I’m never able to get Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime completely out of my head. There are phases where, for a few months, it’s on constant mental rotation…and then there are quieter times. And then the cycle repeats.
It’s the work of art that most closely resembles my own perception of reality, particularly the social choreography of the film, but even down to the sensory texture of Playtime’s world.
I spend most of the film making no effort to follow the “story”. I just let my eyes drift around and take in all of the little human moments that are playing out so vividly. But there’s too many of them. The camera stays distant and you see throngs of people living daily sorts of lives in this frenetic city landscape.
The scenes get lost in the scenes. It’s often confusing. There is no visual focus on the loosely sketched-out main characters, they seem to be as lost as we the viewers are. These are all feelings I know so well.
The camera perambulates through the city and the architecture is neutral to the point of being hallucinatory and the people get socially cacophonous.
The overall experience is one of familiarity. Every time I see it, I wonder, “Which of these people am I supposed to watch? Who is that guy? Why is that lady upset? What’s happening?”
My mind grapples with Playtime in the exact same way that it grapples with social interactions. Normally, the movie part of my brain and the social comprehension part of my brain are in completely separate areas. They do different things. But Playtime operates in a weird hybrid state for me, where I’m watching a movie but also puzzle solving body language and vocal inflection and motive.
The many dozens of people in the film are expressive and distinct…but they’re all so expressive and distinct that they sort of blend together into a teaming mass of sound and confusing etiquette. Socially, there’s an overload of information. (And that’s not a criticism of the film, that’s all by design. Playtime is doing themes and shit.)
Every second of that movie has a familiar moment or feeling. And usually, it’s the same feeling repeated in a different context. It’s like the city has been paused in this one moment and Tati (who plays the Chaplin-esque main character) is walking us through it. We’re just looking, watching it pass by, spectators.
The film exists a little outside of its own reality, looking in, trying to make sense of the characters that it can’t help but feel curious about and follow around. And I like that, I like the particular head-space that the movie is in: far away and too close all at the same time.
With the way that it hangs back, the camera feels solitary, but like it’s always on the lookout for small moments of human connection. Those moments are rare, but inevitable and genuine. (I don’t think Tati is cynical. I think he’s a gentle pessimist who is primarily interested in the turbulent balancing act between technology, status and empathy. I’m over-simplifying. Tell me on Twitter if I’m wrong.)
The bigness of the film, with its urban vistas and social undulations, often makes me think of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I imagine that painting expanded out into 3-D so that you can walk through it and see more of that world, maybe pause to eavesdrop on a conversation, maybe feel the grass with your fingertips as you absorb the ambient sounds.
Playtime is like that, only more citified and politely anxious. Tati is doing social pointillism.
I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoy Playtime now that more and more fictional autistic characters are appearing in film and television. I never feel any sense of connection with them or the stories they are living. You never really see their world from the inside out. It feels like most autistic characters are a diagnostic outline that is being super-imposed over a familiar genre setting.
Playtime isn’t by someone on the spectrum and it’s not telling a story about autism. It’s just looking at the modern world with the full power of its available senses. And, speaking only for myself, I think that is what makes the film so recognizable to an autistic viewer: it builds its world from the senses up.
If I had to express what reality looks or feels like to me, I would point to the indelible ebb and flow of perception in Tati’s work.