Play Time (1967)

Remember those Where’s Waldo? books you use to look at as a kid, those books where there was always more going on in one page than you could possibly hope to find in just one sitting. Jacques Tati’s Play Time has that same sensation where so many things are happening in the same frame that you’re likely to miss most of it on any particular viewing. Some might find this frustrating, but I personally found it to be a revelation.

Play Time follows two people throughout a new and modern Paris. The bumbling Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) who quickly gets lost amid the trappings of modern life and a young tourist (Barbara Dennek) who is more interested in the little glimpses of the old Paris that she finds amid the sleek, grey city. The way their paths often cross and their way of interacting with the city serves as a commentary on modern lifestyle.

Like Mon Oncle, Play Time is a satire of modern life and the impractical and foolish nature of modern sensibilities. From the telephone that has over one hundred buttons to the crane that can’t reach the tall lightpost, a lot of the comedic gags in the film are taking jabs at the way modern style is utterly impractical and, in a lot of ways, foolish, whether it be the impractical nature of the device or the uniform nature of rooms which makes navigating the buildings a disorienting journey.

One of the late extended sequences of the film follows the opening of a new and modern restaurant. Throughout the scene, a series of poor and impractical decisions become clear as the waiters and customers find several downfalls in the design. Not only are these design flaws funny, such as when we see that all the chairs leave a mark on the back of the patrons, but they also serve as a social commentary such as when a man begins to arbitrarily exclude people who don’t have this mark on their back.

What makes Play Time so brilliant is that sense of scale it brings, where multiple things are happening on several levels at once. Before watching this film, I was of the mind that talking about film was fairly straightforward. Everyone saw the same movie in the same play of images and heard the same sounds. Therefore, it would be easy to debate and objectively analyze a film to some extent.

After seeing Play Time, this notion was shattered because I realized that the one thing that would change each time I watched this film is where I placed my focus from moment to moment. There’s too much going on for me to simply take everything in, therefore, each experience with the film will be completely different because I’ll be examining different parts of the film. I then realized that focus is key to any viewing of the film.

What I focus on in films is drastically different than most. I’m less concerned with the plot or entertainment value of the film. I look at the cinematography and the thematic threads more than anything else. People who don’t focus on these things when watching a movie aren’t going to see and notice the things I will. Likewise, I rarely ever think about the nature of a plot structure until I’ve seen a film at least two times.

For me, Play Time opened up my eyes to this notion of focus. For some, it might seem that I’m saying that everything that could be said about film is pure opinion, but it’s not. Like in Play Time, there are things we can all point to as being there, something that most might have missed. In the same way, I hope the way I approach films help people see things they might have missed and I hope by reading other critics I’ll see what I’ve missed. There’s little chance of any one person noticing and bringing to light every last aspect of a film and making a judgment about it, the best they can do is focus on what they are good at examining and derive a thoughtful criticism.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing