If you don't believe that films have the power to Make Things Better, I don't want to talk to you. I don't want you to read this. I want you to get back to whatever it was that you were doing, possibly your fantasy football league, and leave me alone. Jacques Tati would have said the same thing if there were fantasy football leagues during his lifetime. How do I know? Because I've seen PLAYTIME.
When Tati released PLAYTIME in 1967, he was concerned with presenting a sophisticated, meticulously designed world that would make people laugh. He was not concerned with improving the life of a grown man (that's me) over four decades later. But that's exactly what he did. When I saw PLAYTIME for the first time, my life was in flux. I had recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with little planning and even less money. I moved because I sought escape, and yet, my days in L.A. were filled with scary, grown-up questions I didn't want to answer. I'd heard that this sort of thing happened to everyone around the age of thirty, that things got cathartic and dramatic and then there was some UPHEAVAL. Whatever the case, I was in the shit. So I turned to my friends, the movies. I watched them constantly. It felt like I was learning from them.
One night, I was invited to a screening of PLAYTIME with some real friends (i.e. ones who were not movies). I'd seen M. HULOT'S HOLIDAY, an earlier Tati film, in college. While that one charmed me, I wasn't moved enough to seek out anything else by the director. But I believed then, as I believe now, that the greatest gift you can give yourself is to watch a movie that contains big laffs. I had nothing to lose, so I went to see PLAYTIME.
I watched as Tati's recurring character, Monsieur Hulot, encountered a tourist named Barbara throughout the day. Presented in six parts and six different locations, Hulot's adventure through the city was a slice-of-otherworldly-life that took form as a slapstick hurricane. But this was not a W.C. Fields two-reeler or CADDYSHACK. As I watched, my face hurt from smiling, but my insides were not exploding from laughter. Comedy was the side effect of Tati's ambition. He was a master designer of detail, creating a surreal universe that made eyes open and smiles appear. Every clock, shoe, neon sign, overcoat, window, umbrella, and pratfall appeared for a specific reason. And that reason was us.
Movies are an escape. They always have been. They exist to make us feel better, no matter our tastes. PLAYTIME epitomizes this fact -- it literally exists to make us happy. Tati's enormous fantasy world, which was constructed specifically for the film, is filled with buildings, cars, and human beings. But they don't interact exactly like we do. Communication is relegated to gestures and suggestions, rather than speech. The air is both frantic and calm, like a collaboration between Tex Avery and Charley Chase. In a French TV interview, Tati said, "I'm trying to bring a smile to familiar everyday situations." This is why the film charmed my pants off. I was presented with a whimsical existence where everyone lives life to the fullest, but no one gets hurt. It was a beautiful gesture on all levels.
Shortly before the film ended, I realized that I'd thought of nothing aside from what was being shown to me onscreen. I was immersed in what Tati created, just totally taken. Everything became heightened and I forgot about whatever it was that had been bothering me. Before turning my attention back to the movie, I forced myself to stop and admit that I felt happy. There are so few moments in life when we can genuinely say that to ourselves, so I repeated it in my head: "I'm happy. Don't forget this."
After the movie, my friends introduced me to a mutual friend who was sitting six seats away. Now, she's usually the last person I see before I fall asleep at night.
Look, Jacques Tati will not get you a better job, help you fall in love, and make people not act like assholes. That's just dumb. But, as graphic designer Paul Rand once said, "Good design is good will." When you experience PLAYTIME in stunning 70mm, you'll understand exactly what he meant.
Be good to yourself and buy tickets to PLAYTIME in 70mm!