Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky also spent three years building a city and filming a huge comic epic, but then he ran out of Legos and couldn't finish.
Our review of Playtime: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published August 18th, 2009, is also available.
"I find uniformity unpleasant."—Jacques Tati
Criterion double-dips the sweetest confection from France's master mime, Jacques Tati. It is more fun than a barrel of Hulots.
Facts of the Case
Welcome, visitor, to Paris. We hope you enjoy the clean, modern amenities of Orly Airport. Tourists are always the most favored patrons of our gleaming city. So enjoy our lovely offices with their precise cubicles, our spacious apartments with their massive windows for your viewing pleasure, and our fancy restaurants with their impeccable service. Our city is all about the modern, filled with chrome and glass and twinkling electric lights. You never have to worry about nature here, with its plants and bugs—we have all that tamed. This Paris is civilized. You may find yourself so enthralled by our civilized behavior that you may have no time to visit our famous landmarks. That is no problem—you can always see them reflected in our many windows.
Oh, who is that rumpled man over there? He doesn't belong here. They tell me his name is Hulot, and he seems to have wandered in from…well, I really don't know where. No, you—sir? Don't touch that! You'll leave your fingerprints—oh, now you've done it. You've marked up our perfect city. And now look: there is another Hulot, getting off that bus. And another coming out of that office. And another. And…
This would be a perfect city—if it weren't for all the damned people.
Playtime begins with a sequence at a gleaming airport of the future. Well, really, it is supposed to be Orly Airport. But can you blame anyone for thinking this is the future? It is geometrically precise, altogether perfect in an architectural sense. Patrons wander out from various angles, walk in straight lines, then turn crisply in some other direction. Everyone is going somewhere—and yet we seem to be going nowhere. We know none of them. Who is that nurse? Where have those tourists been? Are those the same nuns walking that way, their wimples fluttering like bird wings, that we just saw walking the other way? And who are all those men in rumpled raincoats?
They all appear to be M. Hulot, the genial clown of Jacques Tati's films M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle. But most of them are not Tati. Are they false Hulots, signs of an urban landscape immersed in simulation? Are they all Hulots, signs of the interchangeability of the city dweller? Are we to see them all as personalities—or depersonalized?
Whew. The film has barely started, and it appears more a work of abstract art than a narrative. And that is entirely the confusion that people tend to feel when they watch Playtime. You smile at its humor, but there is always a sense of unease. Something is just not right here, but I keep searching and cannot find what it is.
Perhaps Jacques Tati was in the same boat when he made Playtime, judging from its endless production. Tati created the film in the wake of his international success with M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle. This was to be his epic, his farewell to his signature character. Tati's stated goal for the film was to "defend the people" in the face of imposing architecture. He wanted to avoid close-ups, attempting to "democratize the comedy" as film scholar Gavin Millar remarks. In the film's first half, people are separated, split up among cubicles and apartments. By the second half, the city's architecture, in the form of a collapsing nightclub and over dinner (where else?), people start to come together and play. Night time is when the resistance comes out. Right angles become circles by the film's finale.
To create this inorganic city, Tati could not use any real city—certainly not Paris (which is much messier in real life than Tati's modernist vision of it). So he built one. A gigantic playground of a city, with office buildings (in forced perspective), restaurants and cafes, shops and parking lots. It became known as "Tativille," much to his chagrin, and to pay for it, Tati mortgaged nearly everything he owned. This was his Babylon, where he could reign as benevolent tyrant. For three years, Tati worked the inhabitants of Tativille like they were building his monument to the ages. Rumors crept out of the set: that Tati would play every part himself, then would tell the cast simply to imitate him for the cameras; that Tati would fire crewmembers for merely talking about sports during their breaks, rather than focusing entirely on the filmmaking.
Well, we know all about Babylon, right? It served as the inspiration for the tale of the Tower of Babel. The release of Playtime met with lukewarm response in Europe—and could not find an American distributor at all. Audiences and critics demanded the film be trimmed to highlight M. Hulot, whose limited presence in the longer cuts of the film annoyed fans. The film was edited and reedited and reedited again, but each time to diminishing favor. Tati's career was destroyed. Tativille, rather than serving as a permanent film set that could be rented out by the studio to recoup costs, fell into ruins almost as revenge for Tati's hubris. Chastened and bankrupt, Tati puttered halfheartedly through two more films (the return of Hulot in Traffic and a collection of mimed sketches for television called Parade). The failure of Playtime became legend: one of those brilliant and ambitious disasters—Intolerance and The Magnificent Ambersons come to mind—that derail their creators. Films less about their artists than about how artists can lose control. People sort of forgot about the movie itself.
Over the years, the film picked up its supporters. Somebody liked it. Well, okay—I like it. It is my favorite movie. There, I said it. In all fairness, it is difficult at first to explain why. I do not find Tati as funny as other directors. The film makes me smile, but rarely do I laugh. Playtime does not have quite so many layers to it as a film that I might, say, teach to a class. Actually, I suspect most of my students would probably find the film baffling. But every time I put Playtime into my DVD player, I am hypnotized by it. I cannot look away. It is like watching fish in an aquarium. I am soothed by the complexity of movement, the surprising arrangements of organic life against the static architecture. When I watch fish swim in and out of the plastic plants, the fake tikis and skulls that provide the internal architecture of their tank, I wonder, Where are they going? Is each creature in the tank aware of the others? Did that fish turn to the left on his own volition, or because that fish over there turned to the right? But sometimes, I think nothing at all. I just watch the motion, the abstract relationship between the static objects and the living organisms. In Playtime, everything in Tati's frame is crucial: characters are always moving through nooks and crannies in the background. Tati uses the edges of the frame, reflections, little blinking lights. You never know what is going to move next, and the unexpected combinations are invariably surprising. And because the film avoids pinning down a narrative or developed characters, it becomes abstract. It can be about whatever I am thinking as I watch it.
Playtime lacks much in the way of plot. Hulot comes to the city for a business meeting. Meanwhile, a group of American tourists, most prominently Barbara (Barbara Dennek) wander from place to place, in search of Parisian landmarks which they can only see reflected in windows. Through the course of the day, nothing of consequence much happens to anyone, and Hulot and Barbara only briefly cross paths. Everything takes place within a twenty-four hours period, culminating with Barbara's exit from the city on a tour bus. But really, the characters are not the stars here. The film's actual focus is on people as a group rather than as individuals. Humanity itself is the protagonist. Its antagonist is the city, the physical avatar of civilization, the crystal palace that celebrates modernity.
In lieu of plot, Playtime moves through time as if, well, in a state of play. We spend a day following Hulot and Barbara during their drift among the buildings of Tativille. We visit an office, where Hulot tries vainly to connect with a potential employer. We wander the aisles of a new product show, where the latest modern conveniences are reduced to banality. Hulot meets up with an old army buddy whose apartment is more fishbowl than haven. In the film's longest and most sublime sequence, we spend the night in a new restaurant, where the service—and the architecture itself—progressively unravels, much to the delight of the patrons. Consider the image here of Hulot holding up that piece of lattice: right angles break apart into more organic shapes. The restaurant, designed originally to separate patrons, unfolds to create a new, spontaneous area where all can mingle freely.
This moment encapsulates the real story of Playtime. Order, structure, precision—the creations of human civilization—are subject to entropy. They erode, becoming curves and circles. Humans themselves are partly to blame. We may pretend to be orderly, but by nature we are also wanderers, nomads, following our whims and desires. Tativille is a city of desire—as Barbara's wanderlust and romantic fantasies attest—but all that desire is rigidly controlled and channeled into "useful," "civilized" packages. Chaos and motion are rendered static. But this can only last so long. We get twitchy. Like tourists, we long to travel. And the motion of so many individuals, like the movement of water through a canyon, wears the city down.
This is one reason why Tati focuses less on specific and individual stories and more on lots of people moving in many directions at once. These agitated, molecular people are all in transit, sometimes bumping into one another, sometimes into the architecture itself. Their collective motion is what counters the rigidity of the modern city. Not that a single individual cannot make a difference: we see singular characters (a boisterous American in the restaurant, Hulot and Barbara, Hulot's army buddy) forcing the course of the day along new trajectories. Each individual creates ripples—and collectively those ripples become turbulence. And even in the stolid, stable environment of the city, this turbulence can be felt.
Much of Playtime's humor arises out of these ripples, these slight violations of propriety. Hulot sits in on a chair cushion that noisily inflates every time he stands up. The noise itself is inappropriate, especially right under the nose of an imposing portrait of a corporate bigwig. At the trade show, a door salesman cannot operate the locks on his own modern doors. Nature and history are quaint and contained: a streetcorner flower kiosk, a woman selling trash cans disguised as ruined Greek columns, reflections in windows of the Eiffel Tower and other Paris landmarks, distant like dreams. In one long routine, apartment dwellers, each trapped in an aquarium frame, acts unconsciously in front of their televisions, but the angle makes it appear (as with the man in the photo doing a striptease) as if they are performing for the neighbors. Public and private space collapses into unexpected configurations. Bodies move within fixed spaces, bouncing around and creating new patterns. In all of this, it becomes clear that Tati does not hate Tativille. Quite the contrary: the city is beautiful in a clean, slick way. It is a fascinating playground of modern design, but it seems to fight its inhabitants. The two forces need to find a compromise.
Tati himself is pure body in the film: lanky and flexible, he is motion without direction or intent. Even Tati's physical movements as Hulot look like arbitrary, nervous dance movements that flit this way and that. In Playtime, the body drifts, an agent of chaos sliding amidst the fixed architecture of the city. The organic is unpredictable and random—the physical architecture tries to steer it. In this sense, Playtime is really an abstract film, an attempt to capture something like that old computer game Life. Remember that one, where the organisms multiplied, their course affected by the spatial architecture on screen and their collisions with one another? This is Playtime at a glance: the organic grows, movies, proliferates. Collisions with the landscape and other organisms affect the trajectory of each creature, but otherwise its movements are unpredictable. We are never sure where Hulot is trying to go, what Barbara wants to see next. Even the cars in the final ballet, the ultimate fusion of organism and machine, stop and start, oozing sporadically through the cycle of the roundabout, their final destination unknown.
It is no wonder that Tati tried to retire the Hulot character: by Playtime, the individual personality has lost its structure for him. Structure is extrinsic. It is all out there in the world. The inner world is pure, undifferentiated play. There is no Hulot that exists as a separate entity. Hulot becomes the avatar of that pure play that exists in every organic subject. He is the resistance to structure, the aimless flowing force that bumps up against glass doors and bureaucrats. Toward his death, he was planning an ambitious follow-up to his failed Playtime, aptly dubbed Confusion. But real chaos caught up with him, as the continuing debts and critical backlash against that collapsed masterpiece derailed his career, health, and reputation for good. At least in the short term, Tativille won the battle. But the thing about structure and flow is that erosion and (what is the opposite of erosion when new things build up) are always in play. Structures transform, even as individual agents of change seem to have no short term effect. The city will fall (even if only to be replaced by another city). Hulot will continue.
In a famous stage routine from his early days as a mime, Tati used to take the organicism to its extreme. He would play both horse and rider, becoming what Collette described (upon seeing the performance) as a "centaur." It is a strange experience—not only because we are no longer used to watching such pantomime—to see Tati switch between the horse's prancing movements and (whenever he doffs his hat to the audience) the rider's bravado. It isn't particularly funny, but it is like watching a strange ballet set to circus music instead of a stuffy classical piece. I think this is where Tati's talents are most egregiously misrepresented. The silent comedians, with some notable exceptions (think Chaplin's skating routine in Modern Times) plotted their movements to fill out a scene, since they could not choreograph to music most of the time. The great dancers of the Hollywood musical era, with some notable exceptions (say, most of Singin' in the Rain) took themselves very seriously in their elegance and poise, even when trying to do "lighter" numbers, and their movements usually seemed too calculated. With Tati, while the movements were preplanned, they always come across as spontaneous, dancing with no choreography in mind. The dancer is an other whose motives and direction are barely discernible—and we have no idea what is coming next. It is the surprise that lies at the heart of Tati's comedy. What is he going to do next?
The closest comparison I can make, if you have never seen Tati before, might be to Chaplin at his best (that is, his least maudlin and most unselfconscious): the aforementioned skating scene in Modern Times, the tightrope walk with a horde of monkeys in The Circus. Yes, Chaplin would do dozens, even hundreds, of takes to get those scenes perfect—but the results always look completely spontaneous, like pure luck. And perhaps it is the ultimate testament to pure luck that Playtime, for all its disasters and conflicts and audience resistance, still manages to come together as a mad, playful masterpiece.
Criterion has made this underappreciated film available before, as part of a trio of Tati releases a few years back. But Playtime went out of print, and its re-release was delayed for a long time. And finally, it is back. The old single-disc release was slightly cropped, ran just under two hours, and included an introduction by Terry Jones and a short film ("Cours du Soir"). The new release is spread over two discs.
The Terry Jones introduction has been carried over on Disc One, where the feature resides, but this disc looks nothing like the previous release. This new Playtime has been polished to a shine. Longer (by four minutes), with a remixed stereo soundtrack, with a noticeably crisper and color-corrected picture—what's not to like here? The image has a warmer, slightly bluer hue, and Tati's almost visceral shot composition benefits from the enhanced image. After all, in a film that lacks close-ups, where every character and object is crucial to the frame (and equal in the eyes of the director), the sharpness of the picture is paramount. This is a case where Criterion has made the double-dip worth the extra expense. While I was impressed by the film's visual qualities before, I never even knew the half of it. It was like being amazed at a masterpiece in the Louvre, only to discover I was watching it through an cheesecloth the whole time and never seeing it in its pristine state. Before, I was merely impressed. This new Playtime is a shock.
Rather than a complete film commentary, Criterion gets the point that not all film scholars have something to say about every frame—particularly on a film whose real pleasures are ineffable. So, the commentary by British film scholar Philip Kemp runs about 45 minutes and sticks to the point. This works for me. Kemp's scripted essay makes its points concisely and cogently and never stays longer than necessary. Besides, the real fun in Playtime is in discovering your own random connections within the film—and then discovering entirely new connections the next time you watch it.
The supplemental material has all been moved over to Disc Two. We still have the 1967 short, "Cour du Soir" ("Evening Classes" in English), created by Tati and director Nicholas Rybowski using the Tativille sets. Here Tati teaches a class in mime and offers a collection of his most famous routines from his days on the stage. At first dressed as Hulot, Tati proceeds to deconstruct his most famous character, exposing Hulot as performance. Indeed, as we see him imitate cigarette smokers, fishermen, postmen (in a stage recreation of a classic routine from his 1949 short "Jour de Fête"), we see all life as performance. We are all being watched—and we constantly act for the audience. This is a class in simulation, and it would be a welcome addition to any curriculum.
The rest of the material on Disc Two is fresh. For "Au-delà de 'Playtime,'" Stephane Goudet, Tati scholar, hosts a collection of archival footage of the making of the film. We see the construction of the notorious Tativille and learn that the film's budget ended up seven times its original estimate. This 2002 piece gives a nice overview of the production difficulties that marked Tati's long battle to complete the picture.
Stephane Goudet also wrote and directed the biographical sketch of Tati called "Tati Story." Tati had an unassuming childhood marked by his emergence as a gifted mimic and mime. While mime is largely in eclipse these days, in the 1930s, when Tati broke out as a stage performer, it was a popular dance form in France—and Tati was arguably its master. This bland biography offers no psychological insight into Tati, merely rattling off facts about his career backed by clips from his work and the occasional family photograph. What were Tati's influences? How did he get along with family and friends? What was he like when not working? The Tati we get here does not exist outside of film, just as perhaps Hulot does not exist when we are not actually looking at him. A man as pure object, with no subjective inner life.
We do learn more from an hour-long, 1976 episode of BBC Omnibus looking at the Hulot films. Gavin Millar takes us to the real hotel where M. Hulot's Holiday was filmed. He describes Hulot as "a gregarious recluse" with no past or future. There is some strong general analysis of Tati's films, and the artist himself provides lots of good commentary. This documentary provides an excellent introduction to Tati's work, and newcomers to Playtime might want to begin here to get a sense of where Hulot fits into the pantheon of great comic characters in cinema. In the interview segments, Tati displays a fascination with landscape (he gushes about the shape of the beach). We also note how much he "loves waiting scenes," that is, sequences where characters have no particular goal, but mill about getting into trouble. He likes "natural comedy," the notion that funny is everywhere and found in just the everyday actions of ordinary folks.
To round out the extras, we also get audio clips from Tati's 1972 promotional visit to a San Francisco film festival. At the time, Playtime was still "unreleased" in the United States, and Tati was still shortening the film. He primarily discusses the technical aspects of the production. There is some bitterness about the film's failure (he mentions losing his house). Finally, we are offered an interview with Sylvette Baudrot, Tati's script supervisor on Playtime and other films. It is impressive how much new information we learn with each interview and supplement. The stories surrounding this film seem endless. For example, Baudrot discusses Tati's neutral color scheme (no bright colors in order to give the film a black and white feel), his wide shot composition, his ability to imitate every performer, and even his tyrannical behavior on the set (he would fire crew members for just chatting during their down time). And all in twelve minutes.
But even after watching all this material, I still wandered back to the first disc just to watch the film again.
I think what fascinates me most about the film, the thing that I get wrapped up in with every viewing, is the precise balance of perfect geometric structure with the unpredictable people moving around. I compared it above to watching fish swimming. There is an organicism to the film that belies easy description. Nature and civilization, organic and machinic, dance around one another. In M. Hulot's Holiday, Hulot comes accompanied by winds, fireworks, and other signs of natural resistance to the complacency of a middle class holiday. In Mon Oncle, he is the ghost in the machine, the short circuit in the perfect technological paradise. But by Playtime, it looks as though the glacial profile of the city has dominated poor Hulot. He appears lost, unable to hook up with a potential employer or the pretty girl he keeps passing through the course of his day. Yet he is always having fun. Everybody is having fun. In Hulot's very fragmentation, he becomes the perfect infiltrator. He can never be contained—and he can penetrate anywhere. Play, resistance, joy take over the film, and the experience becomes pure fascination.
The experience of Playtime, regardless of how much ink I have spilled here, is really primarily an aesthetic one. The joy is in the watching. The sheer experience of cinema itself. Each sketch is like a ballet performance, with characters swirling around one another, and I find myself trying to take it all in at once. The mundane—a man sliding his chair side to side behind a counter, businessmen all getting in their cars at once—becomes musical. And finally, it all becomes a dance of human and machine around a joyous maypole. People in cars: the mechanical and organic fuse into pure motion. This is where the human and machinic worlds finally reconcile. Barbara looks at her flowers and sees how they resemble lampposts. The transformation of the human is complete.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Playtime is my favorite film, I will admit that it is not everyone's cup of espresso. The technical proficiency, the wonder at architecture—both bricks and bodies—does not always jibe with Tati's efforts to give Hulot a more organic quality than his surroundings. We never see Hulot at rest; his world is already absorbed into the glorious bright future of Tativille. Yet, Tati insists that Hulot's world is still out there somewhere, and there are moments when Hulot's organicism might seem mawkish and naïve cast against the whiteness of the city, like a character from a Robin Williams comedy trapped in a Stanley Kubrick film. But Tati seems increasingly aware of his own reactionary tendencies through his films and compensates by reducing the role of Hulot. Some audiences have complained that there just isn't enough Hulot in Playtime. Of course not. The movie isn't about Hulot. It is about people. All people. To single out Hulot would undermine Tati's shift away from the structured individual toward pure undifferentiated movement. It does not always make for a comfortable movie though. We cannot even rely on narrative exposition here: while Hulot mumbles in French, the tourists all speak English (courtesy of Art Buchwald), and Hulot even suffers through a rant by a German businessman. Paris is Babel, complete with steel towers. This is a comedy that seeks to throw you off balance, to challenge you to find all human experience funny and not just two hours of clowning. If you are looking for a comedy to escape from the mundane, Playtime will probably not satisfy you.
Who could guess that any movie could create a beautiful gesture simply from clicking on building lights as night approaches, as lines of commuters file into a bus? I have tried to include so many pictures for this review simply because you have to see Playtime to believe it.
Criterion has more than justified the double-dip here, with improved picture and sound and a wealth of useful extras that make the film more comprehensible without too much repetition. I remember buying my copy of the previous release of Playtime the day I heard it was going out of print—and I had to drive halfway across the state to find a store that still had one on the shelf. And it was worth it, because I have been entranced by the film ever since. But you don't have to go quite as far: just get this new two-disc version while it is still fresh. Then just sit back and watch Playtime work its magic.
The court treats Criterion and Jacques Tati to dinner at a fancy restaurant to honor their accomplishments. If we are lucky, the service will be unpredictable, the place will fall apart, and a joyous time will be had by all. Case dismissed.
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