This essay started out as a lecture given on the final day of “Urban Trauma and the Metropolitan Imagination,” a conference organized by Scott Bukatman and Pavle Levi and held at Stanford University on May 5-7, 2005. Then it was reprinted in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, edited by Nataša Ďurovičová and Kathleen Newman, New York/London: Routledge, 2009, and it’s appeared in my collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010). — J.R.
My subject is the presence or absence of both shared public space and virtual private space in two visionary and globally-minded urban epics made about 37 years apart, on opposite sides of the planet — Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Jia Zhangke’s The World [Shijie] (2004), coincidentally the fourth commercial feature of each writer-director. Both films can be described as innovative and very modern attacks on modernity, and both have powerful metaphysical dimensions that limit their scope somewhat as narrative fictions. I should add that they both project powerful yet deceptive visions of internationalism that are predicated both literally and figuratively on trompes d’oeil, specifically on tricks with perspective and the uses of miniaturized simulacra. (I’m referring here to both emblematic sites, such as the Eiffel Tower in both films, and the scaled-down skyscrapers used in the set built for Playtime.) In this sense, among others, both films are social critiques about what it means to impose monumental façades on tourists and workers — visitors and employees — who continue to think small.… Read more »