so much reconnect with his old friend so much get a tour of his junk. The viewer, however, has a grand time with this scene, since we see what the people are missing. Just on the other side of the wall, the couple is watching television, staring intently at the very spot Hulot and his friend are looking at, just on the other side. Not only that, but it’s the man Hulot accidentally hit this afternoon. Then as the cars go by, it is not just any bus that passes but the tour bus carrying the folks from the airport Mr. Hulot passed earlier in the day. All of these near-acquaintances are buzzing about each other, but cut off just ever so slightly.

The film’s last scene is surely the jolliest and occupies the entire last hour of the movie. It concerns the opening of a fancy new restaurant, an opening which proceeds to go as far awry as possible. In this scene, though, everyone is together in one big room. They are sitting at different tables, of course, but what isolates them is only their ignoring each other. People are cut off, but not by their surroundings. They are free to interact if they wish, but they do not yet realize it. Then when things start to go wrong, people are jostled about and brought together. A great big party erupts, and every further mishap and accident at the restaurant turns into another eclectic addition to the impromptu celebration. In the wee hours of the morning the patrons stumble out and go their separate ways, a little buzzed and a little befuddled about the evening. What happened? They interacted with and got to know their neighbors in a way they had not expected, all because everything went wrong and they were free to play. The "loud movie" answer is that our happiness lies in chaos, and in not making plans, and that we do not have and should not want any control over matters. Such is not the point of this scene, rather it is that sometimes we sap the less obvious joys from life without realizing, and a plan going a little awry can be an opportunity to rediscover those joys. Sure we are often isolated, but only just so. Like the patrons in the restaurant we are free to act, and sometimes just a little disorder might remind us of that (and jazz things up a little too.)

The movie nonetheless ends on a wistful note. The morning after the party, as Mr. Hulot buys a scarf for a young woman he has been trying to get to know, the tour bus is prepared to leave outside the shop and she runs to catch it. He has paid for scarf, but the party is over and the rules are in full force again, which means he is stuck behind the register line because he is not “allowed” to exit via any space other than the “out” aisle, which is blocked. He gets her the scarf, but indirectly. The task is performed, and he conveys his kindness to the girl who is very pleased, but the act is robbed of just a little of its humanity. Not enough to make Hulot shout, not enough to make us weep, but just enough to make us all sigh.

It is not all disaster and horror when Mr. Hulot gets lost amidst a maze of corporate corridors or trapped on the wrong side of a pane of glass, although it is a little sad when he cannot himself give the young lady the scarf he bought for her. The result is that we realize as Hulot does that he really does not fit in this micromanaged little world. Perhaps we do not either, perhaps no one does. Perhaps it is a little too coarse to be pleasant, a little too clean to want to touch, and a little too predictable to want to play in. It is not horrible, but it is far from delightful, and considering we made it, why did we make it like this? How odd.

To learn more about Jacques Tati and his films, and to see stills from Playtime and hear some of its music, visit delightful Tativille.

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