Scott: Yes! Watching the woman tweak her husband’s nose followed by people in a different room (really, different universe) reacting in sync with something on TV was the first segment to really catch my attention. Everything before it had the bigthink idea we’ve been talking about it, but that felt like the first time it had been distilled into something magical.
Like a holiday card from David Cronenberg.
Landon: For me the problem of enjoying the film throughout has always been its pacing. Sometimes the gradual procession of events works perfectly (that long walk down the hallway early on, for example), but other times the comic tension seems to get broken when it shouldn’t or doesn’t have to be. So in terms of pure viewership, I remember the movie most often through the gags that struck me most.
But I will say this about watching Playtime in the context of this list: after seeing so many serious art films about the alienation of modern life (L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita), a comedy made about that same subject seems even more of a genius move.
Scott: True. As an updated Modern Times, it’s a lot of (slight) fun with some interesting experimentation. I simply wish I could let Tati know that the oyster shop from The 400 Blows still exists on the same corner in Paris. I think he might have taken heart from that.
Scott: On the other hand, I’ve seen up close the stress people feel when their city is taken over by tourists. Olympia is basically a hub for cruise ships, Venice has been decimated, and they certainly aren’t alone. Famous old cities boiled down to their landmarks. Or their famous collapsing jazz restaurants.
Landon: Perhaps that’s what’s really missing from its satire that makes it feel disingenuous: there’s no sense of protest around the world as is. Mr. Hulot operates like a transplant from pre-modern life, a tourist dismayed at what everyone else thinks is normal. But as is the tone of this film, he’s an observer. Until the restaurant scene, most people around him are able to function remarkably well and efficiently in this world except Mr. Hulot.
Scott: Mr. Magoo versus the Elevator.
Landon: Mr. Magoo versus the Silent Slamming Door.
Scott: That’s why I got more invested by imagining all of it taking place in a sci-fi world where people don’t understand how to interact with objects or other people. So, you know, a farce.
Landon: Yes, and besides, any point that it makes about modern living is made within its first few setpieces, so watching the remarkable choreography of its physical comedy and sight gags really is the draw here.
Scott: I loved being tricked that way. Seeing something familiar (a goofy comedy) wearing completely different attire. What you said about a comic take on modern alienation fits in here as well.
Landon: Also, the film’s use of sound is remarkable — the slamming door bit, that man’s trek down the hallways early on, the noise of the leather chairs, the way that dialogue becomes part of background noise. I don’t know how many other comedies are so acutely attentive to the work of sound in making humor and meaning. It’s a film that uses the tools of silent cinema to depict an age in which many noises are happening everywhere at once.
Scott: Tati certainly used older storytelling tools (specifically silent film trappings) to sell a conversation about beepbooping computers. But I still don’t understand why Tativille isn’t a major theme park. It’s gotta be better than EuroDisney.
Landon: Seriously, it would pay for itself by all the vacuums they sell…That shot where Hulot goes down the escalator and you see all the pre-facto cubicles is just stunning.
The Coens apparently said when they were working on The Hudsucker Proxy that they knew they were in trouble (financially) when they were building such huge sets for a comedy because they were breaking an unstated rule of comedies. But between this, Playtime and Modern Times, huge sets and grand visions can be quite the comic staple.
That said, Playtime was a massive financial failure.
Scott: If this was a quiet tired against modernity, Tati made modernity look gorgeous. And expensive.
So that’s the ultimate question: would you live in Tativille?
Landon: Before I answer that, your point about Tativille is right on in terms of it having been a real possibility. Kent Jones says in a Criterion essay that he wanted to make a live performance space for spectators:
“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.”
And yes, I would totally go to there. But live? I’d like to be an annoying tourist in the “real” Paris first.
Scott: If I couldn’t get a work visa for Metropolis, or Murnau-ville, I’d definitely apply to push buttons in Playtime.
Landon: All these places seem to get destroyed at some point. Modernity should give everyone free hard hats.
And a vacuum cleaner with a light on it to help clean up the mess.