Lines and Circles

Playtime, 2001, and the alternative paths for big-screen cinema
by Jonathan Rosenbaum   posted Dec 3, 2010

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Mr. Rosenbaum, I read your fine article a few days ago and am surprised that it hasn't received any comments to date, so here goes. Thank you for your provocative article on both 2001 and Playtime. Your scholarship, admiration of and affection for Playtime are well-known. Like you, Playtime is my favorite film, and for many reasons. As an 11 or 12-year-old I first saw 2001 around the time of its initial release, and it was my favorite film for many years and after countless viewings. I came to Tati later in life, and Playtime was my introduction by way of a late-night VCR recording in the mid-1980's. I recall being dumbfounded for the first 15 or 20 minutes, when I spontaneously laughed for the first time: it's a comedy! STOP-REWIND-PLAY. Living in Los Angeles I've been fortunate to have seen the 70mm restoration several times theatrically, as well as in 35mm, plus on DVD. I plan to see it in 70mm again next month when it screens at the Billy Wilder Theatre at the Hammer Museum in Westwood on January 6. In recent years I have been struck by the many similarities between 2001 and Playtime, e.g. they were both filmed over the same, approximately 3-year period, one in London and the other outside Paris; they were both photographed in 65mm; they are very much products of and critical perspectives on life in the mid-20th Century, they radically challenge and expand our expectations of plot, story, character and structure. It's interesting that you discuss the themes of circles and lines that are present in both films, something that on the surface I find more apparent in Playtime than I had previously considered for 2001. I don't quite see the famous match-cut in 2001 as you do, partly from insights gained from Clarke's novelization of the screenplay (read, admittedly, long-ago). To me the circle is the arc of the bone tossed into the air, and the line is the satellite's track on the back-side of the cut. Recollection tells me that the satellite is another weapon, another tool as is the bone, only far more sophisticated by a leap of 4 million years. Also, the bone-toss may be an act of anguish following the first inter-species murder by weapon, as much as it is a triumphant emotion release. Something that occurred to me some time ago about that most-famous of match-cuts: if one could open up that cut and insert the whole of Playtime, a more-complete picture of 20th-Century humankind would be revealed. It's fun to imagine Playtime as the representation of those intervening 4 million years of human evolution... One of my great revelations was discovering that Playtime was ALL a triumph of set design, construction and camera placement. Naively, until the conclusion of "Cours du Soir" it had just never occurred to me that "Tativille" was all a gigantic set. David Cairns offers another recent perspective on Playtime over at If you have not read Joan Ockman's article, "Architecture in a Mode of Distraction: Eight Takes on Jacques Tati's Playtime," in "Architecture and Film," I highly recommend it for another approach, one by an architecture professor, to the intricate puzzle that is Playtime. One thing about the conclusion of Playtime is that it never fails to move me, for it's simple affection for people and the dance of life, and for it's final reflexive shot which reminds us that all we have seen are mere splashes of light and dark projected on a screen, all at the whim of Tati's deeply personal vision.
scottmk   posted 10.12.10


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The Criterion Collection
Jacques Tati in his film Playtime
Photo Gallery: Lines and Circles


December 9, 2010–January 9, 2011 70mm


Jonathan Rosenbaum served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2007. His most recent book is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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