Hearing a Needle in a Haystack: Playful Disorientation and Laughter in Tati’s Play Time (1967).

Directed and written by Jacques Tati, and produced by Jolly Film and Specta Films, Play Time was released in France in 1967 after three long years of expensive production and postproduction processes. The expenses of the movie were so huge and its reception so poor, that both producers and director went bankrupt. Even worst, Tati ended loosing all the rights of the movie since he could not afford to pay the multiple loans that he had acquired. However, Play Time is one of the most beautiful comedic films ever made, a sound film masterpiece, and a unique kind of sensorial game.

The choice of certain technical tools and narrative technique explains in part Play Time economic failure. On the one hand, Tati decided to shoot, edit, and distribute the movie in 70 millimeters film (1.85:1 aspect ratio) and five-tracks analog stereophonic sound. Since not all theaters could project and reproduce such kind of film and sound format, its distribution was limited to a certain kind of venues. On the other, the absence of a coherent cause-and-effect narrative and of goal-oriented characters, frustrated the expectations of the popular audience. Even after Tati agreed in 1973 to transfer the film to 35 millimeters and monophonic sound for its distribution in the USA, Play Timeremained unpopular and was only well received by specialized criticism that exalted the beautiful formal aspects of the film over its apparently plain content.

The context

Globally, at the time of Play Time release, the world was immersed in the dynamics of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. American consumerism was being spread as the major ideology across Western countries, and in popular culture rock n’ roll (in English language) was conquering youth audiences. In 1967 the Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band, one of the most innovative albums in the history of music production. The same year, Hollywood studios produced movies for the younger audience such as “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Cool Hand Luke.” In France, the president Charles de Gaulle tried to maintain a position of independence from the hegemonic power of the USA. The French local cultural context was vibrant with the development of the New Wave and the radical avant-garde activism of the Situationists. In 1967 Jan Luc Godard released La Chinoise, a film that portrays the ideas of a small group of students. The same year, Guy Debord published for the first time The Society of Spectacle. The local context was, therefore, quite revolutionary. The youth, especially university students, were involved in radical political and cultural activities against capitalist and consumer ideology and society. One year later, in 1968, such vibrant context exploded in riots, strikes, and urban revolts.

Play Time was difficult to understand for moviegoers of the 60s and 70s. The film transgressed the conventions of the comedy genre and its major theme, the life in a hypermodern futuristic city, was a little bit out of tune with the current political, historical, social, and cultural global/local contexts. Furthermore although big part of the audience at that time went to see the film expecting to encounter Tati’s interpretation of Monsieur Hulot character as in his previous Mon Oncle (1958) and Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), they were disappointed by Hulot’s lack of motivations and drive in Play Time. They expected a conventional comedy but they got something quite different, a sort of sensorial game designed to engage the audience in active perceptual play. Play Time explored a new kind of genre, an authentic and alternative comic cinema based on intense sensorial play and in very stylized visual an aural parameters.

Playful Disorientation
Nowadays, Play Time can be fully appreciated and enjoyed. I would like to approach to it as a digitized sound film available in DVD format, which can be reproduced by a computer using a 27’’ screen and a surround sound system. One of my favorite things about sound film, as an art form, is how it can interact with the seeing and hearing senses of the spectators thanks to the synchronization of sounds and moving images. The simultaneous occurrence of visual and aural phenomena creates a richer sensorial experience, in which images and sounds gain expressivity, acquire new meanings, and are re-located in new contexts. Regardless of what kinds of sounds (voices, music, sound effects, ambient sounds or a mixture of them) meet the images, their encounter always creates effects of form that shape the audience activity of hypothesis building and expectation meeting. Although some of these effects were quickly standardized by the classical Hollywood film system and were intended to provide the illusion of continuity, reinforce the character causality, and foster narrative unity (e.g. using a popular tune or an ambient sound to establish a setting in a particular time and place; using a music motif to emphasize the emotion or the mental state of a character; using dialogue along with shot-reverse-shot visual sequences to create temporal continuity), other effects remained unexplored or marginalized to alternative film systems. In Play Time (1967), Tati created one of those alternative systems and experimented with the creation of an effect that I have called “playful disorientation.”

Play Time stands out as a very unique sound film that is at the same time difficult and pleasant to watch and hear. The first time I interacted with it, I experienced a mixture of sensations. On the one hand, the beauty of the huge set design, the dense mise-en-scene compositions, and the unconventional soundtrack astonished me. On the other, the lack of character motivation and goals, the absence of coherent and clear dialogue, and the length of the movie (02:05:24) bored me and at sometimes even made me fall sleep for a couple of minutes. However, at the end of the film I had the feeling that I had enjoyed it very much. I had certainly laughed at different moments and was intrigued by its very subtle audio-visual humor. I wanted to interact with the film again. I wanted to understand better what was really going on with the people and the sounds of that modern world that Tati had imagined, and I wanted to figure out why it was making me laugh in a way that I had not experienced before. It was not until I watched/heard Play Time for the second and third time that I got a better sense of the sort of game that Jacques Tati prepared for the audience of this film.

Play Time requires a particular type of spectatorship activity that instead of creating hypothesis related to a coherent cause-and-effect narrative chain and to the character’s action/reactions, actively listens to the soundtrack (especially to the sound effects) and is ready to explore the mise-en-scene in order to find the visual detail that seals the meeting between image and sounds. By encouraging perceptual play, interacting with the film becomes and exercise to the senses, more specifically, an exercise in the localization of sound sources in a dense and huge visual frame. The payoff of such exercise is a personal laughter, the discovery of a comic relationship between a sound or the absence of a sound, and a very small detail in the image. That is the sort of humor that Tati is proposing in this film, an audio-visual humor based on careful observation of moving images and active listening of well-defined sounds.

Visual and Aural Parameters
In order to understand the unique stylistic parameters of Play Time it is necessary to start by recognizing the technical choices that Jacques Tati made during the production and post-production of the film and his total control over them. Play Time was shot in 70 millimeters film and its soundtrack was completely made during postproduction using magnetic sound. The big film format permitted to capture the enormous dimensions of the set and fostered the director’s obsession with long shots, deep focus, and dense mise-en-scene compositions. Furthermore, the 70 mm had a space (5 mm) for six tracks of magnetic sound that was carefully recorded, edited, and mixed by Tati and Jacques Maoumont, the sound supervisor. The magnetic sound enabled the creation of a very stylized and highly defined soundtrack whose main characteristic is the proliferation of loud sound effects rich in high frequencies. For being a film from the pre-Dolby era (before 1975), it is quite amazing the degree of sonic sophistication that Play Time achieves. The high definition magnetic sound facilitated the creation of polyrhythms and polyphonies, and a very dynamic treatment of the different elements of the soundtrack (dialogue, music, sound effects, and ambient sounds).

The story of Play Time is quite simple and it occurs during two days and two nights. The first day, a group of American tourists lands in the airport of a very modern, homogenous, and futuristic Paris. The same day, Monsieur Hulot tries to meet a businessman called Monsieur Giffard in an office building but ends visiting an International Home Fair, and a Travel Agency where he crosses paths with the group of American tourists. After visiting an old friend at night and eating dinner at the Drugstore, Monsieur Hulot is invited by an old friend to the opening of the Royal Garden Restaurant. There he meets Barbara, one of the American tourists that arrived in the morning. As dawn comes, Hulot and Barbara go to the Drugstore and have breakfast together. Then, they walk through the streets until the American tourist bus picks up Barbara. The film ends with the bus trip to the airport. A detailed outline of the story could be organized as follows:

A. American tourists arrive to Paris’s Airport
B. Bus ride to the hotel.
C. Monsieur Hulot tries to meet Monsieur Giffard at the Office Building
D. Monsieur Hulot wanders through the International Home Fair and crosses paths with the American tourists.
E. Monsieur Hulot enters the Travel agency and crosses paths again with the American tourists.
F. Monsieur Hulot visits a friend in the Apartment complex.
G. At the Royal Garden Restaurant opens its doors its guests.
H. Monsieur Hulot eats a sandwish at the Drugstore and is found by a friend who works as a door man in the Royal Garden.
I. Monsieur Hulot goes to the Royal Garden opening party and meets Barbara while the whole restaurant falls apart.
J. Monsieur Hulot and Barbara have breakfast at the Drugstore.
K. Barbara and Monsieur Hulot walk together through the streets and enter a supermarket.
L. The tourist bus picks up Barbara and takes her, along with the other American tourist to the airport.

The story of Play Time is told (structured) in a series of 12 episodes according to the linear progression of time going straight forward from A to L with out having any flashback, fast-forward, ellipsis, or parallel actions. There are also little periods of transition between each episode that are set up in the modernized streets of Paris (between C and D, E and F, F and G, J and K) and that serve as bridges between the different episodes. The structure resembles a circle that is constrained by the parameters that Tati has chosen. In general, we can say that the intrinsic stylistic norm that dominates the film aural style is the placement of loud and clear sound effects in the foreground while the other soundtrack elements (music, dialogue, ambient) remain in the background. As the film structure develops, we can recognize the variations of the aural stylistic norm. While in the first half of the film (A to F) the foreground is an exclusive territory for sound effects and tiny bits of dialogue, in the second half (G to L) the music, ambient, and dialogue elements are also brought to the foreground several times. In fact towards the end of the movie it is only music what remains in the foreground.

As regard to the visual style, during first half of the film (A to F) the mise-en-scene is characterized by black, white and gray colors, empty modern spaces, and the robotic and rigid movement of characters that seem to be in harmony with the hypermodern architecture. In contrast, progressively during the second half (G to L), characters start to move more freely (the most chaotic moment occurs during the Royal Garden dance party), bodies and object fill spaces, and multiple colors emerge from the dresses and set decoration.

Perceptual Game
The lack of narrative causality and characters goals is replaced by the well-defined visual and aural parameters. No single person is really important in Play Time, everybody is. No single character has a real motivation. The perceptual game that Jacques Tati proposes to the audio-viewers of this film goes beyond the creation of hypothesis related to a well-constructed narrative. Contrary to meeting the kind of expectations that the audience usually forms while watching a classical Hollywood film, either dramatic or comedic, Play Time proposes a different kind of engagement and participation. The engagement is based on a perceptual game that consists in localizing the sound source of sound-effects that have been highlighted in the soundtrack. What happens when a very precise and detailed sound meets with a dense image? What happens when the image has so much information and we have to locate a short but very loud sound?

Since the visual frame is so dense and complex due to the systematic use of deep focus, long shots, and dense mise-en-scene composition, the meeting of images and sounds creates the effect of “playful disorientation”. Even when the sounds we hear in the soundtrack are clear and loud, standing out in the foreground and calling our attention, we are not totally sure of having localized its source in the image. The usually comfortable audio-viewer activity of perceiving the concomitance of discrete sounds and discrete visual events as a single phenomenon becomes challenging because sometimes we cannot find the right visual detail that seals the marriage between sound and image. Of course, the audio-viewer has the option of choosing any of the visual events that are occurring at the same time on screen and can link them to the very noticeable sound-effects. It is as if we were trying to find a needle in a haystack based on the sound it creates. However, if we choose not to participate of the perceptual challenge of completing the meeting of images and sounds, we miss big part of the humor of the film.

There are numerous examples of the exercises on localization of sound that Tati has systematically set up for the audio-viewer across almost all the episodes of the film. I will highlight only one of them in order to give a sense of how the “playful disorientation” works. Towards the end of the airport episode (A) when the group of American tourist is about to exit the street, we encounter a long shot of a hall where many people is waking and standing up. While in the visual foreground we can see the customs gates and the American tourists, in the background we see electrical stairs and people with suitcases walking and standing in the first and second floors. Right in the middle of the hall we can also see a woman sitting in a couch with a brown bag in front of her. Meanwhile, in the soundtrack, emerging from the mixture of ambient sound (quite room tone), dialogue (vocal polyphony as cocktail party effect caused by the chat of the American tourists, tourist guide voice, female public announcer), and sound-effects (foot steps), we suddenly hear the loud sound of a dog barking. Where is that sound coming from? Where is that dog hidden? After a fast image exploration we realize that the woman in the couch is touching her brown bag doing a gesture similar to the one of stroking a dog. We laugh.
PlayTime Airport Dog Situation

In Play Time, Jacques Tati has created a unique parametrical film system that not only transgresses the traditional narrative expectations of the audience but it also challenges the audio-viewer comfortable perception of the meeting of sounds and images. By encouraging an active audio-viewer participation that consists in the localization of sound sources within a complex visual frame, Play Time represents an innovation in the cinematographic language and in the generation of laughter. Such innovation requires a different kind of spectatorship that is not afraid of exercising its seeing and hearing senses, and of completing sound-image relationships that appear at first time as unfinished. Play Time is a perceptual game in which the narrative and meaning have been undermined in favor of the development of a new kind of sensual interactivity and play that generates laughter.

Bordwell, David. Parametric Narration. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Pp. 274-309
Burch, Noël. Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973).
Chion, Michel. Film: A Sound Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Hilliker, Lee. In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape. The French Review, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Dec., 2002), pp. 318-329
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Tati’s Democracy. An Interview and Introduction. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=15628. Retrieved on May 7, 2010. Originally published in the May-June 1973 issue of Film Comment.
Thompson, Kristin. Play Time: Comedy on the Edge of Perception. Breaking the Glass Armor : Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1988. pp. 247-261.

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