Tag Archives: Technology

251. PLAYTIME (1967)

(G. Smalley contributed additional commentary and background to this article.)

Play Time

Playtime is a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.”–attributed to Francois Truffaut

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: A nearly plotless “day in the life” of 1967 Paris: a group of American tourists arrive in the city, but instead of visiting the monuments they are taken to a complex of skyscrapers to shop. Meanwhile, Monsieur Hulot is trying to keep an appointment, but gets lost in a mazelike building in the same downtown complex. After business hours, everyone converges on a restaurant on its opening night for a chaotic celebration as the building falls apart around them.

Still from Playtime (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The third of four features in which Jacques Tati played the affable, bumbling Monsieur Hulot.
  • Playtime was in production for three years; the downtown sets were constructed by hundreds of workers and were nicknamed “Tativille” among the crew.
  • The film was incredibly expensive to make and Tati took out personal loans to finance it; it was a disappointment at the box office and he went into bankruptcy, giving away Playtime‘s rights in the process.
  • Tati shot the film in 70mm (which was capable of a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, one of the widest formats), and initially insisted the film be screened only in that format in venues with stereophonic sound, despite the fact that very few theaters could meet these specifications. (Partially for this reason, the movie was not screened at all in the United States until 1972). He later relented and allowed 35mm prints to be struck.
  • Humorist and newspaper columnist Art Buchwald wrote the English dialogue for Tati.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many people will best remember Hulot’s view from the second-floor view of a factory-like job site composed of a maze of cubicles—a workplace prophecy that’s come true. We chose a scene—one of three in the film—where straggling Barbara opens a door to one of her tour’s commercialized sightseeing destinations, only to see the Eiffel Tower (or the Arc de Triomphe, or the Sacré Coeur) perfectly reflected in the plate glass. These shots express Tati’s theme of the disappearance of culture under the ugliness of modernity, while retaining the wistful hopefulness that is characteristic of his work.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Faux Hulots; cubicle labyrinth; doorman with no door

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Playtime is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris. Play Time is a sort of anti-Brazil.


Short Clip from Playtime

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on Continue reading 251. PLAYTIME (1967)

TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

NOTE: The pilot episode to “Serial Experiments Lain” is embedded for viewing (as of date of publication) at the bottom of the post. (May not be available in all countries).

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DIRECTED BY: Ryūtarō Nakamura

FEATURING: Kaori Shimizu, Bridget Hoffman (English dub)

PLOT: Timid junior high school student Lain receives an email from her schoolmate Chisa, who has recently committed suicide. Chisa states that she is not dead but that she has only abandoned her physical body, ending her email with the words “God is here.” After this event Lain develops an interest in, even an obsession with, “the Wired,” a worldwide communications network similar to the Internet. She discovers that there may be another Lain, identical to her in appearance but with a very different personality, inside the Wired, and that the boundary between the virtual and the real world may not be as sharp as it is thought to be.

Still from Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Set in a world where a global communications network is almost like a spirit realm, “Serial Experiments Lain” is undeniably weird and surreal, and it is also quite interesting and entertaining to watch. However, it is a (short) TV series, not a movie, and as such an exception would have to be made in order for it to make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made. The competition is very strong, with true classics such as Stalker and Nosferatu already on the List, and in this company “Serial Experiments Lain” is just not quite outstanding enough to warrant such an exception.

COMMENTS: Mind-bending and confusing plots are not uncommon in anime. A few of the more well-known examples are “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” “Paranoia Agent,” “Rahxephon,” Paprika, and the anime series considered in this review: “Serial Experiments Lain.” What all of these have in common is that they have mysterious plots that leave you wondering “What did it all mean?,” and in fact you can find many Internet debates about the meaning of “Lain.” But does “Lain” really have a true “meaning of it all”? I believe, based on some of his other writings, and his interest in the work of the well-known writer of weird horror , that series’ writer Chiaki Konaka is a weirdophile. It is likely that he chose to make some scenes weird-for-weirdness’-own-sake without having any particular interpretation in mind. In other words, “Lain” is among other things a work of surrealism. It does not necessarily always make complete sense and it does not need to. That said, it contains interesting philosophical and psychological themes that are well worth discussing.

“Lain” is not really attempting to be serious science fiction in the sense of trying to be, to any extent, scientifically accurate. It does, however, very loosely base elements of its story on real scientific theories, although only on theories that have been rejected by mainstream science. We could say that “Lain” takes place in an alternate world where fringe theories of some of the scientists contributing to the early development of Internet technology have turned out to be true. One of the episodes is largely dedicated to presenting excerpts from the scientific history behind the Internet while also presenting discredited theories of the same scientists, seamlessly mixing the fake and real ideas. This episode appears fairly late in the series and can perhaps to some extent be seen as a deus ex machina, but it does have the positive effect that the technology used in the series and some of the characters’ special abilities gain the appearance of having a scientific explanation within the fictional world. However, these explanations do not survive Continue reading TV CAPSULE: SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998)

LIST CANDIDATE: PLAY TIME (1967)

Playtime has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. Please read the Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Tati

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: Monsieur Hulot gets lost on his way to an appointment and wanders around a nearly unrecognizable, technologically transformed Paris.

Still from Play Time (1967)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Play Time is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris.  Play Time is sort of an anti-Brazil.

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on television, there would occasionally be a cartoon showing off a humorous version of cars or homes of the future? There would be no main character, just a narrator describing some startling innovation, and then there would be a sight-gag or funny noise to produce a laugh, and it would move on to the next futuristic comedic set-piece. Play Time is a feature film based on a very similar premise, with two differences:  there is a strong undertone of humanity and history struggling against technology, and there is no narrator to help guide you from one farcical gag to another.

The main characters are French everyman M. Hulot (Tati) and American tourist Barbara, who wander through the modern marvel that Paris has become and are continually obstructed by the technology that is supposed to make their lives easier. Hulot spends a long scene searching haplessly through a (then bizarre-looking but now surprisingly familiar) cube farm to find a businessman with whom he has an appointment. Barbara struggles to take a picture of something uniquely French, not just because pedestrians keep walking between her and the florist she fancies, but also because huge steel and glass buildings have almost completely obscured romantic Paris (the same city Cole Porter lovingly described in 1953, a mere six years before this film was released). With little meaningful dialogue and a tendency to abandon characters to their fates, it is difficult for the audience to make a coherent narrative out of the stark, gleaming, geometric scenes that linger slowly and deliberately on the screen. Particularly during Play Time‘s first half, the series of clever slapstick events that pepper the film supply the only human connection. They allow us to sympathize not only with Hulot and Barbara, but also with innocent cushions that blurt obscenely when sat upon and a broiled fish that is repeatedly heated, spiced, and basted, never to be served.

If discomfort and silly humor were the only features of Play Time, the result would be just like those “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, only bleaker and more disturbing. Fortunately, Tati allows humanity to win over technology, or at least stand on even footing. The citizens of super-Paris do eventually begin to connect with each other. Some of these connections are obvious: Hulot does eventually find his businessman, but he also bumps into several friends from the army, and he also meets Barbara. Some of the connections, though, are subtle, surprising, and hilarious, as when two families engrossed in programs showing on the television sets fixed to the wall dividing their apartments appear to be reacting to the events in the other family’s home. The movie culminates in a riotous party scene—possibly the best I’ve ever watched—at a restaurant slowly falling apart around the revelers due to shoddy construction. Here, technology does its absolute best to ruin the partygoers’ night, but they hardly notice; or if they do, they improvise on the destruction to the advantage of a good time. Meanwhile, a number of seemingly forgotten incidental characters from earlier in the movie—an obnoxious American, a portly sloven, a precise English businessman—come back and become much more alive and interesting amid the chaos. The movie’s weirdness never goes away, but it softens until it gently lands at the conclusion of 24 hours of hectic hypermodernity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris… a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction.”–Time Out Film Guide