Yesterday I gave my interpretation of Tati’s 1967 film Play Time. I made a complete fool of myself and I should have prepared myself better instead of watching the snooker at the Crucible (that 147!) but here are the notes that I prepared but didn’t use.
Notes on Tati’s Play Time
When I was invited to say something on the psychogeographical elements in Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Play Time my first reaction was: Who? Now I have seen the film I can understand why evoking psychogeography in relation to Tati’s film might be a good idea.
The origin and legacy of psychogeography is intimately connected to the restructuring of Paris. You could say that it inspired three generations of dissent; first there was Baudelaire and his portrayal of the flaneur, then came the Surrealists with their search for the unconsciousness of Paris, best captured by Louis Aragon in his book on the Paris Peasant and next came the Situationists who took their analysis of how the rationalization of Paris was not just a rationalization of the street plan but of society and daily life itself to a revolutionary conclusion. The work of Haussmann was long finished when Tati came to make his film and already a new breed of architects were preparing themselves to redesign Paris once more and this time do it right. The radiant City of Le Corbusier is the icon of modernist Paris that never was: 18 gigantic tower blocks for which a considerable part of Paris south of the Seine would have to be razed. Psychogeography in that sense was dead simple neighbourhood activism. It is unlikely that Tati ever read Le Corbusier directly but his proposals were part of the intellectual atmosphere and Tati (re)created a modernist town that feels right.
Tati: ‘In the first half of Playtime, I direct the people to follow the architect’s guidelines. Everybody is filmed as if moving in straight lines and feeling prisoners of their surroundings. Modern architecture would like typists to sit straight, would like everyone to take themselves very seriously. In the first part of the film, the architecture plays a leading role but gradually, warmth, contact and friendship as well as the individual I defend, take over this international setting and then neon advertisements make their entrance and the world starts to swirl and it all ends up in a merry-go-round. There are no more straight angles at the end of the film’. (quoted from http://www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk/index.php/architecture/jacques-tati-and-architecture/)
When Tati got to design the city that is the back drop of Play Time he took his ideas of architecture as a monstrous inhuman art and what you get is a city that is has become one gigantic undifferentiated hallway in which the hospital, the workplace, the hotel, the airport are indistinguishable from another. Tati presents the life lived in such a city where nature has been conquered, design reigns supreme as a bad dream and where people have been stripped of their wildness, their senses, forced to ambulate from one place to the next searching for the cheap fix of inane novelties. In the city of Tati wandering is either made impossible (the tourist follow a carefully planned path) or a bureaucratic trick to keep you from reaching your goal, ala Kafka. Halfway the film Tati’s starts to introduce elements of resistance and the people are set free. Just as the docile domestic cow sometimes has something of the primeval wild bovine inside it.
Strangely in his equation of fully planned, rational environment with the devaluation of humans to drones he almost verbatim follows Le Corbusier and his dream that a well planned city would create well behaved human beings. The psychogeographic drift (Ian Sinclair included) swallows that formula by assuming that drifting, the break-up of a functional activity into a semi-random play is revolutionarily. The city as a watch that runs as smoothly as design allows. Tati buys the ideology of control-through-design but mocks the ideologue. I would argue that this position both overestimates architecture and underestimates people. Strangely enough this idea is still with us but in the opposite way. The idea of the mallable society may have vanished but the precedence of public space over behaviour resurfaces in the broken window theory that gave the impetus for the Zero Tolerance policing that you sometimes hear about here too. So: we no longer believe that design can make us, but an absence of it can break us.
There is a scene in the film where we suddenly stumble on a great open space filled with a ordered series of free standing cubicles. In each cubicle sits one person. It is hard to gauge how the film must have appeared to the viewers in 67 but this is clearly a comic moment: haha look at what those architect fools have thought off, this will never pass in real life. No labourers will ever allow themselves to work caged in a box without any contact with a fellow human. Working like rats in perfect isolation. Of course the cubicles are here but they are not very popular with employers because who knows what your employees are doing down there, hidden away from view…. Probably they are working on their blog.