• Playtime: Things Fall
    Apart, Beautifully

    By David Cairns

    Current_130_113_large

    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.

11 comments

  • By Levi Stahl
    December 03, 2010
    09:16 AM

    This seems just right, and gets at something I'd not previously considered: just how much work the jokes are doing. After all, the movie is almost nothing but a series of brilliant gags, but you're right that at the same time it never feels stagnant--it is getting us somewhere. What a joy of a movie.
    Reply
  • By A_Bord
    December 03, 2010
    10:54 AM

    Terrific article about a terrific film. Thanks for sharing it here.
    Reply
  • By D Cairns
    December 03, 2010
    11:43 AM

    Thanks! Agree, Levi -- Tati has a tight structure, even if he avoids plot, and he has to find just the right gags to serve it. Nothing's gratuitous, but everything seems free and easy.
    Reply
  • By David Ehrenstein
    December 03, 2010
    11:48 AM

    Spot on Mr. Cairns! The Paris that Tati created did not exist at the time "Playtime" was shot. He predicted perfectly what has come to pass. For an apertif I reccomend the Christopher Doyle-directed episode of "Paris Je t'aime" starring Barbet Schroeder.
    Reply
  • By seezee
    December 05, 2010
    09:38 PM

    D. Ehrenstein is correct. Mr. Cairns should have watched the documentary features included on the Criterion disc. This is not to take away from Mr. C's thesis -- indeed, it reinforces it.
    Reply
  • By Scott Kaye
    December 10, 2010
    01:25 PM

    Thank you for your fine perspective on Playtime. One thing to consider regarding the complexity of the visual gags that come repeatedly, especially in the Royal Garden sequence, is that Tati did not have the benefit of video assist or playback, which makes the achievement all the greater to me. As the Royal Garden builds to a frenzied crescendo, there are so many things happening on screen that multiple viewings yield new intricacies (it's worth noting that this sequence alone took three months to shoot, as I recall). Not only did Tati have to trust that each take was good, but he is also an actor in many of the shots, meaning that he could not even observe the take from the camera's perspective. One is left to wonder what he would have accomplished with video assist, a standard tool in the production world for decades now, as the director and director of photography watch each take as it is made, and review them at will. The only comparable achievement that comes to mind is Welle's magnificent directorial job and performance in Touch of Evil -- especially the extended apartment interrogation scene where the dynamite is "discovered." To anyone that will be in Los Angeles next month, you have the rare opportunity to see Playtime projected in 70mm on January 6, 2011, when the Billy Wilder Theatre at the Hammer Museum in Westwood will be presenting it [http://hammer.ucla.edu/programs/detail/program_id/696].
    Reply
  • By Andy Duncan
    December 19, 2010
    10:57 AM

    Jerry Lewis, a technical pioneer, was using video assist for his director-star films well before Tati made Playtime. Video assist thus could have been available to Tati. Was he unaware of it -- as it certainly wasn't widespread yet -- or was he aware of it and chose not to use it? Certainly Tati and Lewis had to be aware of one another, given their complementary styles and obsessions. Ditto the kudos for your essay, Mr. Cairns.
    Reply
  • By Scott Kaye
    December 23, 2010
    03:41 AM

    That's a good point, Andy, about Jerry Lewis. Yes, it's true that he was the first to use video assist, though my recollection is that he utilized a separate television (video) camera mounted alongside the film camera. While crude by today's standards, it did permit him to play back his scenes for review and to use it live during the filming process. Here's an article by my friend, Camera Operator Michael Frediani, SOC, specifically about Lewis' video assist system: http://www.iatse812.org/downloadfiles/Video%20Assist/On%20Set%20With%20Video%20Assist.pdf One wonders if Tati would have even used video assist if he had access to it. Since he pretty much had his way on Playtime, one could conclude that he could have had some form of video assist if he had wanted to. Certainly by the time of Trafic he could have. Also, portions of his final feature, Parade, were shot in video and recorded to videotape, as opposed to being shot on film, and her therefore would have been able to see the camera takes as they were made, and reviewed them via playback afterwards.
    Reply
  • By D Cairns
    March 22, 2011
    07:25 AM

    Tati, like Chaplin, worked at his own pace, so rather than using a video assist he could review what he had shot the next day and reshoot it if he wasn't satisfied. Certainly video assist would simplify and accelerate that process, but that doesn't mean either filmmaker would have used it -- much about their process was mysterious, apparently cumbersome, and not exactly cost-effective. But it would certainly be interesting to know if Tati exploited the possibilities of video while making Parade.
    Reply
  • By Lanceandnade
    December 17, 2011
    11:04 PM

    Much better than the Rosenbaum article, which includes too much "corrective criticism." I believe Playtime to be one of the greatest films ever made and thank god we have high definition projectors and sound systems so we can replicate the experience as best we can in our home theaters. I love Tati, all his films, and this one is truly special, monumental. Also it has one of the greatest falling in love and then saying goodbye stories that rarely gets talked about, with Hulot falling for the lovely American tourist only in Paris for the night. Wonderful in every way.
    Reply
  • By Ad de Nijs
    September 08, 2013
    06:47 AM

    I was lucky to see a restored version in cinema a short while ago. It really is a piece of genius by Tati. This article reflects perfectly the work that came along with it and the perspective the viewer is given during the watching.
    Reply