Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Play Time (1967)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, and Close-Up)

In a previous "Sight & Sound Sunday" column on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, we discussed the role of space in the French director's famed comedy, and how that use of space was utilized for both humorous and thematic impact. Renoir used deep-focus photography - then a relatively new technique - to accentuate the scale of the country manor and imply the looming world war that's lurking just offscreen. But he also used to give space for some clever jokes in the background, asking the audience to pay attention to every corner of the screen and rewarding those who did. Renoir understood that cinema provided an opportunity in comedy that other art-forms simply did not: visual gags could carry just as much weight as verbal.


Another famed French director, Jacques Tati, took this concept even further with his most acclaimed film, Play Time. The film takes place over a single day in a futuristic Paris that has been redesigned as a modernist landscape, with every building, road, and even person's walking pattern being a straight line. The film is constructed in six loosely connected segments involving two characters consistently crossing paths: Barbara (Barbara Denneck), an American tourist visiting the city for the first time, and Monsieur Hulot (Tati), a middle-aged man who is befuddled by modernity.

Tati's previous films had all focused on Hulot, who had become an enormously popular character with French audiences in the 1960s and transformed Tati into one of the nation's most celebrated comedians. With Play Time, he wanted to distance himself from the character, and instead crafted a film in which Hulot takes on a much more passive role, essentially serving as an audience surrogate for Tati's anxiety about the modern world. Instead, the film is a testament to Tati's skill as a director, as he uses the geometry of the world he created to not only convey his concerns, but also to find comedy in the film's uses of space and sound.

More after the jump.

In terms of physical space, Tati utilizes both deep-focus photography and larger film gauge in an effort to create his modernist world. Deep-focus photography is a technique in which the camera's focus is calibrated so that both the foreground and the background are clear, rather than simply focusing on one or the other. The result is a deeper field of view, creating more space for the audience to take in and providing more opportunities for the filmmaker to fill the frame with visual information. Citizen Kane (1941) is one of the most notable films for pioneering this technique, as is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). To maximize the effect in his film, Tati had a massive set constructed, nicknamed "Tativille," that far exceeded the size of the typical film set at the time.


By having so much space to shoot in, Tati was able to achieve a hollowing effect for the film. The city's monolithic, monotonous blocks of buildings become oppressive when they dominate both the foreground and background of the frame, neatly dividing the image into distinct parts that look exactly the same but are notably separate. Similarly, when Hulot wanders around the inside of an office looking for the meeting he is supposed to attend, the enormous empty space and perfectly-arranged cubicles (nearly 20 years before cubicles dominated corporate offices) make him appear diminutive; there's simply no room for a man like him in this brand-new, modern world. Everything onscreen is straight lines and right angles, creating a feeling of perfect order and design.

The film gauge is the physical width of the film stock that is being used to capture an image. Most films are shot on 35mm film, but Tati here shot completely on 70mm, which creates a wider frame that feels more expansive. This gauge reached its peak popularity during the 1950s and 1960s - Lawrence of Arabia (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965) were all shot in this gauge - but has declined significantly since then; Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012) was the last Hollywood film to be completely shot in 70mm, and Quentin Tarantino's upcoming The Hateful Eight will be the next. Typically, this gauge is used to imply an epic scale.


Tati employs 70mm film the same way that he does deep-focus photography: to diminish the film's human characters while accentuating the increasingly-mechanical world. By expanding the width of the frame, Tati is able to carve out even more empty space, turning characters like Hulot and Barbara into tiny cogs in a well-oiled machine. But by shooting in such a wide gauge, Tati is also able to pull off the film's most interesting thematic feat: as the film progresses, life in this futuristic Paris becomes less mechanical, the linear rigidity of its populace slowly giving way to erratic curves. The film's centerpiece sequence - a night at a fancy new restaurant - benefits from the widescreen presentation, as the audience is able to witness the gradual permeation of color and chaos (in the form of dancing) into the drably greyscale decor. By the same token, the film's finale - in which a Barbara's bus enters a traffic circle on the way back to the airport - wouldn't work nearly as well without the wide frame, which gives Tati the space to make the flow of traffic resemble a carousel ride.

It's not just visual space that Tati manipulates, of course. The film's aural space is equally emphasized through the filmmaker's subtle tweaks. Throughout the film, Tati reduces dialogue down to background noise, faintly heard over the whirrs of machinery or the grinding of traffic. The audience thus has to rely on subtitles to understand what is being spoken, but the message is clear: Tati is drowning out the human voice with technology, emphasizing the reduced role of humanity in modern times. In one particularly bravura scene, Hulot visits an old friend's ultra-sleek apartment. However, Tati shoots the entire scene from outside the apartment's transparent window, with little audible context as to what is happening inside. The sequence plays like a silent film, but Tati frames the apartment like a museum exhibit, with the audience the spectator examining something of the past: human interaction.


This is not to say, of course, that Tati doesn't use sound to emphasize comedy as well. In the office sequence, the clacking of shoes on tile as someone walks down an exaggeratedly elongated hallway is a perfect example of the "rake effect," while the buzz of a neon sign in the restaurant provides some of the film's most unexpected laughs. Tati assumes full command of the film's soundscape, and he utilizes that space in ways that are both thought-provoking and humorous.

Of course, many of the concerns that Tati expressed in Play Time have seen mixed results; cubicles and an over-reliance on technology have certainly come to pass, but the 21st century world still has its fair share of chaos. The film, however, is an exemplary work of a filmmaker in complete control of his artistic vision, crafting a comedy that takes full advantage of both visual and aural space to create a work that amuses and entertains as it offers genuine paranoia and concern for the fate of humanity. Few filmmakers could pull off such a remarkable feat, yet Tati proved he was a master.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Satantango (1994)

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