Lines and Circles [PLAYTIME and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY]

Originally posted online in Moving Image Source,  December 3, 2010. — J.R.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a contemporary comedy chronicling a day spent by American tourists and various locals in a studio-built Paris, premiered in 70 mm (or, more precisely, according to Criterion, 65 mm) in Paris on December 16, 1967; at the time it was 152 minutes long, and over the next two months — under pressure from exhibitors, and to avoid an intermission — Tati reduced the length by 15 minutes.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science fiction adventure that stretches roughly from East Africa in the year 4 billion B.C. to the outskirts of Jupiter around 2002, first opened in Cinerama in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1968, and then, in the same format, in New York the following day and in Los Angeles on April 4, during which time it was 158 minutes long; over the following week, based on his own responses to audience reactions, Kubrick in New York reduced its length by 19 minutes, making it only two minutes longer than the shortened Playtime.

Large-format restorations of both these films, along with David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, are coming this month to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for extended runs. The fact that Tati’s and Kubrick’s masterworks, both handcrafted and intricately choreographed epics, originally opened less than four months apart is stimulating some reflection as well as recollection about the impacts these two films had when they opened — their mixed critical receptions as well as the degree to which they implicitly represented alternative paths for big-screen cinema.

I first saw 2001 in New York the week it opened, before it was recut, at the Capitol (where, interestingly enough, F.W. Murnau’s Faust also had premiered, on December 5, 1926) when I was 24, along with two of my three brothers, David (26) and Alvin (22). Afterwards we proceeded to the Playboy Club in midtown Manhattan, where David was a member, and we spent most of the evening doggedly trying to figure out the plot over dinner, without very much success or confidence. We were all impressed and stirred by the movie but more than a little puzzled by what we’d seen, and by the time I went back for a second look a week or two later, some portions of the plot — including the role played by the mysterious monolith in the opening sequence, “The Dawn of Man” — had become easier to follow. (The insert of another shot of the monolith before one of the ape-men discovered the use of weapons was especially helpful.) And as subsequently became clear when the drug-taking counterculture embraced the film as a “trip,” understanding the film as a narrative was less important in many respects than appreciating it as a spectacle — a factor seemingly lost on a good many of the film’s original reviewers.

I didn’t catch up with Playtime until the following summer, in Paris, June 1968, by which time it was playing in second or third run, in 35 mm, with a running time that was closer to two hours. One major sequence was missing from the film at the time — Hulot’s visit to an apartment house with an old friend (“Schneller, from the army,” as one of Criterion’s chapter headings puts it) that he runs into by chance. All of this tour de force sequence, most of it wordless, is viewed from the sidewalk, where one can view through huge glass windows the interiors of four apartments on two separate floors, including Schneller’s on the ground floor on the left, and on its right, the flat of Monsieur Giffard, who has just spent most of the day fruitlessly looking for Hulot — and whose nose is bandaged as a result of having earlier mistaken Hulot’s reflection for Hulot himself and run smack into a glass door. Transparent glass doors and windows are indeed a central metaphor in the film, as well as a concrete illustration of how modern architecture divides people, so that the accidental shattering of the glass door leading into the Royal Garden Restaurant ultimately becomes the key gag and social event in the plot, leading to many arcane developments (such as the shards of shattered glass ultimately being emptied into a champagne ice bucket).

Lamentably, the crucial sequence of Hulot visiting Schneller’s apartment and family — the only part of the film that shows any of the characters inside domestic spaces — continued to be missing from the film until it was restored shortly before Tati’s death, in late 1982; I first saw it the following spring, when I was teaching at Berkeley. But even without the benefit of this sequence, the most challenging in the film (which is undoubtedly why it was cut), Playtime bemused me almost as much as 2001, though not at all in the same way. I was intrigued by the welter and jumble of onscreen details, which distracted and confused me as much as what I took to be the minimalist absence of onscreen narrative detail in much of 2001.

The seeming overload that Tati had imposed on his vast canvas, especially in the film’s breathtaking and extended restaurant sequence, was actually an invitation to carve out one’s own individual itineraries in the action, playfully and creatively establishing one’s personal priorities in relation to the varying degrees of emphasis in one’s attention span. But even though I probably had made at least one return trip to 2001 by then, Playtime provoked me into reseeing it a good many more times in Paris over the course of the summer. And by the time I first met Tati in late November 1972, when I took a bus to the suburb La Garenne-Colombes to interview him in his office (I had then been living in Paris for a little over three years), it had become my favorite film. I even told him so at the beginning of our meeting. At that point, Playtime still hadn’t opened in the U.S. (not counting a very brief and unheralded opening in a New York suburb that had been engineered as some sort of tax write-off); the putative occasion of our interview was the anticipated U.S. release of his subsequent feature, Trafic, the following month.

Indeed, by the time Playtime finally opened in New York, in late June 1973, I had become friends with Tati’s assistant, Marie-France Siegler, written an English voiceover for a 16 mm short of hers, and, thanks to her perception that my meeting with her boss, now bankrupted by the expenses of Playtime, had cheered him up and made him feel like working again, had gotten myself hired as a “script consultant” (actually his audience and sounding board) for a week or so in January. Sadly enough, the American critical establishment was every bit as resistant to the challenges of Playtime as it had been to those of 2001. (At this point, Tati had lost control over his film due to his bankruptcy and had little if any input about the prints that were being shown.) A few critics remarked that it was reasonably funny, but not a patch on Trafic (a film that Tati himself had regarded as a compromised work because of the commercially dictated prominence of his Hulot character); one reviewer even went so far as to label it “inhuman” in his capsule, which was the same sort of epithet that many had accorded to Kubrick’s epic.

Tati himself, who admired Kubrick immensely for his craft, was a big fan of 2001, but I have no idea what Kubrick thought of Playtime. By then many of my friends were squaring off by regarding either 2001 or Playtime as the great film of the modern era. Prominent among the partisans of the former position were Annette Michelson and the novelist and critic Stephen Koch, and I recall that when Annette, a huge fan of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, finally caught up with Playtime, her principal demurral was how ugly and formless she found the gadget exposition sequence in the first half of the film, adding that if she went to see the film a second time, she would probably go out into the lobby when that sequence came on. By contrast, her friend Noël Burch had written in Cahiers du cinéma when the film opened in Paris that Playtime was one of the few films in the history of cinema that not only had to be seen several times but also had to be seen from several different positions in the auditorium — a comment that has subsequently (and more than once) been falsely attributed to me.

One of the few intellectual acquaintances I knew at the time who found both of these films “jaw-dropping” was Susan Sontag. Most of the others, at least by implication, found these two masterpieces incompatible as touchstones of the modern era. This may be an even more unavoidable conclusion if one compares the films historically as anticipations of the future — according to which 2001 may be the more dated of the two, especially if one factors in the Cold War context dominating the film’s second part along with some of the brand names (e.g., Howard Johnson) planted inside a commercial space station that was operational by 2001. Sadly, Kubrick didn’t live long enough to see the year 2001, having died unexpectedly in March 1999. (By contrast, it’s worth pointing out that Tati placed parking meters in his studio-built city before France actually had them, correctly predicting that they would eventually be installed.)

But a few formal parallels between the two films remain fascinating — above all, the contrast in each between straight lines and circles, as well as between various stiff human interactions and the more playful and dancelike movements of both people and objects (including vehicles). In 2001, the principal straight lines are those associated with earthbound gravity and the mysterious rectangular monolith that both guides and provokes humanity over the course of several millennia, while the famous “dance” of a rotating satellite to Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and the circular pathway of the main cabin traced by a jogging astronaut in a spacecraft bound for Jupiter make up two of the principal circles. (The breathtaking transition from the film’s first sequence, the only one set on Earth, to the Blue Danube is traced by the vertical drop of a bone-as-weapon that has been tossed into the air by a triumphant ape-man followed by a match cut to the descent of a satellite in its rotating orbit — a literal transition from straight line to circle.) The point in the Blue Danube sequence at which the trajectory of a spacecraft stewardess wearing magnetized footwear in free-fall moves from horizontal to circular describes part of the film’s overall view of the physical liberation arising from the loss of gravity (which inspired Michelson to title her essay on 2001, published in the February 1969 issue of Artforum, “Bodies in Space: Film as Carnal Knowledge”). HAL, the computer on a spacecraft bound for Jupiter that eventually goes “mad,” is made up of a circular eye and rectangular circuits. The film’s hallucinatory “trip” after HAL is dismantled by astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) mainly juxtaposes the human eye with various straight lines. And after Bowman undergoes a kind of death in an allegorical hotel room ruled by straight lines (including the monolith), he’s reborn, in the film’s closing shot, as a Star Child inside a spherical bubble confronting the Earth.

Complicating 2001’s recurring notion of physical liberation is Kubrick and his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke’s pessimistic and deterministic view of mankind’s destiny being both shaped and circumscribed by a superior race of beings represented by the mysterious monolith. In contrast to the more populist and left-wing orientation of Olaf Stapledon — the English SF visionary who was clearly one of Clarke and Kubrick’s main inspirations (as he was on Clarke’s best novel, Childhood’s End), above all for his essayistic novels Last and First Men (1930, a “history” of mankind over the next two billion years and 18 successive human species) and Star Maker (1937, described on Wikipedia as “an outline history of the Universe”) — 2001 arguably posits mankind in far needier terms.

No such determinism can be found in Tati’s more democratic and exclusively earthbound perspective, according to which various spontaneous and anarchic circles and dancelike movements triumph over the various inhibitions imposed by architectural rigidity and social engineering — culminating in a merry-go-round of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the film’s climactic and euphoric morning sequence, which might be said to exalt Tati’s own directorial engineering over the engineering of the social planners he is implicitly criticizing. But the first significant curve in the film that undermines all the straight lines and right angles dictated by the architecture and echoed by all the human movements is the momentary and accidental slip of Monsieur Hulot. Waiting in a sterile antechamber for his appointment with Giffard, attempting to anchor himself on the slippery floor with the tip of his closed umbrella, he slides in a short curve as a result of this misplaced confidence. And the key site of the film’s overarching transition between straight lines and circles is not merely the glass door to the Royal Garden that eventually shatters, liberating the two-way traffic into and out of the restaurant, but also the neon sign directly above this door and the empty portal that replaces it — a sign tracing a straight line that curves into an arrow as it points toward the establishment’s interior.

The artisanal, almost handmade aspects of both epics and their recurring geometrical forms can’t hide the fact that their approaches to big-screen spectacle are hardly the same, either physically or philosophically. But insofar as both masterpieces are concerned with practical ways that viewers can deal with sensory overload — often through playfully and musically organized choreography — they both ultimately qualify as euphoric and profoundly engaged with the contemporary world.

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