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Playtime Tati Essay Topics

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Jacques Tati - s Playtime and Photography

Jacques Tati’s Playtime and Photography Aperture no. 212, Fall, 2013

Jacques Tati’s Playtime and Photography

by David Campany. First published Aperture no. 212, Fall 2013.

Playtime (1967) is the great labor of love crafted over three years by the maverick French filmmaker Jacques Tati. It was shot in 70mm on a set purpose-built at the edge of Paris, and its genesis is the stuff of legend.

Tati was a slow-moving perfectionist who had made the international hits Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday ) in 1953 and Mon Oncle, an Academy Award winner, in 1958. In each film Tati plays Hulot, an affable middle-aged bungler at odds with the rhythms and values of contemporary society. Playtime was intended as his magnum opus, an enormous canvas on which to lay out his affection for and misgivings about high-tech modern life.

Still from Playtime

La Defense, Paris.

The star of the film was to be a deliriously detailed steel-and-glass cityscape. Constructed at enormous expense, it was dubbed “Tativille” by the press. High winds blew it down and Tati rebuilt it. Shooting was frequently suspended when financial backers got worried. Tati mortgaged the rights to his previous films and sunk all his wealth into the project. The budget spiraled, eventually topping seventeen million francs: it was the most expensive French film ever made up to that time.

Playtime has hardly any plot. Hulot the scatterbrain comes to the sterile city for a meeting. Where is he from? The suburbs? The countryside? The past? All we know is he’s out of step with this place. He interacts with various minor characters—secretaries, elevator attendants, shopkeepers, and bureaucrats. He crosses paths now and again with a young American woman on holiday but there’s no romance. He goes to a newly opened restaurant-nightclub and leaves as dawn breaks on another day. That’s it. The skeletal narrative is the barest excuse to string together a series of moods, observations and set pieces, of which there are plenty. The first cut was 155 minutes long.

Playtime features no well-known actors. Tati reduced even himself to a character in the ensemble cast. There are no close-ups either: it’s mostly filmed in medium and wide shots. Upon initial release, Playtime ’s distribution in Europe was limited to movie theaters with 70mm projection and stereo sound. In America it was released in 35mm and monaural, but not until 1973, and in a version cut by almost an hour. Even so, it lost a fortune. While reviewers recognized its brave mastery, technical innovation, and unique take on life, it came to be seen as a great folly: Playtime was the work of a charismatic hero of popular culture undone by vaulting hubris. Today however, it is understood as an idiosyncratic and unrepeatable work. In a recent poll of international directors and critics it was rated the forty-second best film ever made.

Paris loves (and hates) its grands projets. those big statements of civic and cultural pride: new museums, reinvented districts, and show-stopping architectural statements. The largest of these has been La Défense, the business and shopping area built in the west of the city in the 1980s and ’90s. As its grassless concrete piazzas sprawled and its crystal towers sprouted, many commentators were reminded of Tativille. The similarity was striking. Life had imitated art but missed the point. Playtime was a movie, a series of images, a city to be inhabited imaginatively and allegorically, not actually. Today so much of our urban fabric looks great in photographs but is unpleasant to live with. Through the harsh anomie of our city experience, the befuddled bonhomie of Tati feels like a last affectionate moment.

Still from Playtime

Jeff Wall, In front of a nightclub. 2006

Still from Playtime

Andreas Gursky. Genoa. 1991

More recently Playtime has struck a chord with many photographers, but not always in the same way. For some it’s the epic vistas of ultramodern urbanism, their sharp geometry muted by a palette of blues and grays. Tati wanted the film to look almost as if it were shot in black and white. For some, the incongruously pastoral views of traffic jams and faceless buildings foreshadow the aloof panoramas of Andreas Gursky. For others it’s the way the people of this “everycity” move as one, like a live-action version of a street photograph that can be paused at any time as a frame of formal harmony. Or perhaps it is Tati’s comic body language, performed at a deliberately slow pace so the camera can relish his every bend and twist, like an underwater ballet. This is chaos choreographed, like a complex tableau photograph by Jeff Wall.

Still from Playtime

Playtime is also a commentary on photography as a social phenomenon. We see an excitable pack of snapping tourists, advancing into this alien world with cameras outstretched before them. Hulot waits in a corporate lobby where the only decoration is a suite of austere portraits of company heads that seem to glare down upon him. There is a comic gaggle of paparazzi at the airport, swirling about their prey. Wistful glimpses of old Paris swing into picture-perfect view when reflected in shining glass doors. The Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur haunt this new place like spectral images from ancient times.

Still from Playtime

Perhaps photographers enjoy the fact that although this is a film of epic scale, the humanity and charm come from the smallest and most ephemeral things. A luggage label flapping like a tethered bird. A pastor pausing unwittingly beneath the halo of a circular neon light. Two nuns walking down a godless corridor, their wimples bobbing in unison. And Playtime has more gags about the invisibility of glass that the whole history of silent cinema. But more than anything, I suspect photographers enjoy the overwhelming generosity to the viewer. Each shot offers so much and is held for so long that the eye can wander about the frame. How rare for a movie-goer to be free to take it all in: the variety of surfaces and the array of color-coordinated extras going about their lives in the middle and far distance. It really is a series of pictures in motion.

Production still from Playtime (cardboard cutout extras)

We can enjoy the knowledge that whatever cinematic illusion Playtime conjures for us, this is pre-digital cinema. Somehow or other what we see on screen really was there. Or was it? The office blocks of Tativille were built in forced perspective (some were just a couple of meters tall) and could be moved about on wheels to improve the compositions. The steel columns were not steel but wood covered in matte photographs of steel that reduced light reflection. And when Tati’s money ran dry, the army of extras was partly supplemented by full-size photo-cutouts, placed strategically among the living.

I confess I have a soft spot for films that fail financially, especially those of great artistic ambition. Nobody wishes such failure, but when it happens it is a sign that culture is not entirely predictable and cannot be reduced to its economic determinants. So the pleasure of such films is always a little guilty, a little cultish, parasitic even. No matter. We have Playtime now. It is our film.

First published in Aperture no. 212, Fall 2013. Thanks to Michael Famighetti for commissioning this.

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Playtime tati essay topics

Playtime - 2 Disc Set


"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."

"'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." ------ Roger Ebert .

DVD - The Criterion Collection - 2 Disc Set

  • All-new restored, high definition digital transfer
  • New and improved English subtitle translatio
  • Video introduction by Terry Jones
  • "Cours du Soir ," a 1967 Jacques Tati short
  • Selected audio commentary by film historian Philip Kemp
  • "Au-dela de Playtime " documentary
  • "Tati Story " biographical film
  • "Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot's Work " BBC Omnibus program
  • Video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot
  • Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack
  • New essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Director: Jacques Tati
Color
120 minutes
Released: 1967
Rated: NR

Country: France
Language: French
Genre: Comedy, Drama

Jacques Tati - s Playtime: See it in 70mm!

Jacques Tati's Playtime: See it in 70mm!

Once upon a time, 70mm was the gold standard for musicals, westerns historical epics and assorted all-star extravaganzas, filling the screen with a high-resolution image unrivaled even by today’s state-of-the-art digital technologies.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center presents See it in 70mm! featuring Jacques Tati's Playtime. restored 70mm print.

Playtime. Directed by Jacques Tati (1967)
After the success of Mon Oncle in 1958, Jacques Tati had become fed up with his signature Monsieur Hulot character. Slowly, he inched his way toward a new kind of cinema—a supremely democratic film starring "everybody," in which the wonders of modern life would relinquish their functionality and become a ravishingly beautiful backdrop to pure human delirium. Tati's journey to Playtime was a long one, 10 years in all. The massive set known as Tativille was built in Saint-Meurice, at the southeast corner of Paris: 100 construction workers made two buildings out of 11,700 square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plastic, 31,500 square feet of timber, and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Tativille had its own power plant and approach road, and building number one had its own working escalator. At the end of the road, there was ignominy and bankruptcy. But Jacques Tati was secure in the knowledge that, with Playtime. he had made a masterpiece.

Dec 22, 2012 - Jan 1, 2013 Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater 165 West 65th Street New York, NY

Jacques Tati's Playtime: See it in 70mm!
When

Dec 22, 2012 - Jan 1, 2013

Where

Film Society of Lincoln Center
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th Street
New York, NY

Once upon a time, 70mm was the gold standard for musicals, westerns historical epics and assorted all-star extravaganzas, filling the screen with a high-resolution image unrivaled even by today’s state-of-the-art digital technologies.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center presents See it in 70mm! featuring Jacques Tati's Playtime. restored 70mm print.

Playtime. Directed by Jacques Tati (1967)
After the success of Mon Oncle in 1958, Jacques Tati had become fed up with his signature Monsieur Hulot character. Slowly, he inched his way toward a new kind of cinema—a supremely democratic film starring "everybody," in which the wonders of modern life would relinquish their functionality and become a ravishingly beautiful backdrop to pure human delirium. Tati's journey to Playtime was a long one, 10 years in all. The massive set known as Tativille was built in Saint-Meurice, at the southeast corner of Paris: 100 construction workers made two buildings out of 11,700 square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plastic, 31,500 square feet of timber, and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Tativille had its own power plant and approach road, and building number one had its own working escalator. At the end of the road, there was ignominy and bankruptcy. But Jacques Tati was secure in the knowledge that, with Playtime. he had made a masterpiece.

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Jacques Tati - Play Time Extras (1967)

Jacques Tati – Play Time [+Extras] (1967)

“Criterion” wrote:
Jacques Tati’s gloriously choreographed, nearly wordless comedies about confusion in the age of technology reached their creative apex with Playtime. For this monumental achievement, a nearly three-year-long, bank-breaking production, Tati again thrust the endearingly clumsy, resolutely old-fashioned Monsieur Hulot, along with a host of other lost souls, into a bafflingly modernist Paris. With every inch of its superwide frame crammed with hilarity and inventiveness, Playtime is a lasting testament to a modern age tiptoeing on the edge of oblivion.





Criterion Essay
“Criterion” wrote:
by Kent Jones

After the success of Mon Oncle in 1958, Jacques Tati had become fed up with Monsieur Hulot, his signature comic creation. With international renown came a growing dissatisfaction with straightforward scenarios centered around one lovable, recognizable figure. So he slowly inched his way toward a new kind of film, a supremely democratic film that would be about “everybody.” His journey was a long one, ten years in all. At the end of the road, there was ignominy and bankruptcy. But Jacques Tati was secure in the knowledge that with Playtime, as his film about everybody came to be called, he had made a masterpiece.

According to Tati biographer David Bellos, the contract for “Film Tati No. 4” was signed in 1959 with the provisional title Recréation. The intention was to mix film with live performance and create a space in which paying customers were not mere spectators but genuine participants. Like many artists before and after him (Abel Gance dreamt of stadium-sized audiences watching the stories of the world’s religious leaders on massive screens; Francis Ford Coppola hoped to project film on glass screens in specially constructed theaters), Tati wanted to break the formal bonds of his art form and create a new, totalizing form of spectacle (as Bellos notes, the dream was partly realized with the performances of Jour de Fête à l’Olympia in the winter of 1960/61).

For his new film, Tati needed a set as vast as the streamlined public buildings and roadways that were soon to change the face of Paris forever. He 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. He elected to shoot his film in the costly 70mm format, with its magnificent widescreen clarity and depth. According to Bellos, Tati visited many factories and airports throughout Europe before his cinematographer Jean Badal came to the conclusion that he needed to build his own skyscraper. Which is exactly what he did.

The massive set known as “Tativille” was built on land leased by the Parisian city council, in Saint-Meurice, at the southeast corner of the city. Stuart Klawans, in his brilliant book Film Follies: The Cinema out of Order, reckons that Tati’s Specta Films employed 100 construction workers to make two buildings out of 11,700 square feet of glass, 38,700 square feet of plastic, 31,500 square feet of timber, and 486,000 square feet of concrete. Tativille had its own power plant and approach road, and building number one had its own working escalator. A massive folly to be sure—though as Tati himself often pointed out, no more expensive than paying for the professional services of Sophia Loren. In the first of a seemingly endless series of disasters, a sizable chunk of Tativille was blown over by heavy winds, and had to be rebuilt to the tune of 1.4 million francs. Shooting began in April 1965, with a cast of non-professionals recruited by Tati’s new-found jack of all trades Marie-France Siegler, “starring” his neighbors’ former au pair Barbara Denneke. With July came unseasonable rains, with September the cash stopped flowing, and Tati had to do what many filmmakers spend the bulk of their time doing: beg for money. Nobert Terry, who acted as the film’s “product placement consultant,” put the director in touch with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, who engineered a loan from Crédit Lyonnais. But in order to secure the loan, Tati basically had to mortgage away his future and that of his family as well. Meanwhile, the money just kept draining away. After 365 shooting days punctuated by long delays (due to everything from foul weather to the development of new gags to keep the film as up to the minute as possible), and after nine months of post-production, the newest creation by France’s comic genius premiered in December 1967, with the equivalent of an American “road show” presentation. Like Stanley Kubrick, Tati kept tinkering with the film after its premiere, eventually cutting it down to 120 minutes from its original 151-minute running time.

Like Eyes Wide Shut, Playtime was the victim of a backlash, largely based on the outsized expectations surrounding this popular artist whose desire for publicity was equalled by his supposedly arrogant need for privacy during the (lengthy) act of creation. Moreover, despite critical appreciation, Playtime was so completely, alarmingly new in every way (plotless, starring not one or two people but a cast of hundreds, and completely dispensing with conventional notions of background and foreground) that it needed time to sink in with the public—time that it never got. Six months after its premiere, France was rocked by “the events of May ’68,” after which everything that came before seemed tainted and old hat. Despite Jacques Rivette’s observation that Playtime was “revolutionary in spite of Tati,” as well as Tati’s own comments that with Playtime he was on the barricades with the students in revolt, the film had become an artifact before its time. As 1968 drew to a close, Tati was completely bankrupt, and he had lost his house as well as the rights and the elements of his own films (he got back on his feet in 1977, five years before his death). To this day, the whereabouts of Playtime’s missing 31 minutes remain a mystery.

But the “official version” that we have is good enough. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a tender account of his relationship with Tati, has written that Playtime changed his way of looking “at people and things in cities.” He’s not alone. The film is a series of giddy encounters between people and things, the wonders of “modern life” relinquishing their functionality in favor of an unaccountably rapturous beauty. Playtime indeed: an airport terminal, an office lobby, a hotel, an ideal home exhibition, an apartment complex and a jazzy restaurant, with their polished, reflective surfaces, form one continuous delirium of design, the impromptu playground for a group of American tourists and assorted locals, including Hulot himself and various doubles. No one, least of all Hulot, is ever at the center of Playtime. The action is always happening in the background or on the periphery, finally erupting into joyful anarchy with the restaurant bacchanale (which took seven weeks to shoot): the more things break down, the more celebratory the atmosphere. “At the moment before ‘Action,’” writes Klawans, “[Tati] was a god. And at the moment after, he was just another reveler in the crowd he’d called up, dancing in one small corner of the building he’d constructed. Apollo and Dionysus in one.”

Bellos assesses Playtime as “an expression of wonderment at humankind’s ability to create.” It seems fitting: this miraculous movie, still years ahead of its time, so heroically unwilling to distinguish between the functional and the frivolous, is itself a wholly wondrous creation.




1. Au-delà de “Playtime”, a short documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the production.

2. “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work”, a 1976 BBC Omnibus program featuring Tati

7. Alternate international soundtrack

A democracy of sound and image - Jacques Tati - s Playtime

Introduction to Playtime (Tati, 1967) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster 19/9/13

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University UK

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for a rare screening of Tati’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)

In a famous essay[i] from 1954 the film critic (and later director) Francois Truffaut complained that French cinema was dominated by quality cinema that comprised ‘faithful’ literary adaptations and historical dramas made by film directors who were unimaginative hacks who made no creative transformations to the scripts they were filming – they simply added pictures. By contrast, Truffaut celebrated the existence of another group of film-makers that he termed ‘men of the cinema’ or ‘auteurs ’ who understood cinema as an essentially audio-visual rather than literary or theatrical medium and Jacques Tati, who directed this film, was one of the directors he used as an example of the film-maker as artist. At that point Tati, who was heavily influenced by silent film comedy, had only directed two films, but he was already clearly an innovative and individual film-maker with a sense of the rich comic and narrative possibilities of film sound and the film image.

Playtime. released in 1967, was the fourth of Tati’s six feature films and the third featuring M. Hulot, the Mr Bean-like character for whom Tati is best known. Having won an Oscar for his previous film, Mon Oncle. in 1958, by the time he came to make Playtime Tati was both critically highly regarded and commercially secure, and hoped that this film would be his masterpiece. He wrote to a friend as he was preparing it that, ‘Playtime is the big leap, the big screen. I’m putting myself on the line. Either it comes off or it, or it doesn’t. There’s no safety net’.

Unfortunately, the film is probably best known as a commercial disaster for several reasons including an extremely protracted production process. Tati scouted for locations in factories, airports and cities throughout Europe but, unable to find a location he would be able to close off and shoot on for weeks or months, he decided the only solution was to build the massive city sets in a studio. Since there were no studios big enough near Paris, they decided to build a new permanent studio complex on the outskirts of the city, which could be used for other productions once Playtime was complete. This was a financially sensible move except that, as they later discovered, the land they bought was ear-marked for a link-road connecting the ring-road around Paris with a nearby motorway, and so it was compulsorily purchased after the film was completed.

Construction of the vast set, ironically dubbed ‘Tativille’ by journalists, began in autumn 1964. They built two huge soundstages to shoot the interior scenes, the largest in the country at that time and also laid out a road system so that the moveable tower-blocks, which were built as flats and empty frameworks, could be rolled around the location on railway tracks to create different street layouts. A few months into the construction of the set, it was destroyed by a storm – whereupon Tati discovered the film’s financiers had failed to insure the production against acts of God, costing them weeks of time and over a million Francs.

Shooting continued until October 1966, during which time they had filmed on 365 days – perhaps the only film-maker who comes close to this excessive schedule is Charlie Chaplin who shot for 190 days while making City Lights. After the film wrapped, Tati then spent another 9 months editing the film and continued to edit it after the premiere in December 1967 in response to audiences’ reactions at early screenings.

The slow pace of production was partly due to Tati’s perfectionism – ‘I like team-work’, he quipped, ’as long as I’m in charge of the team.’ – and partly due to financial problems: there were several periods when they shut production down due to lack of money. By the end of the film Tati and a number of family members had sold property and mortgaged their houses to bankroll the film whose cost is estimated to have been about 17m Francs (and whose initial budget was 2.4m), but Tati was bankrupted by the cost of the shoot and so much of this probably went unpaid.

In some respects, Playtime is a simple story. It takes place across roughly 24 hours in Paris during which a group of American tourists and M. Hulot, who is played by Tati, wander around the city, bumping into one another repeatedly. There are lots of characters in Playtime. but Tati is generally uninterested in complex characterization in this film – even the protagonist, M. Hulot is a cartoonish caricature rather than a fully developed character – and most of the characters represent types, rather than individuals.

He is interested in miscommunication and polite misunderstanding. Rather than being driven by aggression, determination and ambition, and a clear sense of goals, characters in his films frequently pinball through life, propelled by accidents, chance encounters and often becoming lost in the process. As a result the narrative structure of the films is at once quite complex and vague – chance and repetition are substituted for the progressive linear narrative development of classical Hollywood cinema.

This is quite deliberate. Tati said later in a 1973 interview that although it wasn’t a commercial success, Playtime was the fullest realization of his intentions as a film-maker. Although he continued to make films he said that:

Playtime will always be my last picture because of the dimension on the décor, regarding the people. There’s no star, no one person is important, everybody is; you are as important as I can be. It’s a democracy of gags and comics’.

Typically a film narrative is organized around one or two individual characters, who are given more time on screen and are treated differently in terms of sound and image from other characters. They’re shown in close-up, their dialogue is clearly reproduced over background noise, they’re presented as psychologically rich individuals. The intention with Playtime. by contrast, is that no character is more important than any other, but also, that the décor – the space in which the action takes place – is just as important as the actors. This is a radically unusual way of composing a film.

In practice it means that there are very few close-ups. Instead we have lots of long shots, and lots of shots that are on screen for a long time too, giving us time to study the image. This allows Tati to fill the frame with information. Whereas a film will usually make it very clear to the viewer where her attention is meant to be directed, leaving some areas of the image out of focus or less brightly lit, Playtime is full of shots that invite us to scan the frame searching out interesting and significant details – it doesn’t tell us where to look

It is a film that demands sustained scrutiny, like a painting, and, as a result, the American critic Noel Burch said in a 1969 review of Playtime. ‘Tati’s film is the first in the history of cinema that must be seen not only several different times, but from several different distances. It is probably the first really “open” film’. By which he means that the film is open to a variety of interpretations or ways of seeing.

It was important for Tati too that Playtime was shot on 70mm film, which is very detailed and allows the film to be blown up and projected onto a large screen with no loss of resolution. It is a film format that was usually reserved for spectacular productions like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 (which was released a few months later), but Tati was interested in using the potential of this spectacular format very differently. Thus, he said:

‘What I like in wide-screen films are not cavalcades, gunfights, crowd scenes and so on, what I find extraordinary is that the device allows the viewer to have a fuller appreciation of a mere pin dropping in a large empty room.’ (Bellos 2011: 259)

As well as paying a great deal of attention to the composition of the image, sound is also very important to Tati. The film was shot silently and the soundtrack composed afterwards and the principle behind the sound design seems to be equally democratic – there is a democracy of sounds in this film. Normally in a film the dialogue is always privileged on the soundtrack but in Playtime. the sound effects are just as prominent on the soundtrack as speech and there is also very little scaling so that sounds coming from the background are often as loud on the soundtrack as sounds coming from action in the foreground. There is quite a lot of dialogue but it is often mumbled and hard to discern and Tati is far more interested in the sounds that we don’t normally pay attention to – the clicking of stiletto heels on lino floors, the hum of air-conditioning systems and crackle of neon lights, the squeak of vinyl and puff of air as someone sits on a chair in a waiting room. This is a fascinating film to listen to as well as to watch.

One of the other pleasures of watching Playtime. as with all Tati’s films is the pleasure of seeing bodies dancing through space. Choreographed, repetitive movement is very important in his films and the result here is almost an urban ballet. It is a film about the mundane but delicate dances we all perform as we move through modern spaces, negotiating turnstiles, and revolving doors, escalators, lifts, pedestrian crossings and office buildings.

Finally this film explores a theme that is central to most of his films, which is that of modernity – Mon Oncle, Playtime and his next film, Trafic, are all films about a modern high-tech world in which our lives are reorganized by technology and transport systems. Cars, in particular, are one of the most visible motifs of this, and the films are full of grid-locked roads and vast car-parks. Although his first two films offer a nostalgic, seductive view of traditional, rural France, it is a France that is under threat from modernization and the subsequent films are about the ways in which France becomes cosmopolitan, modernized, and Americanized.

However, the films are very ambivalent in their treatment of this theme. On the one hand they make fun of the way in which fashionable, self-important people surround themselves with unreliable high-tech, consumer goods, but on the other hand they offer us an optimistic view of a utopian, futuristic world. Although Charlie Chaplin was one of Tati’s heroes – and M. Hulot might well be named after the name the French gave to Chaplin, Charlot – there is little trace in Tati’s films of the satirical anger at the modern world that we find in Chaplin’s work.

As Alex Bellos, Tati’s biographer puts it, ‘Tati’s use of gadgetry and innovation is remarkable for its ambiguity: especially in Playtime […] he exploits the new almost equally for its comic potential and for its aesthetic pleasure.’ (253) So, for example, Playtime is a celebration of the minimalist visual beauty of plate-glass, stainless steel, black leatherette, grey lino and formica, tarmac, curtain-walled office blocks, autoroutes, roundabouts, lamp-posts and street-lights. Thus, concludes, Bellos, ‘All Tati’s work, […] is angled towards reconciliation, not revolt. Tati was not out to change the world, but to help us look at it with less horror.’ (311)

Given that Playtime was released in France at the beginning of a period of radical social upheaval, not long before the general strike and riots in Paris, this may help to explain its lukewarm reception since it could have been perceived as being out of step with the spirit of the times. Although it was well received by film critics, it failed to turn a profit although this wouldn’t have been helped by Tati’s insistence that the film could only be shown in cinemas with 70mm projectors and stereo sound systems, refusing to allow the film to be distributed on a standard 35mm print (and, of course, until the popularization of large-screen TVs, the film was almost impossible to watch on television, limiting its subsequent accessibility – it is a film that is better known by reputation than exposure).

But it could also likely that audiences found the film confusing and frustrating to watch because it required them to adjust their expectations of what a film is, which is perhaps not what people look for on a night out. A French critic reviewing the film on its release declared it to be ‘An Absolute masterpiece of confounding and vertiginous beauty […] Never, perhaps has a film placed so much confidence in the intelligence and activity of the spectator: the challenge was too great to find a commensurate response’.

So this is the challenge this film continues to pose to its audience: are you sufficiently intelligent and imaginative to enjoy the confounding, vertiginous beauty of this film?

Alex Bellos (2011) Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (London: Harvill Press)

Michel Chion (2002) The Films of Jacques Tati (Toronto: Guernica)

‘Tati’s democracy’ – transcript of a 1973 interview with Tati by Jonathan Rosebaum http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=15628

Play Time: Wikis (The Full Wiki)

Play Time: Wikis

In Play Time. Tati's character, M. Hulot, and a group of American tourists attempt to navigate a futuristic Paris constructed of straight lines, modernist glass and steel high-rise buildings, multi-lane roadways, and cold, artificial furnishings. In this environment, only the irrepressible nonconformity of human nature and an occasional appreciation for the good old days breathe life into an otherwise sterile urban lifestyle. Modern industrial technologies, accepted as necessary by society, are represented by Tati as obstructions to daily life and an interference to natural human interaction.

Synopsis

Play Time is structured in six sequences, linked by two characters who repeatedly encounter one another in the course of a day: Barbara. a young American tourist visiting Paris with a group composed primarily of middle-aged American women, and Monsieur Hulot. a befuddled Frenchman lost in the new modernity of Paris. The sequences are as follows:

  • The Airport: the American tour group arrives at the ultra-modern and impersonal Orly Airport .
  • The Offices: M. Hulot arrives at one of the glass and steel buildings for an important meeting, but gets lost in a maze of disguised rooms and offices, eventually stumbling into a trade exhibition of lookalike business office designs and furniture nearly identical to those in the rest of the building.
  • The Trade Exhibition: M. Hulot and the American tourists are introduced to the latest modern gadgets, including a door that slams "in golden silence" and a broom with headlights, while the Paris of legend goes all but unnoticed save for a flower-seller's stall and a single reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass window.
  • The Apartments: as night falls, M. Hulot meets an old friend who invites him to his sparsely furnished, ultra-modern and glass-fronted flat. This sequence is filmed entirely from the street, observing Hulot and other building residents through uncurtained floor-to-ceiling picture windows.
  • The Royal Garden: This sequence takes up almost the entire second half of the film. At the restaurant, Hulot reunites with several characters he has periodically encountered during the day, along with a few new ones, including a nostalgic ballad singer and a boisterous American businessman played by Billy Kearns.
  • The Carousel of Cars: Hulot buys Barbara two small gifts as mementos of Paris before her departure. In the midst of a complex ballet of cars in a traffic circle, the tourists' bus returns to the airport.
Production

The office set for Jacques Tati 's Play Time anticipated the dominance of office cubicle arrangements by some 20 years. The set was redressed for the trade exhibition sequence.

The film is famous for its enormous, specially constructed set and background stage, known as 'Tativille', which cost enormous sums to build and maintain. The set required a hundred construction workers to construct along with its own power plant. Storms, budget crises, and other disasters stretched the shooting schedule to three years. Budget overruns forced Tati to take out large loans and personal overdrafts to cover ever-increasing production costs.

As Play Time depended greatly on visual comedy and sound effects, Tati chose to shoot the film on the high-resolution 70 mm film format, together with a complicated (for its day) stereophonic soundtrack.

To save money, some of the building facades and the interior of the Orly set were actually giant photographs. (The photographs also had the advantage of not reflecting the camera or lights.) The Paris landmarks Barbara sees reflected in the glass door are also photographs. Tati also used life-sized cutout photographs of people to save money on extras. These cutouts are noticeable in some of the cubicles when Hulot overlooks the maze of offices, and in the deep background in some of the shots at ground level from one office building to another.

Reception

On its original French release, Play Time was acclaimed by critics. However, it was commercially unsuccessful, failing to earn back a significant portion of its production costs.

One reason for the film's commercial failure may have been Tati's insistence that the film be limited to those theaters equipped with 70 mm projectors and stereophonic sound (he refused to provide a 35 mm version for smaller theaters). For another, audiences worldwide had come to love Tati's films for the character of M. Hulot; his reduction to an intermittent, occasionally supporting role in the new Tati film came as a disappointment to many (Tati himself lampooned the phenomenon in an early scene in Play Time. when a rain-coated pedestrian whose back is turned to the audience is mistakenly hailed as Hulot). Others disliked its nearly plotless story line, while those who only saw a single showing frequently missed the intricate, sometimes simultaneous comic sight gags performed in the various group scenes. A final reason for the film's poor reception may have been its release date; while the film's satire of modern life may have been cutting-edge when first conceptualized in 1959, by the end of 1967 such themes were old-hat to movie audiences.

Results were the same upon the film's eventual release in the U.S. in 1973 (even though it had finally been converted to a 35 mm format at the insistence of U.S. distributors and edited down to 103 minutes). Though Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Play Time "Tati's most brilliant film", it was no more a commercial success in the U.S. than in France. Debts incurred as a result of the film's cost overruns eventually forced Tati to file for bankruptcy.

Despite its disastrous financial failure, Play Time is regarded as a great achievement by many critics. Most have noted its subtlety and complexity: it is not easily absorbed at one sitting. François Truffaut wrote that Play Time was "a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently". British critic Gilbert Adair has noted that the film has to be viewed "several times, each from a different seat in the auditorium" in order to view the many small, tightly-choreographed sight gags by several different actors, sometimes displayed nearly simultaneously on the huge screen required for 70 mm film. Nor is the humor restricted to human behavior alone — a gag may revolve around an everyday object or phenomenon such as the mundane hum of a neon sign or the sound of whipped cream squirting out of a can.

Style

The apartments: Cubicles for living, standardized behavior on view. (Detail of a screenshot )

Tati wanted the film to be in color but look like it was filmed in black and white; an effect he had previously employed to some extent in Mon Oncle. Predominant colors are in shades of grey, blue, black, and greyish white. Green and red are used as occasional accent colors: for example, the greenish hue of patrons lit by a neon sign in a sterile and modern lunch counter, or the flashing red light on an office intercom. It has been said that Tati had one red item in every shot. Except for a single flower stall, there are no genuine green plants or trees on the set, though dull plastic plants adorn the outer balconies of some buildings, including the restaurant (the one location shot apart from the road to the airport). Thus, when the character of Barbara arrives at the Royal Garden restaurant in an emerald green dress seen as 'dated' by the other whispering female patrons clothed in dark attire, she visually contrasts not only with the other diners, but also with the entire physical environment of the film. As the characters in the restaurant scene begin to lose their normal social inhibitions and revel in the unraveling of their surroundings, Tati intensifies both color and lighting accordingly: late arrivals to the restaurant are less conservative, arriving in vibrant, often patterned clothing.

Tati detested close-ups, considering them crude, and shot in medium-format 70 mm film so that all the actors and their physical movements would be visible, even when they were in the far background of a group scene. He used sound rather than visual cues to direct the audience's attention; with the large image size, sound could be both high and low in the image as well as left and right. [ 1 ] As with most Tati films, sound effects were utilized to intensify comedic effect; Leonard Maltin wrote that Tati was the "only man in movie history to get a laugh out of the hum of a neon sign!" [ 2 ] Almost the entire film was dubbed after shooting; the editing process took nine months.

"If Play Time has a plot, it's how the curve comes to reassert itself over the straight line." [ 1 ] This progression is carried out in numerous ways. At the beginning of the film, people walk in straight lines and turn on right angles. Only working-class construction workers (representing Hulot's 'old Paris', celebrated in Mon Oncle ) and two music-loving teenagers move in a curvaceous and naturally human way. Some of this robotlike behavior begins to loosen in the restaurant scene near the end of the film, as the participants set aside their assigned roles and learn to enjoy themselves after a plague of opening-night disasters. Throughout the film, the American tourists are continually lined up and counted, though Barbara keeps escaping and must be frequently called back to conform with the others. By the end, she has united the curve and the line (Hulot's gift, a square scarf, is fitted to her round head); her straight bus ride back to the airport becomes lost in a seemingly endless traffic circle that has the atmosphere of a carnival ride.

Cast

When possible, Tati cast nonprofessionals. He wanted people whose inner essence matched their characters and who could move in the way he wanted.

  • Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hulot
  • Barbara Dennek as Barbara, a young American tourist
  • Jacqueline Lecomte as Barbara's travel companion
  • Valérie Camille as Mr. Lacs's secretary
  • France Rumilly as a seller of glasses
  • Laure Paillette as 1st lady at the lamppost
  • Colette Proust as 2nd lady at the lamppost
  • Erica Dentzler as Mr/Mrs Giffard
  • Yvette Ducreux as la demoiselle du vestiaire (coat check girl)
  • Rita Maiden as Mr. Schultz's companion
  • Nicole Ray as the nostalgic ballad singer
  • Luce Bonifassy as a customer at Royal Garden
  • Evy Cavallaro as a customer at Royal Garden
  • Alice Field as a customer at Royal Garden
  • Eliane Firmin-Didot as customer at R. Garden
  • Ketty France as a customer at Royal Garden
  • Nathalie Jam as a customer at Royal Garden
  • Olivia Poli as customer at Royal Garden
  • Sophie Wennek as the tour guide
  • Henri Piccoli as the Important Man
  • Léon Doyen as the Doorman
  • Georges Montant as Mr. Giffard, head waiter
  • John Abbey as Mr. Lacs
  • Reinhart Kolldehoff as the German Director
  • Grégoire Katz as the German salesman
  • Marc Monjou as the false Mr. Hulot
  • Yves Barsacq as Mr. Hulot's old acquaintance
  • Billy Kearns as Mr. Schulz, the American businessman
  • Michel Francini as Manager of the Hotel
Notes
  1. ^ ab "Film historian Philip Kemp, commentary for the British Film Institute, on the Play Time DVD.
  2. ^ Maltin, Leonard, A Movie Lover's Journal: Jacques Tati. www.leonardmaltin.com
External links