Jacques Tati's film Playtime was released 50 years ago, but has lessons for us today
50 years ago this week, Jacques Tati's film Playtime was released; it wasn't too much of a hit with movie audiences, but it was with architecture students. Tati's set (and it was all a set, all designed for the film) was a cool modernist wonder. M. Hulot wanders through it, totally befuddled by modern technology, much like many people are today. Terri Boake of the University of Waterloo writes:
Tati also makes a commentary on the architecture of the modern city, by filling his set with grey walls, shiny floors and glass walls Tati emphasizes the banality of "sleek modernity" and modernity's elimination of a few fundamental aspects of architecture.
Apartments, like offices, are stark, grey and lack privacy, much like many homes today. They even have transformer furniture.
These scenes both depict places that are supposed to be private, though are completely exposed to a public audience through the floor to ceiling, wall to wall windows. Both settings are supposed to be places of comfort, though are made uncomfortable not only by the lack of privacy but also by the furniture. The apartments feature the modern rectilinear chairs that don't quite squish like normal seats and couches, but pop in and snap back out. The hotel room looks uncomfortably small and features a rectilinear bed that looks equally as uncomfortable as the chairs.
Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Timms describes how "Playtime successfully anticipated — and skewered — other aspects of a society shortly to come: the pantomime of productivity that is the modern office job, the peculiarly kinetic stasis of life in a hyper-connected, 24/7 city."
But the film most deserves our attention — especially today, with so much fear in the air about AI, the robot apocalypse, and so on — for Tati’s masterly, leisurely presentation of technology’s failure to account for human randomness and spontaneity. The characters in Playtime are not dehumanized by their encounters with technology. They become fully human by playfully navigating their way around technology — hence the “play” of the film’s title.
Timms gets how really, not much has changed in fifty years. We are still faced with new technologies and still muddle through.
There’s neither glory nor fear in Tati’s understanding of our technological future, but a simple continuation of the ordinary. Amid the fuss and buzz of technology, Tati says, we make do; we adapt and bumble along. That’s not an invitation to quiescence, but a diagnosis of reality — or the reality that Tati, in 1967, believed was around the corner. Fifty years on, we can say with some certainty, and no small pleasure in the delight of his creation, that he was right.
So why is this on TreeHugger? Because 50 years on, there are many lessons here. Like Tati, we are living in an era of disruption; nobody is quite sure how we will get around, where we will live and where we will work. And we are still adapting and bumbling along. And people still hate modern architecture. The most remarkable thing about Playtime is how little things have changed.