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You have one more chance to see the enthralling Playtime the way it was meant to be seen, in a 70mm print, at the Music Box this Thursday, February 28th.Not many filmmakers get to build their own city, but that's exactly what French film director Jacques Tati did for his masterpiece, Playtime. It wasn't the Glory of Rome or Ancient Egypt that Tati reproduced, however, but the perfect modern city of the mid 1960's. On an open field east of Paris, Tati turned architect and created the urban fragment that came to be known as Tativille, a combination of airport, shops and office blocks all designed in the most perfect shiny emptiness of the late International Style. It was the most expensive film ever made in France, and it would go on to send Tati into bankruptcy. And on the site of Tativille, left not a trace behind.
Tativille website. “I'm there to try to defend the individual and the personality that is his. ”
In modern architecture an attempt as been made to ensure typists sit perfectly straight and that everyone takes themselves seriously. Everyone walks around with a briefcase which seems to give them the appearance of being well-informed. In the first part of the film it's the architecture which is dominant.
The big joke of Playtime is that the generic universal space of modernism engenders an ambiguity so profound as to be unsuitable to the specificity of human life. The relentless transparency repels occupation - people seem as trapped inside as a deer in headlights - and provides a visual sense of unity that is ultimately a frustrating illusion. We encounter this theme very early in the film, when a man with a cigarette leans in towards a security guard to get a light, only to be waved brusquely away. For a split-second, we think the guard is simply being rude, until we realize that he's waving the man with the cigarette away because they are on opposite sides of a huge pane of glass.
Always, this kind of destructive slapstick in a film is an outburst of brutal rage. Think Laurel and Hardy, or the Service Station sequence in Mad, Mad World. It is a cathartic, Dionysian expression of the Id's rawest annihilating power.
In Playtime, in contrast to everything else I've ever seen, the destruction not only liberates, it finds a place of grace. Says Tati . . .
Then, little by little, the warmth, the contract, the friendship, the individual that I am trying to defend begin to take precedence over this international decor. It's at this point that illuminated advertising begins to appear, things begin to whirl then to dance before ending in a veritable merry-go-round. No more right angles at the end of the film.As their elegant surroundings crumble around them, and they become increasingly drunk, staff and guests lose their haughty aloofness, with its implicit boundaries of class, and the restaurant is transformed from a ritual of affluence to a giant, rowdy playground. It's as if the restaurant itself has grown drunk, and in the process, the design loses its compulsion to control in favor of becoming a reflection of the very flawed human beings it was built for.
restored Playtime, over ten years ago during it's 70mm debut at the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute, I watched the above scene, like the whole of the film, with more admiration than engagement. Seeing it again now, it moves me to tears. More strongly than anything Rem Koolhaas has ever written, Playtime is a manifesto for messiness in architecture