So much has been written on Jacques Tati’s wondrous Playtime (1967) that it can be daunting to throw myself into the fray. But here we go.
The movie is a unique experience, completely itself, and if you try to compare it to another movie or even genre, there will always be some point when the comparison falls apart. The closest you can get is to say that it is reminiscent of the best of Chaplin or Keaton, based as it is on pantomime and visual gags. There are other points of comparison there, the use of space, the innovative use of intricate sets, the filling of the frame with all kinds of mayhem, but Playtime has its own unique spirit.
I have read some critical commentary about Playtime, saying that it is about urban alienation. Come again? If urban alienation is portrayed in Playtime (and it is), it is portrayed in a way that is distinctly absurdist, turning the mundane into the surreal. It does not bemoan the fate of modern man, it does not say, “Oh, look at how we are all cogs in a giant wheel, and isn’t it so sad?” It says, “Look at how we behave. Look at how insane it is. We need to notice how insane it is, because it’s hilarious.” Tati, who had made his name with other films, had a vision of the universe that was comedic. He had made comedies that had done very well for him, but with Playtime he upped his game and went after a much bigger commentary. That was his goal. It was the most expensive French movie ever made (Tati completely built the city portrayed in the film, which is supposed to be Paris – he built the skyscrapers, the roads, the office buildings), and it bankrupted Tati.
It did not do well at the box office, and was a disaster for the director. Its reputation has grown, obviously, and it is now seen as a masterpiece. Tati wanted to present his vision of the universe, his vision of humanity, how it operated, how it looked to him, how he saw things. Apparently he said that he wanted to encourage his audience to look around them at all times, because there will always be something funny going on.
That’s how I see Playtime. I do not see it as a treatise on modern man’s isolation. Otherwise I wouldn’t have laughed so hard watching it. It is not, say, The Apartment, which shows in a much more brutal way what corporate America does to the people working in it, the dizzying array of identical desks stretching far into the background.
There are images in Playtime that are reminiscent of that, but the mood is different. It’s less an expose than a visual commentary. There’s one gag during the section when M. Hulot is tracking down someone in an office, a short officious man in a blue suit who seems to have taps on the bottom of his shoes, clacking along the tile, so you know he’s coming even when you can’t see him. Hulot needs to speak to this man. He chases him through a maze of cubes and contained offices. At one point, the camera looks down on the action. You have to follow Tati’s unspoken instructions: Look closely at this crowded frame. There’s a lot of funny shit going on here. We see Blue Suit over in an office to the left. A man in an office to the right calls over to Blue Suit’s office. A green light comes on to show that the phone is ringing. We hear the man’s request to Blue Suit, he needs a report of some kind, he needs the numbers. Blue Suit leaves his office over to the left, click-clacks his way over to the outside of the office of the man who called, pulls out a drawer in the outer wall, looks through the files there, pulls out a folder, click-clacks his way back to his office over on the left, picks up the phone and calls the man back (the man whose office he was just standing outside of), and gives him the numbers requested. The man says, “Thank you” and hangs up the phone. The gag here is that the folder that holds the numbers requested by the man is in a drawer literally three feet away from said man, but instead of just stepping outside his office to get the numbers himself, he has to call Blue Suit. Or, why does Blue Suit return all the way back to his office to call the guy when he could have just knocked on the guy’s door, which was right there? That one moment is a perfect representation on the insanity and inefficiency of bureaucracy. Anyone who has worked in an office, anyone who has ever said about some byzantine office protocol, “Why on earth do we do it THIS way – it would be so much easier if we just did it THIS way …” will recognize that moment.
Another problem with Playtime is that describing the gags ruins them. Description does not do them justice. It’s like trying to describe the dance with the dinner rolls in Gold Rush. At some point, you just have to say, “You just have to see it to understand how perfect it is, how funny it is.”
There is no lead character here, and no closeups. Everything is done in medium or long shot. Tati is a master of crowding the frame. At times, it’s overwhelming because you don’t know where to look. My eye kept scanning the frame and no matter where I looked, something hilarious was happening. It’s a masterpiece of group pantomime and I would love to know the process with the actors: how did he coordinate all of that action? There are scenes that are minimalist moments of hilarity: one long gag about leather chairs that exhale with air when you sit on them.
And then there are huge group scenes like the disastrous restaurant opening which have to be seen to be believed. There are 100-plus people in that restaurant: waiters, musicians, bartenders, and guests, and everyone is having their own private drama, and they are all in the frame at the same time. There’s never been anything else like it. It reminds me of those crazy cartoons in Mad magazine, crammed full of figures and chaos, with so much going on that you just sit and soak it all in, your eye scanning this way and that. Your eye is the camera in that situation. Without closeups, you are not told where to look. Your eye has to zoom in on what strikes your fancy. It’s up to you. Playtime is made for multiple viewings.
There is no plot, although there are storylines running throughout. A group of American women on a tour ooh and ahh at the sights out of the tour bus window. Of course, all they see are the Tati-built skyscrapers, but when glass doors are opened, you see reflections in the doors of the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre. M. Hulot, Tati’s alter ego, star of his other movies, wanders through the action clumsily. He befriends (sort of) one of the American women. He shows up in every scene. He is looking for the Blue Suit man. There is an Expo of new technology, and the American women stroll through, oohing and ahhing. One of the American women, Barbara, always lags behind the group. She wants to take pictures of the little woman selling flowers but people keep strolling into the frame, ruining her shot. A perfect metaphor for life, certainly, and part of Tati’s point overall: There may be beautiful poetic pictures in life, but good luck with trying to capture it. Besides, the mayhem surrounding the beautiful picture (the shlubby guy who stands to the side staring at you, the swaggering teenagers in letter jackets who ruin your shot, the American soldier who strolls along and decides to take YOUR picture) is usually more interesting. Life is not perfect or static. Things are always changing. There may be beauty in this world, but it will not stand still for you.
Glass doors and walls are a running gag. There is an apartment complex with giant floor to ceiling glass walls, right on the street, and we see the lives of the inhabitants of these apartments playing out in real time, all in the same frame (again: a masterpiece of coordination). One guy undresses and it appears that the woman in the next apartment is ogling the striptease when all she is doing is watching the television in the wall. It is the dovetail of disparate distinct experiences, seen at the same time, that provides the comedy, and this is something ephemeral and hard-to-pin-down that I know from my own life. Life is always going on, behind closed doors, behind glass walls, and sometimes you get glimpses, and if you’re in the right mood it will all seem funny, like humanity is a glorious blundering joke.
My friend Allison and I were walking down a street in Ranelagh, outside Dublin. It was mid-morning, we had gone to get coffee. We strolled by a shop and the door was open and we both glanced in the open door at the same time, and we both saw the same thing. The shop was tiny, a very small room, and in that room, a man was struggling with a giant blow-up snowman that was in the process of deflating. Allison and I both saw the same thing, and didn’t react in the moment. We kept walking. Neither of us mentioned what we saw, at least not right away. Finally, Allison said, quietly, “That was pretty funny, wasn’t it.” Once she broke the silence, of course we couldn’t stop talking about it, and we have been laughing about Frosty Deflating in a Small Room ever since. “Frosty’s goin’ DOWN,” Allison said. There was a tragic quality to the image: the snowman looked so sad as it deflated in that small room, and the Irish shop owner was just flat-faced, going about his business, taking Frosty down. But the glimpse we saw, outside of its obvious context (Frosty had clearly been out on the sidewalk as some sort of advertisement, and now the advertisement was over, so Frosty had to be deflated), was so full of comedic potential. It looked like the shop owner was in some sort of Grand Battle with the blow-up snowman.
I thought of the Deflating Frosty a couple of times as I watched Playtime and struggled with myself to find comparisons in my own life. “This is making me think of something … what is it … ” I have many more examples, and I’m sure you do, too – moments when an image is so weird, so bizarre, that it launches thoughts in your head, as well as make you laugh. But it’s such a transitory thing, comedic moments like that, and if you’re not in the right frame of mind (i.e.: cranky, irritated, annoyed), you will not even notice the moment. Or if you do, it will come across in a very different manner: You will think, irritated, “Jesus, why didn’t the shop owner deflate Frosty on the street where he would have more room? How stupid can you be?” There are people who actually walk around with that attitude every single day. I wonder if these are the same people who would see Playtime and say, “This is clearly about the sadness of modern man’s isolation and alienation.” I don’t know. All I know is, if I look into a shop and see a giant deflating Snowman and don’t find it hilarious, life would be a very poor thing indeed.
The restaurant scene comes 3/4s of the way through the film. The restaurant is opening even though they clearly are not ready. The first guests arrive and the workmen have to hurriedly roll up the paper covering the floors. The paint is not dried on the wall. The poor maitre d’ who does his level best to remain calm and ingratiating strolls across the newly-laid dance floor and one of the tiles sticks to his shoe and has to be chiseled off by workmen huddled in the kitchen. The chairs at the tables all have little spiky crowns at the top (the logo of the restaurant) and they tear the waiter’s clothing to shreds, and also leave marks on the backs of the patrons. Later, we see them gyrating on the dance floor and they all have crowns indented on the backs of their clothes. People stroll by, drunk, with a crown pressed into their back. The lighting tracks along the floor turn on and off, at random, and waiters trip and fall because they can’t see where they’re going. An elegant woman struts along one of the aisles between the tables and suddenly her foot sticks to the floor. Everyone watches this happen, and seem agog with horror, and she remains frozen, until she yanks her foot free, and then undulates on her way as though nothing happened. The bartender complains that the banners that hang from the ceiling from over the bar make it so he can’t freakin’ SEE his own customers. He demonstrates, by turning to the side, and sliding his head through two of the banners. (I was howling.) Drunk men fall off the stools in the bar, in glorious pratfalls that stop the action around them, although only momentarily. Everyone is aware that nothing is working in this restaurant, and at first there is some annoyance on the part of the patrons (“where is my food?” “why is my foot sticking to the floor?” “this is the wrong coat-check ticket.”), but eventually everyone just succumbs to the absurdity of the situation and a raging party breaks out. People gyrate on the sticky dance floor. One of the walls collapses in a corner, and a brash loud-talking American decides that he will create an alternate restaurant in the shattered remains of the corner, and only people with the crown-logo marked on their backs will be allowed in. The hip band quits in disgust, and Barbara, the American who always lags behind, sits at the piano and plays beautifully. People dance, slowly, and M. Hulot brings Barbara a glass of champagne (although naturally he wipes out as he steps up onto the stage, but when he stands, the glass of champagne is still full). When the scene begins, the patrons entering the restaurant are all decked in furs and gowns. It is clearly supposed to be an elite establishment and anyone not dressed to par is turned away. But by the end, drunks are wandering in off the street, people in loud checked shirts line belly up to the bar, and the maitre d’ has lost control entirely.
It is a masterpiece sequence that goes on FOREVER and again has to be seen to be believed. At all times, the frame is jam-packed with action. No matter which way you look something funny is happening, in the foreground or background, or peeking in off the periphery. It’s unbelievable. How did they organize it? It LOOKS like chaos, but this is film, so obviously it is controlled chaos, it is choreographed, planned. You cannot create something that looks THAT out of control without being totally in control. The miracle is that it worked.
There is nothing too mundane to escape Tati’s eye. A green drugstore light buzzes with neon annoyance, and later, when the mechanics try to fix it, only the “O” in “DRUGSTORE” remains lit, and it happens to be just above the head of a distracted priest.
Men struggle with a pane of glass on a second-floor, and pedestrians below watch the pantomime. There’s an ongoing gag with a pane of glass in What’s Up Doc that is a nod to this moment in Playtime. Men struggling with their environment, men not questioning what they are doing (“we must move this pane of glass across the street”), and events conspire against their success. We all struggle against such events. We all look absurd in the process. Nobody escapes this world without looking ridiculous. You can dress up in your nice fur and your shiny stilettoes, but that will not stop the world from placing a sticky unfinished floor in your path. Good luck with maintaining your dignity. Good luck with maintaining your facade. The fun of Playtime, expressed perfectly in the restaurant sequence, is that it shows that the facades we believe in, the facades we put so much store in, are really boundaries that keep us from being our true wacko selves. And yet we continue to dress up and go out to a fancy dinner, and we keep expecting that the world will conform to our ideas of it. The world never cooperates. And it’s best to just go with it rather than resist. If you were the type of person to storm out of that restaurant in a huff, and write a complaining note later on, then you would have missed the fun of what happens when everything goes wrong, what happens when you let go of your idea of how things Should Be, and succumb to the insane reality of How Things Are.
Another story from Ireland: I was in Ireland with my sisters. We started out the night at a bar in Donnybrook. We met a bunch of guys. They were very nice and wanted to show us the real nightlife of Dublin, the after-hours places. (Dublin closes up early.) So we all piled into our rent-a-car and drove into Dublin. They took us to a disco. There were silver disco balls, a packed dance floor, and gyrating Irish people. We all took to the dance floor and had a blast dancing with our new friends. Then, suddenly, all the lights went out and the music stopped. A blown fuse. It was pitch-black. Mayhem erupted. The Irish guys who had taken us there were mortified, and kept saying stuff to us like, “This never happens … of course it would happen on the night we want to show you this place.” The crowd inside was told to exit onto the street. Our coats and bags were still in coat-check. They wouldn’t let us pick them up. It was December. It was freezing. The entire disco stood on the sidewalk, as fire trucks and policemen raced to the scene to investigate. People had brought their beers out with them. My sisters and I got separated from one another. Every. Single. Moment of that time on the sidewalk was hysterical. The overall mood was rowdy and hilarious. It was a group comedic event. I would overhear statements as I walked around looking for my sisters (one guy: “My wife just had triplets. She doesn’t want to be seein’ me for a while.”), or my sisters would say to a group of guys, “Have you seen my sister?” and some random person would answer, “Yeah, I saw her over there.” These people were all strangers to us, but everyone knew who we were by that point. Suddenly, someone started singing “American Pie”. The entire crowd joined in. We, as a group, huddled freezing on the sidewalk, sang the entirety of that song at the tops of our lungs. Beauty equaled comedy that night. Every single person there treated the annoyance of the lights going out and having to stand on the sidewalk as an opportunity for hilarity. No one threw a hissy fit. No one complained, no one said anything like, “This is OUTRAGEOUS that we can’t get back inside.” Not one person. The plan: to go dancing in Dublin – was thwarted. But what actually happened was far superior and far more memorable.
I thought of that night in Ireland as I watched that restaurant sequence. Everything going wrong allows humanity to burst forth in its capacity for fun, creativity, and flexibility. How we react to things going wrong doesn’t just say something about who we are, it says everything.
Perhaps you have to be a certain kind of person to perceive the comedy in human life. There is some truth to the theory that most comedians work from a place of pain and sadness, but when we are talking about a comedic outlook we are talking about something different. I am drawn to those who see life as ultimately a funny affair. They seem to hold the secret to life. Perhaps it requires optimism, optimism that is not the pat and too-easy “everything happens for a reason” brand. A comedic outlook on life requires the type of optimism that means you really are open to what is happening around you, and more than open, you see it all as ripe for comedic potential. You look, you see, you make connections, you say, “God, look at that. Isn’t that hysterical?” Such observations and connections can help affirm that life is, perhaps, not always good, but it is certainly always interesting.