Corrierino Consensus Project: Playtime

23 12 2012

The users of The Corrierino forums have recently compiled a consensus list of the best films ever made. Once the votes were tallied, calls for write-ups began and I signed up to pen a few. I will post my entries here as they’re revealed in the relevant thread

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Playtime is not as funny as it could be. Which is not to say it doesn’t inspire laughs, but its gags can often seem like academic exegeses on the mechanics of comedy, procedural deconstructions of bodies in motion, captured by a distant, omniscient camera shooting satellite images of our modern urban tragedy, tracing the webbed span of our society without concern for the humanity of the individuals.

So, Playtime might not be as funny as it could be, but it is certainly depressingly dystopian. What its sparse narrative implies is nothing other than the complete annihilation of Paris. In its stead, rises the famous set built by director Jacques Tati, a full-blown, modernist nightmare, all boxy buildings, right angles, smooth surfaces, transparencies, and ungainly windowpanes. A riff, perhaps, on Le Corbusier’s “Plan Voisin” for downtown Paris, which was never approved. In Playtime, only reflections remain of the 19th century architecture that we associate with the French capital. Mirrored on the glass doorways and storefronts of Tativille, we glimpse the images of monuments and landmarks, the Eiffel Tower and the such, reduced to postcard immateriality, an apparent, reflected presence off-screen. We never see anything besides these reflections, so that the monuments and landmarks become like the ghosts of Paris past, mourned by the city of tomorrow.

Anthropologist Marc Augé famously coined the figure of the Non-Place: airports, freeways, and shopping malls are non-places of passage and transaction, facilitators of international travel, evocative of nothing, flat surfaces that speed our journey onward. Augé reminds us that his non-places also suggest a way of interacting with the environment. Even if the location is profoundly ancient, like the ruins of Rome, the tourist will flatten his environment, superficially consume it in an itinerary that doesn’t lead downward into the depths of history, but outward, to the abstraction of a traveler travelling, parading through a storied terrain that has morphed into a kitschy background, a scrolling screen of local European color. What the human automatons of Playtime do is wake up, not to the existence of an historical Paris – irredeemably lost – but from their own dumb slumber. Their chaotic destruction of a restaurant late in the film is like the victorious return of texture, back to wreak detail on the featureless Tativille.

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