The one clear glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in Jacques Tati's Playtime: reflected in glass.
Recently, I caught a triple bill at Cinematheque Ontario.
The day I purchased the Criterion DVD of Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), I decided, in a moment of cinephile-purist guilt, that I would only re-view the film on DVD, and would wait for my first time to be on the big screen. That was six years ago. Am I glad I waited—what an unbelievable theatrical experience this movie is!
I know you are in mid-yawn as you read this—perhaps a write-up on Playtime is only a touch less redundant than one on, say, Citizen Kane—but I’m still in the throes of stupefaction, so thanks for humoring me while I rhapsodize just a bit.
Premise: A group of American tourists arrives in Paris and spends a day in the modern steel-and-glass city. Playtime’s most famous feature is its modernist refusal of the conventions of classical storytelling—it has practically no plot, no dramatic arc and (most amazingly) no real ‘characters’ that we can fasten onto. Even in the most daring narrative films we are given one or more ‘lead characters’ who exist in relief just as ‘figure’ exists in relief and relationship to ‘ground’ in a painting. But figure and ground are (democratically!) indistinguishable from each other in Playtime.
Also, to lasso a musical analogy here, the frame in Playtime is polyphonic, with the ‘melodies of action’ occurring simultaneously in the foreground, middleground and background, all given equal importance. But it is simply impossible for your eye to be in three places at once! And so, if ever a film required multiple viewings, it’s this one. Nöel Burch even wondered if “the film has to be seen not only several times, but from several different points in the theater to be appreciated fully." (!)
Playtime has: hardly any real dialogue, just a musique concrète of speech sounds; no single language but interchangeable shards of English, French, German, Spanish, and more; no subtitles despite this profusion of languages; and no close-ups, only medium or long shots.
What Playtime shows us is the ridiculous reverence we display—silently, with hardly a thought—for the modern spaces in which we move about all day, every day. If we could somehow turn an eye on ourselves and see ourselves in these spaces, we’d see the unwittingly hilarious role each of us plays in that epic comedy, 'modern living'....
It’s always bothered me that I write about Western movies while knowing next to nothing about Western religion, specifically Christianity. I was raised Hindu and even though most of the schools I went to as a kid were run by foreign (Western) missionaries, they weren’t permitted to teach Christianity or proselytize in schools. So all of us Hindu, Muslim and Christian kids took a religion-neutral “Moral Science” [sic] class instead.
Anyway, I’m fairly clueless about picking up on Christian symbolism in movies, which is why I’m both stunned and a bit perturbed that some of my favorite filmmakers (e.g. Bresson, Dreyer) have Christian themes running through their films. I respond strongly to what I intuit without difficulty to be the spiritual import that permeates their films, but the grounding of the Christian themes in details quite escapes me until I read about it later. It’s just another example of something I’ve always believed—that I often learn at least as much about a film from reading or hearing what others have to say about it than I do by simply thinking about the film on my own in solitude. (Yet another reason why I value the blogosphere so much....)
Rosselini’s Europa 51 (1952) is the second film of his “Voyage” trilogy, which includes Stromboli (1949) and Voyage In Italy (1953); all three feature Ingrid Bergman in the lead. The trilogy is a long-acknowledged landmark of modernist cinema—Antonioni’s films seem unthinkable to me without them. Right after he made Francis, God’s Jester (1950), Bergman reports that Rossellini said to her: “I am going to make a story about St. Francis and [Francis is] going to be you.” Europa 51 was the result.
Ingrid Bergman plays a self-absorbed socialite, but when her son dies unexpectedly, out of deep guilt she decides to devote her life to helping the poor. Both Rossellini and we the audience see her become almost saintly, but the society in the film (her husband, parents, doctors, the Church, etc.) views her, quite simply, as mad. Rossellini films her often on her own (meaning, not sharing the image with others), and shoots her in expressionist, chiaroscuro close-ups; the frontality of these close-ups reminds us immediately of Dreyer’s Saint Joan. (A few years later, Rossellini made his own Saint Joan movie with Bergman.) The film ends on a remarkable note of spiritual grace—no knowledge of Christianity was needed for complete emotional lift-off!—although friends tell me the ending was saturated with religious allusion.
Also, I’m beginning to realize Rossellini’s powerful feeling for place and its relationship to human life, form and psychology, and this is one of many ways in which he is surely an influence on Antonioni. Much more on Rossellini in the works, coming up soon....
The third film on the bill was (against all odds, given its predecessors) the most immediate knockout; I hadn’t even heard of it. Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan lived for four months in a village near the 17th parallel, the dividing line between North and South during the Vietnam war. Their documentary The 17th Parallel (1968) contains no talking heads reflecting on the war, no direct address to the camera detailing war experiences, no historical account of the conflict, and like Playtime, no ‘lead characters’ or ‘story arc’.
Instead, as bombs fall from overhead daily, the film records North Vietnamese villagers at work: (1) Building underground shelters in their homes; (2) Creating daily schedules for rice planting which are coordinated with American bombing runs (when the bombers come by day, they plant at night, and vice versa); (3) Filling in bomb craters for re-cultivation; (4) Cannibalizing unexploded American bombs for parts to make, in one instance, a printing press to publish a daily newspaper for the village! One villager remarks after carefully inspecting the parts disassembled from a U.S. bomb: “It’s better than the stuff we get from Hanoi…”; (5) Building ramshackle portable shelters against pellet bombs in case planting is interrupted by a bombing raid; (6) Proposing a physical exercise program for the villagers, since they spend most of their time underground, in an oxygen-weak atmosphere; (7) Writing long letters to (separated) family in South Vietnam; (8) Singing songs of fortitude while digging, clearing or planting en masse; (9) A tailor at work underground, using a mannequin with half-destroyed arms, ironically reminiscent of Venus de Milo; and (10) The most tragic of all: the village schoolteacher conducting his class underground and teaching 8-year-olds the only English they will need to know—what commands to issue to a captured American soldier to make sure he will do your bidding. Bottom line: this movie will break your heart.
The 17th Parallel was my introduction to Joris Ivens; I know he’s thought to be one of the great documentarists/essay filmmakers in cinema. I have Spanish Earth, taped off TCM, ready to watch. I’d love to get my hands on more Ivens, especially his Tale Of The Wind (1988), which sounds, from what I’ve read, amazing.