Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reflections on Tati’s Play Time, and what a movie camera lets us see

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.


  1. Jai,
    I haven't been on your blog in quite some time (Infact,I haven't been on any blog for quite some time, including mine - twitter's to blame), but trust me,I feel the loss entirely as my own. As I have said hundreds of times before, it is an absolute pleasure to read your writing and everytime you write of a film I have seen, or have almost put off to see, it absolutely makes me want to go back and see it again, if only to see the things you saw and wrote lucidly about.

    Keep writing. God bless your blog.

  2. Stylistically, I think the Swedish director Roy Andersson's 2007 masterpiece You, the Living shares much with Play Time. It's essentially 50 or so vignettes, shot with a static camera. It's a film with serious depth and detail, one that also demands multiple viewings.

    That de Palma quote reminded me of something Mexico's Carlos Reygadas, one of the kings of the long take, said, which is that much of cinema (past and present) is just illustrated literature, a fact he hates. And Adoor Gopalakrishnan, talking about adapting literature to film and the liberties he takes in doing so, said that what is written is meant to be read, but what he does is meant to be seen.

    I don't mind films that are basically just "people talking" but I think films that depend more on what characters say than how the story is visually told aren't using the art form to its best effect.

  3. Prakriti: thanks - been a very long time since I've got a nice comment like that. Generally speaking, blog comments do seem to have died down in the wake of Twitter and Facebook - no one has much time for these rambling posts any more!

    On another note, I wish I had more time these days to watch movies and write about them. Don't manage as much as I'd like to.

    Jonathan: thanks for the recommendation, will look out for it. Another film I've been wanting to see for a long time is Russian Ark.

  4. Jai / Prakriti, You aren't going to believe this but I logged on to write almost the exact same comment that Prakriti has written !! After many months of putting in long hours at office and not visiting your blog did I come here today to find exactly the kind of post I love. Yours is a wonderful blog Jai and one which is perfect with which to end a long day.

  5. Great Post!
    I've watched only Mr.Hulot's Holiday among Tati's films. By the way, your description of Playtime, especially the bit about several things happening in the same frame reminded me of the famous Rear Window set.

    Great point about Rope managing to be "cinematic" without relying on montage or short cuts. An interesting exception to Hitchcock's signature style.

    Regarding De Palma's comment - a lot of "talky" pictures are cinematic in less obvious ways. I guess this applies to a great many Howard Hawks/William Wyler films.

    I was rewatching The Best Years of Our Lives recently. Wyler uses deep focus to convey a great deal without resorting to close-ups, montage or tracking shots. Especially in the climactic marriage ceremony scene where two different story threads progress within the frame while the camera remains static. I'm not sure if the same effect could have been achieved on the stage.

  6. This blog is my film school. The cheapest at least.


    Please tell me why you choose to be on the literary beat considering you write more and (dare I say?) better (i.e. more passionately) about movies than about literature.

    Is it because having a film beat would mean shifting base to Mumbai; or that most of the films that you care about are foreign and their makers dead; or both of the above?

  7. Shekhar: thank you!

    shrikanth: yes, Rear Window occurred to me as well, though there aren't more than 2 or 3 shots in that film where you can see lots of different things happening simultaneously in the windows across the courtyard. Btw, there's a scene in Play Time that strongly resembles some of those Rear Window shots: a view from outside a building of four separate living rooms (big glass windows, no curtains), with different sets of people watching TV inside, and the set design making it look like they are watching each other (since we can't see the walls partitioning the flats on the inside). Nice sight gag.

    I don't remember The Best Years of our Lives all that well now, but I remember a shot where Fredric March and Harold Russell (playing on the piano?) are in the foreground and we can see Dana Andrews making an important phone call from a booth in the background.

  8. Nimit: it's a combination of different reasons, including the ones you've mentioned. To start with, my career in journalism never followed a neat trajectory. I was always very unfocused: first worked on a copy-desk, then started writing features and a column about cricket, then joined Business Standard and did crappy corporate feature stories before the paper's Weekend section underwent a change that allowed me to focus on books. At the time, I was completely out of touch with Hindi cinema (I watched exactly two full-length Hindi movies between 1993 and 2004!) and working on the movie beat wasn't a serious option. So it's all been quite haphazard, not really planned.

    I DO prefer writing about movies to writing about books (and also feel on firmer ground, knowledge-wise, when it comes to the history of the form), but you'd be surprised by how little I've seen of contemporary international cinema. There just isn't enough time to do all the watching/reading/writing one would like to.

  9. Jai: Yes. The phone call scene in Butch's parlour is quite memorable. So is the post-war reunion scene of March and Loy early on in the film.

    By the way, Scorsese's documentary on American Movie History is available on youtube now! Would love to see you review it.

  10. Somewhat unconnected - when you watch Pyaasa (or was it Kaagaz Ke Phool), there's a super shot of a hand slipping out from under a curtain and pushing a rocking chair to make it rock. It's a close-up. Certainly not what the camera wanted you to see! I'm sure there are many more such editing boo-boos I can't think of off-hand.

  11. I thought 'Play time' made an interesting contrast with Vertov's 'Man with a movie camera'. The first is amazingly democratic in its approach - no one is telling you what to watch, the eye is free to pick out its own favourite region. Vertov is at the other end of the spectrum - we are controlled so strongly by his rythmic cutting and splicing that we have no options in terms of what we can see or think - it has to be what the director wants us to concentrate on.

  12. Shamya: I sense malice in your comment. This is just another attempt to slander the late Mr Dutt, whose genius continues not to be properly appreciated in certain philistine circles. As any sensitive film critic will tell you, that hand was a deliberate component in the mise-en-scène - it represents the Hand of Fate, rocking all our lives along. Thematically it is very important, nay essential, to Mr Dutt's oeuvre in general. Similar Hands can be seen on the lower-left side of the screen in parts of Mr and Mrs 55, adjusting Ms Madhubala's gowns.

    Also remember that when these films came out most movie-audiences had to sit in uncomfortable, hard-backed chairs, not the snug La-Z-Boys that you find in every multiplex today. A rocking chair provided the illusion of comfort. Mr Dutt was a man decades ahead of his time.

    A Fan Apart: there's another film I need to look out for. Have read about it but haven't been able to get a copy (and no, don't direct me to YouTube!).

  13. Definitely not for this one! It deserves decently big screen, good speakers...

    Interesting that Jonathan mentioned Reygadas...he shares a penchant for long unhurried takes with the Tati of 'Play Time', but does very different things with them. 'Play time' rarely has a break in its action; 'Silent Light', which i saw recently, has takes that are so long, life seems to hang in suspension.

  14. Permit me to go off on a tangent which is almost unrelated to your post- What liberties taken in cinema can amount to cheating the medium?
    How far do cinema and theater diverge as a medium?
    Is everything technically possible in a medium should be welcomed in the mainstream of a medium or should there be an aesthetic elitism about some core permissible techniques?

    IMO a voice over amounts to cheating the medium It blurs the line between literature and cinema.But then almost every film noir has it.
    OTOH the potential of cinema as a visual medium is largely untapped.If a movie is completely theatrical, is that a betrayal to the spirit of cinema?

  15. Rahul: Voiceovers can often accentuate the impact of the imagery on the screen. Consider the famous newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane which annihilates disbelief like nothing else. Or a similarly moving narration in Walsh's Roaring Twenties. Or even the flashback narration of Anne Baxter in I Confess. In these movies, the narration enhances the power of the visual medium rather than detracting from it.

    However, in certain films, the voiceovers completely overwhelm the visuals to the extent that the movie becomes a sort of a book reading session. I think this holds true for some of Woody Allen's films. Vicky Cristina Barcelona for instance. I think that amounts to a "betrayal to the spirit of cinema" as you put it.

  16. for no particular reason, I think you'll like 'last year in marienbad' very much.

  17. Jai,

    A delight to read this entry as well as the comments, as always.

    Some thoughts:

    Playtime remains one of my favorite watching experiences because it was hilarious, more hilarious than any Chaplin work. My favorite scene was when a cleaner develops "horns" and another when Hulot keeps walking, endlessly, along the hallway. I liked your reading of it, "as if the warmth of human nature has been allowed to break through a cold, sterile world. " I hadn't thought of it that way, as a subtle victory of the human spirit over the coldness!
    I am pretty sure you checked out the write-up at wikipedia. I think you say it right here: '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. "

    I think that's totally right: There is this fear of postwar architecture and the idea that it can be so deadening-- in all senses of the word.

    I don't think there are any tips to give (Haha! As if I am an authority on this cinema), except what you've mentioned in the blog: view it many times. That's just the point. Overall, I don't think the film lends itself to a neat interpretation, but if it must be read, I think it could be perceived as a critique of the postwar commercialization, industrialization and, of course, corporatization. The sterile, corporate world, with its "in-the-box", linear thinking has created a different kind of havoc in its attempt to mechanize and simplify the world. We no longer know what to do (recall the way Hulot is lost in the corporate work-place maze of cubicles), and even inside the market place, we no longer know how to find anything, let alone ourselves. Everything is in a box and linear, straight-lined and identical, including where we live and how we live. And the old Paris-- I thought it was brilliant in the way it was shown as just reflection-- is something that's beyond our comprehension now; we can only "reflect" on it, not live it, not feel it, not experience it directly. Wiki says this about the picture you mentioned "The apartments: Cubicles for living, standardized behavior on view. (Detail of a screenshot) "

    The film that comes to mind is Wavelength. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wavelength_%281967_film%29
    The role of the camera & the viewer is interesting there as well. No plot, just a murder. The camera doesn't move, it (only)zooooooooms. :)

  18. Parul: thanks for the thoughts. When you say "...created a different kind of havoc in its attempt to mechanize and simplify the world. We no longer know what to do", it reminds me of another favourite shot: the one where the manager of the "noiseless door slamming" company gets angry at Hulot (who he thought had been snooping around his files), storms into his cubicle and slams the door really hard and dramatically - but of course we hear no sound, and Hulot, who hadn't been looking in the guy's direction for a few seconds, looks up and has no idea where he's disappeared. Superb little moment, with so much to say, yet it lasts barely 3-4 seconds.

    I actually hadn't read the Wikipedia entry properly, but with ref. to what you've highlighted (people moving in straight lines) I do recall an old Tati interview where he said, somewhat cryptically, that his film is about "straight lanes turning into curved lines". Watching it again, I imagine he was talking about the breaking down of order in the restaurant scene. Lovely shot of the cars moving in roundabout formation at the very end.

  19. What liberties taken in cinema can amount to cheating the medium?
    How far do cinema and theater diverge as a medium?
    ...Should there be an aesthetic elitism about some core permissible techniques?

    Rahul: I don't think there are cut-and-dried answers to any of these questions. If you were to suggest "core permissible techniques" to a director like Godard (to take just one very obvious, high-profile name), he'd probably guffaw. And why should we summarily denounce a technique like a voiceover without looking at how it's used in a particular scene? It's possible, for instance, that a voiceover is brilliantly complemented by (or contradicted by) camera movement so that the two things, taken together, enrich the scene.

    Shruti: saw it a long time ago, found it a little tedious at the time. Will try to see it again.