Being a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I came to cinephilia through video and therefore treasure opportunities to rewatch classic films projected on the big screen. Many of the benefits of film are notorious–increased resolution and detail, a greater range of mid-tones, projected rather than emitted light; other differences are more subtle–a soothing shutter rather than a nervous scanning frequency and a more rigid relationship between the viewer and the film (video allows a viewer to start and stop a movie at his or her own whim).
Sometimes, watching a video favorite on film can amount to a revelation, completely reinventing one’s experience and understanding of a movie–such was the case when I saw 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and marveled at the clarity of every pore of Peter O’Toole’s sunburned face and the details of Kubrick’s majestic universe, both obscured on video.
Now I can resolutely add Jacques Tati’s restored 70mm Playtime (1967) to my list of favorite, once-in-a-lifetime film screenings courtesy of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood last night.
I’ve had the currently out-of-print Criterion Collection DVD of Playtime for a few years, but although the film is reported to be the only French film ever made in 70mm, the DVD was created from a shortened 35mm print with mono sound. Nothing prepared me for the immersive experience of seeing the film in 70mm with 5-channel DTS, the version which premiered to much acclaim at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. (It was recently released as a 2-disc DVD in France and Criterion is rumored to be planning a rerelease as well.) The new print, which restores Tati’s last approved cut and his English dubbing, allowed me to slip into the film’s world more fully without having to read subtitles.
And what a world it is. Tati spent roughly ten years designing a life-sized city (affectionately known as “Tativille”) complete with his own skyscraper, surrounding structures, and congested streets. In many ways, the setting is a close relative of Metropolis (1927) or Blade Runner (1982), its fictional urban landscape brilliantly representing problems of modern life through steel and glass. It was the most expensive French film ever made at the time, but paradoxically, Tati chose a rigorous, minimalist style for the film and his decision to restrict the presence of his popular screen persona, Monsieur Hulot, alienated audiences and ensured a box office disaster that precipitated many years of financial and legal difficulties.
In his whimsically written 1987 study, The Films of Jacques Tati, critic Michel Chion sums up the filmmaker’s daring approach:
Playtime is, especially in its first part, a film made through a process of elimination.
Elimination of the superfluous: bare decor, smooth, colossal. […]
Elimination of the main hero and the plot: a perfectly circular screenplay which simply enlivens a repetitive world with discreet waves.
Elimination of traditional dramatic mechanisms: nothing to conquer; nothing to assert. […]
Elimination of nature: not a blade of grass, not a breath of sea air is left. […]
Elimination of Paris, although we are supposed to be there: the surviving traces of the city exist only as reflections (like ‘ideas’) on the window panes. […]
Elimination of colours: they were bright and gaudy in Mon Oncle, here they have been sucked up by a sort of huge syringe and left only to exist as signs, position lights in an ocean of grey blue steel. […]
Thematically, Playtime is a critique of urban alienation, but stylistically it’s a stoic comedy of strange behaviors and sounds, ludicrous technology and slapstick humor. A group of roving American tourists point to the traffic lights and exclaim, “Look, their green lights are just like our green lights!” A man on the street asks a second man for a match before he (and the viewer) realizes they are separated by a huge window–the second man is standing inside a building. A shopper carries a tall lamp onto a crowded city bus and riders mistakingly hold the lamp rather than the bus’ vertical rails. People in adjoining apartments watch offscreen television sets and appear to face one another, the camera recording the situation from outside the building like a split screen–when the man in the apartment on the left begins to undress, the woman on the right appears to watch him like a peep show.
On video it’s definitely more difficult to appreciate the film’s subtleties (but don’t let that keep you from trying) and the movie sometimes alienates viewers even today who expect a more conventional comedy. But the screening last night was positively electric, from its ticket line that extended out of the theatre and down along Hollywood Boulevard to its screening suffused with laughter and applause. Once a viewer settles into Tati’s rhythm and perspective, the film offers more aesthetic and ideological pleasures than the last 20 multiplex comedies combined.
I should also give special mention to the fun and elaborate website devoted to Tati’s films, Tativille.com. It provides a quote by the filmmaker that reflects his laudable intentions:
“What I have tried to do is something that spectators would not have anticipated because spectators are always labeling artists and saying, ‘This is the funny fellow, he’s going to make us laugh.’ But in Playtime, it’s quite the opposite, it’s an invitation: ‘Look about you and you’ll see there’s always something funny happening.’ I think that Playtime is made not so much for the screen as for the eye.”