Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tati's Playtime

Obviously, this attempt at summarizing some thoughts on Rosenbaum’s Great Transition course at the Film Center is several months late. I originally began working on it right after the final course screening (of Tati’s Playtime) and had hoped to dovetail some thoughts on the film and his course overall with the then-current anniversary of May 68. The process of buying, and then moving into a new home with my significant other curtailed most of my movie viewing and writing for the summer, and the end of this essay is a bit rushed and truncated – you’ll have to forgive me. But I wanted to offer these thoughts, for whatever they’re worth, before embarking on Rosenbaum’s next course – The First Transition, which begins next week. I’m going to attempt again, and this time with (hopefully) more success, to attend each screening and blog about the films. So, while reading (skimming?) the following, feel free to pretend like it is late May, 2008.



Writing recently on the release of Rauol Walsh’s 70mm widescreen western The Big Trail on DVD, critic Dave Kehr maintains that had the film been a success, it might very well have changed the shape of movie making. Instead, it only changed the course of director Walsh’s career. The same could be said of Jaques Tati’s Playtime, a bold cinematic experiment hiding behind the façade of a slapstick comedy. Shot entirely on constructed sound stages, the film bankrupted him, forever dashing any dream he had of casting off his most famous creation, Monsieur Hulot.
Plot synopsis is virtually useless here, as the film is, essentially, about everything. More precisely, the film is about a myriad number of potential narratives, each one involving different people trying to make sense of the modern world around them. Contrary to conventional dramatic norms, there is no real protagonist, nor is there a dramatic arc of any sort, nor is there a romantic subplot (I might add that part of the film’s revolutionary conception of narrative is that it does in fact include all of these things, just in ways that we are not accustomed to noticing). In Tati’s conception of our world, there are no close ups, the close up assuming the privileged position of one person. Instead, in a case of the radical humanism that has run through most of the film’s in Rosenbaum’s series, Playtime comes closest to fulfilling Bazin’s notion of a democratic cinema that gives its viewer maximum freedom through maximum choice. Not only does Tati refuse to direct the eye to anything in specific, he actively seeks to choreograph multiple gags simultaneously. As Rosenbaum pointed out in his lecture, it is one of the only films that demands multiple viewings, not only to attempt to discern all of the action happening at any given moment, but also because each subsequent viewing is actually different depending on where one sits in a theatre. Truly, Playtime is a film that challenges while it entertains, demands attention from viewers while rewarding them with visual pleasures not found anywhere else in modern cinema. Describing even the first section of the film would be a huge undertaking, such is the film’s visual and thematic complexity, but is perhaps necessary to give some impression of what I’m talking about.
The film’s first shot (excluding an opening credits sequence imposed over a lovely clear blue sky) is of two nuns walking along a corridor. The camera is outside the building, framing the figures through glass. As they walk, little wings on their habits flutter in rhythm to their steps. It’s a winning moment in and of itself, the absurdity of small flapping pieces of cloth presaging the kind of absurdist physical comedy we are in store for, as well as immediately establishing the film’s key visual motif, the idea that glass is the only thing separating us. The next shot introduces us to our first glimpse of Tati’s fully realized universe – that is, a shot encompassing an interior scene of extreme depth of field and little-to-no camera mobility.
We see a couple occupy the foreground, towards the left of the frame. They are seated, and we can envelope in our field of vision many seats extending behind them, a walk way, cubicles to the right of the frame, and huge floor-to-ceiling windows in the distant background. Silhouetted in these massive windows are three figures, almost like paper cut outs. A man enters frame right and begins to traverse the entirety of the shot, from foreground to background, walking roughly from right to left of the screen. Entering from the extreme background from left of frame, another figure begins down the walkway, passing the first figure. Meanwhile, the couple in the foreground bicker, as the woman seems intent on pestering the man and fussing with his collar. More figures come and go, intersecting at diagonals at certain points in the mid and background of the shot. I hasten to add that most of these actions are happening simultaneously. The effect is both immediate and immediately shocking. With no close ups or insert shots to direct our attention, where do we look? It tales a few moments to get ones bearings, but the intention seems clear: that we should be looking everywhere at once (those silhouetted figures in front of the windows also move, by the way, providing one more thing to look at and to focus on). Before we have any clue as to a narrative, or what will transpire between this bickering couple, a solitary figure emerges in the mid level of the frame, a portly janitor carrying a broom. He looks around sheepishly, clearly seeking something to clean, realizing that this large public space of shining metal walls and sparkling, glossy tile floors has not a spec of dirt on it. It’s a lovely comic moment, the awkward gait of the janitor, his apparent desperation to find something to clean, and his eventual shuffling off, his mighty broom limp at his side. We cut to a new shot, the seated couple providing an axis with which to orient ourselves, as the scene now recesses from frame left to extreme frame left. Now things get really busy, visually speaking, as a nurse enters the scene and opens a cubicle, revealing a previously hidden room and adding yet another new space to the shot, further disorienting our attention (even more to look at!). A large group of children enter the shot in the extreme background. Another bank of windows reveals the tail of a passenger jet slowly traversing the horizon line of the composition, finally revealing that we must be in an airport. There is a significant number of other comings and goings which don’t seem necessary to describe here. We cut again, now focusing on a bank of customs agents. A woman scoffs indignantly at the prospect of having to declare anything, followed by an American tour group, a gaggle of women traversing the station with a dull roar of chit chat. As they make their way through, a number of paparazzi enter the field, photographing a petite, elderly gentleman they refer to as “Mr. President” (the president of what is never revealed, or is a cultural reference beyond my scope of knowledge). We cut again (always in extreme wide shot, with a maximum amount of visual information thrust at us) to the tour group walking out of the terminal, the paparazzi and Mr. President following behind them. As they pass, our befuddled janitor reemerges from frame left, again protecting the airport terminal from an infestation of dirt that never seems to come. These details are important for several reasons: the return of the janitor signifies an attempt at cross pollinating gags across several scenes, and the reoccurrence of originally marginal figures will figure in to the remainder of the film; the introduction of the American tourists is preceded by another event (the woman who is miffed at declaring her luggage), and followed by another event (the photographing of Mr. President, who also follows the group out of the terminal). Both are potential narratives that are introduced, only to be quickly forgotten. But far from being a screenwriting mistake, they are essential to Tati’s conception of the world - that is, the notion that everyone and everything is interesting and worthy of a least momentary attention. These brief insertions also solidify Tati’s determination to construct an idealized world view, a view that sees everyone as equal and part of the same interconnected journey. That we only glimpse them for a moment only cements his point: we have to relearn how to see the world (or, at least, his version of the world).
Hulot will eventually be introduced, and several astounding set pieces follow him as he bumbles around this monstrosity of a modern metropolis. Everything is pristine, shiny, polished and cold. Misunderstandings and mis-communications abound, elaborated upon by a recurring series of gags featuring Hulot look a-likes and missed connections. There are several scenes involving an elaborate boxing of space – multitudes of people sharing the same screen, but separated by cubicles. All of the film’s players will eventually wind up at the grand opening of a chic new restaurant, which will gradually fall apart in a series of jaw-droppingly choreographed stunts.
Rosenbaum had quite a few things to say about Playtime, a film which he confessed is perhaps his favorite of all time. He qualified this statement with another, that it is one of the only films that he can think of which virtually demands multiple viewings from different seats in a theatre. If I may interject a personal aside, I would mention that I had been reading about Playtime for several years before I saw it for the first time. In one of his essays collected in Placing Movies, Rosenbaum mentions a scene in which Hulot, while purchasing a gift for Barbara (one of the American tourists), notices an engagement ring on her finger - a detail that he had not noticed for many viewings until finally seeing the film in its original 70mm format. Armed with this knowledge myself, I must confess that even after seeing the film twice in 70mm that I could never notice this particular moment. It was only during this most recent screening, after forgetting that I should be on the look out for it, that I finally saw it. It is one of the more beautiful moments in contemporary cinema, noteworthy for its depth of feeling as well as its nonchalance and offhandedness - a privileged moment that is all the more rewarding for not being forced down our throats.
The film also charts a gradual progression of rigid straight lines turning into gentler, more organic curved lines. The crumbling artifice of the restaurant that takes up nearly a third of the film is the final part in this trajectory, and as people emerge from the rubble, they seem (paradoxically) more alive than ever before. The lines of separation have broken down, leaving people free to co-mingle, dance, talk, laugh and touch. The film finally ends with a joyous traffic jam, an endless carousel of cars that announces the curve as the now dominant visual motif. Far from Malle’s nihilistic insistence on absolute anarchic destruction at the end of Zazie dans le Metro, Tati charts a far gentler, and more constructive, course of cultural dismantling. If the “straight line”, as embodied by walls, cubicles, and panes of glass, can bend just a bit, we can all be little freer.

Throughout this course, Rosenbaum (surprisingly) interjected very little commentary about the volatile political climate of the time. I’m not sure if this was an effort to leave something for the students to discover for themselves (this is a class, after all, and the events preceding/leading up to the May 68 riots are prime fodder for research projects) or if he was interested in just letting the films speak for themselves. Rosenbaum did tell a story or two about his days in Paris, arriving there mere days after the riots had subsided and the barricades were just beginning to be removed. And certainly, the screening of Klein’s Mr. Freedom sparked some comments on the Vietnam War and potential parallels to our current international quagmire. If Rosenbaum has emphasized anything in his lectures, it is the importance of paying attention to neglected peoples and the importance of familiarizing ourselves with as much of the world as possible. This global perspective is clearly much of the point, as it is in all of his writing. Rosenbaum is fond of saying that he considers foreign films a kind of postcard that allows us a glimpse into other cultures. The New Wave and American indies figured into much of the course and class discussions, but his detours to Africa (Black Girl) and Iran (The House is Black) were, for me at least, the highlights of all the films screened. With May 68 nostalgia in full swing, including two different series of screenings in New York, a dull remembrance by the NY Times A.O. Scott, Gilbert Adair defending The Dreamers at Sight & Sound, a lot of people talking about Regular Lovers (a film Kent Jones has called “a film for people who don’t like, or don’t know, Garrel’s films) and an interesting compendium of archival articles at Sense of Cinema, it seems entirely appropriate (even if accidental) to end his series with Playtime. While not overtly political in any way, it has the most to teach us about living in the modern world and how to relate to each other. I’ll defend Godard to the death, even his much maligned and misunderstood Dziga Vetov Group period, but did the posturing, polemical platitudes and preaching get us anywhere? What is the legacy of the strikes, the confrontations, the upheaval? Did anyone “win”? Is this a legacy we can learn from, or only look back on with rose colored glasses while thinking about “the good old days”? I don’t have the answers, but we should still all be asking the questions. Thanks Jonathan.

2 comments:

Jake said...

You fucked up on the titles. The Big Sky is an awesome Howard Hawks film. The Big Trail is an awesome Raoul Walsh film. Having whetted my appetite for it, you have to now do a post on The Big Sky. Now.

Do you think The Big Trail and Playtime have more to say to one another besides their failures at the Box Office? What, besides capturing the vastness of our existential malaise (if even that), do their individual technical innovations say to one another? Though your parallel is interesting as a starting point, I feel there has to be a reason you picked The Big Trail. Tell me what it is. (SERIOUSLY! I want to know.)

Though it may not have an immediate bearing on what you're discussing here, I feel there is something (interesting, poetic) to be said about the lineage of Playtime by way of the French actualities and their own primitive visual democracy. Lest we not forget the brief cross-pollunation of the early American actualities as well (The Embryonic Transition?) God bless Edison's crooked little heart! While Playtime is generally regarded as an aesthetic watershed, I've always felt it as something of a return to the primitive (albeit infinitely expansive) origins of the French Cinema. Glorious.

Is this as brutal as I can get? Maybe. You wrote an entertaining piece here and I enjoyed reading it. Though I understand your reverence of Rosenbaum, I'm looking forward to more unrelated posts. I'm happy you plan to follow The First Transition, but at the same time I encourage you to write about things he isn't involved in. What the fuck is going on at Filmmakers? Facets? Music Box? You own back-yard? Under-the-bed VHS collection? Post it! HELP US DISCOVER THE NEW, DAN! NEW ADVENTURES ALL-AROUND!!!

Funnily enough, during one of my very last evenings in Chicago, I watched Michael Mann's Collateral with some friends (I really wished you were there so I could discuss this with you). For some unexplained reason, Playtime haunted my brain. I hadn't watched it recently and I hadn't read anything about it in months... But whatever joys Collateral offered me, I could only experience through the filter of Playtime. Though the films aren't aesthetically similar, they share some visual themes/motifs (I'm not sure which term is more appropriate). The role of glass as an emotional barrier seems the most concrete example. Further, the oft. repeated refrain of the dimly lit streets seen from above echoes (for me) a sort of abstract image of Playtime's infrastructure. PEOPLE DOING THINGS! If Playtime is the wide-shot, is Collateral the close-up? Where does that place The Big Trail? A sort of camera-test which also functions as the first entry in the Trilogy of Cinema itself?

Hyperbole?

Fuck yeah.

Daniel said...

I did indeed fuck up the titles - my apologies to Kehr, Walsh, and Hawks. If only I had a good editor, perhaps i could interest you in the job my friend? As to how the films communicate with each other? Such a thought was beyond my original intentions, those intentions being a simple introductory idea that distinctive visual innovations that proved lackluster at the box office wound up simply reinforcing what would become a simple, and lazy, commodified visual grammar (most movies now look like television shows and vice versa). I suppose my (somewhat rhetorical) question would be, simply put, what would movies look like today if one, or both, of these films had been huge commercial hits? Would our current film grammar be substantially different? As Kehr is fond of saying about Walsh, his backgrounds are almost always working separately from his foregrounds, creating an almost entirely distinct visual/thematic dialectic between the two (think about how the characters operate within different settings in They Live By Night). Having said that, I think there is a direct link between the early French actualities (actualists?) and Playtime - Bordwell would call in "staging in depth", and would trace its practice throughout film history (his book "Figures Traced in Light" explores Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou's variations on these kinds of specific stagings - that is, stagings that eschew shot/counter shot and create meaning and specificity through careful calibration of figures in a static space). He might take issue with your "primitive" label! With regards to Tati/Mann - the thought would have never crossed my mind, but since you bring it up there do seem to be some fruitful connections. Your notion of reflective surfaces and glass as a key motif in Mann seems to me dead on. To carry it further, one could argue that Jamie Foxx's character is navigating this modern world seeking/forming human connections with his passengers (the Jada Pinkett character) while the Cruise hitman character merely goes about some kind of pre-ordained mission, that of eradicating that connection. If I recall correctly, the first few shots that introduce Cruise involve specific geometric compositions of escalators, long, impersonal corridors (where he bumps into bald British guy and gets his brief case), and several scenes where he is seen only through reflective surfaces. Certainly, Mann shoots cities as characters in and of themselves (nature to, as we see in Miami Vice's use of depth of field to emphasize clouds, blue skies, water). It's all food for thought, my friend.