Playtime Jacques Tati (Fr 1967) Jacques Tati
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle, 31 07 2011 Ticket:£5.00
… Yes it’s a film from another planet….
Francois Truffaut on seeing Playtime wrote: it was “… a film from another planet where they see things differently.”
Playtime is a film that is simply about seeing. Seeing what’s going on. There is no story. Playtime is not grounded in the passivity of ‘looking at’ or ‘watching’ images unfold. It’s a film that places the viewer in a position where either they’re actively with Tati’s creative movement through frame and time as ‘seers’; or they miss the movie.
The opening sequence is located in the sort of typical modernist architectural structure where the construction and organisation of space provides no statements about the building’s purpose. The space is expressively functional but not expressively purposeful. It’s an example of Deleauze’s, “anyspacewhatever”. In the opening shots we see: two nuns; a nurse appears briefly, and then we see a woman asking a man if he has got his pyjamas. Perhaps we’re in a hospital: in fact it’s an airport. Playtime starts to open up its logic. On Tati’s filmic plane, appearances, the things that we see on the surface are what he/we can play with. That’s all there is: surfaces; that’s all we can see, but it’s enough. Meaning in Playtime is extrinsic not intrinsic.
In the first sequence the airport comes to life. The frame fills with people and the audio track makes itself heard, takes on a life of its own independent of all the comings and goings of people bustling through frame. Groups gather round desks, airline personnel move sharply to their duties and the screen is animated by arrivals of large groups of tourists, who herd-like shuffle and trip through the space seemingly immune them from the surrounding world. As they crocodile out of the Arrivals Gate we see that they are simultaneously an amorphous and implacable force. Overlaying the optical spectacle the sound track creates another stratum of reality, employing heightened ambient sounds from the environment which are normally disattended: the roaring of the air conditioning, the call signs of the PA system, the public announcements for elusive individuals. These naturally occurring effects are an alternative channel through which apprehend the situation and which exert a specific contextual psychic grip on the space.
Playtime’s key concept is disassociation and its main structural element is the disassociative splitting of the optical and sound situations. This splitting must have been prompted by observations that Tati made in the 1960’s. Today the disassociation of the optical from sound situations is even more radical. But there’s no Tati around to find a form to express it.
Tati’s realisation of the inexpressive nature of contemporary spacial organisation and the concomitant radical separation of sound and visual perception are the core of the Playtime thesis which most vividly played out in the sequence that takes place in a large glass fronted office block. Contemporary life is seen as afflicted with a state of mind in which disassociation/disconnection/discontinuity are the prevalent and sometimes dominating characteristic of urban experience. Disconnections of ends and means: the massive modernist transparent glass structures of corporate capitalism are the places where fateful dark secret decisions are made. These structures are haunted by beings who struggle to remember why they are there and who lapse into discontinuities of being and intention as their purposes languish and are replaced by other needs. Spaces which you expect to be silent, which you think are silent, roar with the sound of the machinery that operates their microclimate. Tourists, deterritorialised gaggles of people wander through the space their agitation and continual motion disassociated from any initial intention, and left only with an occasional reflected glimpse or souvenir of the city they came to visit.
Instead of a plot, Playtime follows lines of intensity in establishing its core proposition and then testing to destruction its logical consequences. The script moves through a number of settings in which various situations are presented seen and allowed to evaporate rather than culminate. The ultimate locus of the movie’s circuit of intensity is the restaurant sequence which is the site of the complete disassociation of food from eating. Tati sees the restaurant is simply theatre where both the diners and the staff perform. The clients go the restaurant not to eat but to be seen, not to be seen eating but to be seen having ‘fun’. Dining becomes a spectacle where the waiters chefs and manager’s take on the ritualised role of priests facilitating and enabling appearances. As the scene intensifies the music, high energy jazz takes over as the driving force of the restaurant; the clients abandon all simulation of dining and as the restaurant’s façade falls apart about them they party hard whilst at the same time behaving as if nothing were happening. Psychic discontinuities proliferate: doormen open doors that don’t exist, people come and go, waiters adjust their clothing and the manager sports a mien of apparent insouciance.
Tati in his films is obviously fascinated by the way in which white middle class women walked in this era. In Mon Oncle and Playtime their walk is frequently centre frame. In the ‘50’s -‘60’s era middle class women were almost uniformly dressed in fairly tight skirts hanging just below the knee and wore shoes with high heels of about 2 inches. I think what attracted Tati’s attention was the biomechanical disassociation between women’s bodies and their clothes. To walk properly, from thigh to toe wasn’t possible for these women; they had to resort to a number of strange mechanical stratagems to pull the walking trick with feminine elegance. This is what Tati sees as strange fascinating and ultimately very funny as an everyday unremarked phenomenon.
In Playtime as in his other movies Tati’s uses the fullness of his frame to compose the organise filmic events. The action is not limited to centre frame but often dynamically dispersed to the edges. The frames are full of action but the action is not passively presented to us but demands that we search the frame in order to see what is happening. Frames become an assemblage of possibilities that Tati had the visual verve and confidence to exploit and manipulate in manner that demands the audience to be active.
In Playtime, Tati strolls though his script, appearing then disappearing in a series of discontinuities, allowing the logic of the energy that the scenario create to carry the film. Nothing he does ever demands the lime light. His presence is always self effacing and minimal, yet like the greatest minimalists, his less is always more. On screen, whilst never exuding dominance, he attracts the eye like an optical magnet. His presence like his films is full of grace.