I had a talk once with a veteran art director, a man who handled the set design for many theatre productions at the NSD, and he spoke about the mental adjustments he had to make during a brief assignment on a movie. When doing up the interiors of a small room, he would be instructed not to bother about every square inch of space, or every shelf on every wall; the exact camera set-up had been decided beforehand and the film’s audience would only get to see a specific portion of the room. It took some time for our man to get used to this slapdash approach. After all, he had cut his teeth on lavish stage productions by Ebrahim Alkazi and others, where set design was not only of utmost importance but also had to be treated holistically: what if a viewer chanced to look at a prop placed at the edge of the set, instead of fixing his gaze on the centrestage action?
But of course, unlike the theatregoer, a movie viewer is at the mercy of what the camera chooses to show him. This is self-evidently true for films that have rapid-fire cuts or camera swooshes – but it can be equally true for sober productions like (for example) Hitchcock’s Rope, which was made up of only nine or ten long takes and set entirely in a three-room apartment. On a casual viewing, you might think Rope is like a filmed play, a “static” movie, and that as the viewer you’re in control, but this is far from the case: the camera movements are subtly orchestrated to enhance the suspense at key moments; the movement of characters from one room to another and the placement of props (notably the wooden chest that is the focal point of the action) are strategically planned. It’s really a very “cinematic” film (in the widely used and restrictive sense of the word “cinematic”, but more on that later).
Watching Jacques Tati’s Play Time reminded me of this chat about the freedom available to a theatre viewer vis-à-vis a movie viewer. Tati’s film is a work that demands multiple viewings if you want to appreciate it fully, for the simple reason that many sequences have several different bits of action going on within the same frame (and most people have only one pair of eyes). There are fixed long shots where the viewer is free to look at whatever he chooses, and this freedom is heightened by the fact that the film has no “story” as such; it’s made up entirely of tiny sub-plots. (Synopsis: a number of people, including many tourists, wander about a large airport, an office complex and a trade exhibition in a Paris that's all pristine glass-and-concrete buildings; as if intimidated by the architecture, they walk in straight lines and turn at right angles. The “old” Paris, with its sightseeing attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, is never seen directly, only reflected in glass windows as if it occupies a parallel universe. Eventually, most of these people and a few others go to a posh dinner party, where things get increasingly busy. That's pretty much it.)
There are no protagonists whose actions can serve as focal points for us – instead, several groups of people walk in and out of the frame, so that some of their faces gradually become familiar (though never too familiar) to the viewer. Tati himself does play his trademark role, the kindly, distracted Monsieur Hulot, bumbling about the place with his pipe and his umbrella, but even Hulot is just one of the many characters, not the centre of attention (apart from two early scenes). All this adds up to an unsettling, even distancing experience for the first-time viewer. Even in a film by Ozu, where a camera might unblinkingly record a whole sequence from a fixed position, there is at least a definite narrative: in a lengthy medium shot of a crowded room, we would know what to watch out for, whom to direct our eyes towards. But Play Time offers no such cues, especially in the superb 45-minute-long restaurant sequence that takes up most of the movie’s second half.
With its eye-popping accumulation of characters – diners, waiters, bouncers, musicians, a maître d’ – all busy doing different things, and a gradual transition from controlled order into chaos, this is one of the greatest movie setpieces I’ve seen; it's so intricate, the mind boggles at how difficult the whole thing must have been to conceptualise, rehearse and shoot. Light and good-natured though the sequence is, I also thought it had some of the dark, anarchic force of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which begins with a group of sophisticates engaging in polite, superficial conversation and ends with the breakdown of civilisation. Tati’s vision is cheerier: when things spiral out of control in Play Time, the effect is liberating, as if the warmth of human nature has been allowed to break through a cold, sterile world. And there is plenty of liveliness in this long sequence: much of the joy of seeing it a second or third time comes from noticing little things – characters’ gestures, quirks of personality – that one hadn’t seen before.
A day before Play Time, I was watching another favourite film, Brian De Palma’s Sisters, an exuberant, full-blooded psychological thriller by a master of such techniques as the split-screen (used brilliantly in this film) – and a master also at the art of using camera movement to conceal things from the viewer (or, in some cases, to give us half-glimpses of things that we can’t be quite sure about). De Palma is one of the great visual storytellers, and I think he was once quoted as saying he had little patience with films that depended too much on words; films that were “basically just pictures of people talking”. I wonder what he thought of Play Time, a film that contains hardly any dialogue (and doesn’t at all rely on words to get its point across) but which is also, visually speaking, static and minimalist – at least when compared to De Palma’s own kinetic, highly stylised approach to moviemaking.
Personally speaking, I’m very grateful for both types of movies. And the many other types in between.
P.S. As you can see this is a rambling sort of post, but I'd appreciate any thoughts on the subject of the camera-viewer relationship, or tips about films that resemble Play Time in style or concept.