Thanksgiving ‘Playtime’

Years ago, I saw Jacques Tati’s Playtime in 70mm on the enormous screen of Champagne, Illinois’ Virginia Theater. I’d just dashed in from a spring thunderstorm that had liberated me from a fussy outdoor cocktail party, and the film’s awkward, swooping grace–alternately eager and morose, denatured and abloom–was just what the doctor ordered. I thought I’d never find a more ideal context in which to see the 1967 masterpiece, but on this very cold Thanksgiving, I ducked into a morning screening at the Lower East Side’s Metrograph. Shoulder to shoulder with other refugees from the most family-oriented, ideologically ill-conceived holiday of the year, I didn’t just feel community. I felt communion.

Tati mounted an entire mid-20th century cosmopolis outside of Paris for his poker-faced pratfall in gloriously technicolor drab, and its mostly noverbal story is conveyed so lucidly that the few spoken lines and handful of languages in which they are uttered are virtually irrelevant. Following a host of mid-‘60s characters through one day in this sound-stage Paris, the film’s protagonist is the human race itself as seen through a National Geographic sort of lens. As stylized as a Buster Keaton jig with Ayn Rand sharp corners and floppy flowered hats, every moment recalls the very droll mis-en-scenes buried in more narrative-driven films of the same era. Imagine a whole film cut from the same swoon as that infamous Breakfast at Tiffany’s party scene–the heiresses, vamps, barking agents, woman laughing, woman crying, treacherously long cigarette holder, prowling Cat, and Irving baby, o Irving baby. (Imagine a life cut of that cloth as well.)

In the discussion following the Illinois screening, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum revealed he’d briefly worked for Tati. Since working for your heroes usually sours you on them forever, the fact Rosenbaum still praised the filmmaker was really something. “You had to be aware that everything that crossed his path made its way into his movies,” he said.

Rosenbaum also spoke of a sadness that he felt permeated the film–the isolation and sterility of modernity, he said. I wasn’t so sure then, and I vehemently disagree now. Tati himself plays Herlot, the stooping everyman in a badly fitting trench coat and red argyle socks,and Herlot is not just hapless. He’s also hopeful. The sharp angles of office cubicles and airports give way to a wild merry-go-round of dinnerclubs and traffic rotaries; the slate greys of office culture blur into nightfall’s primary neons and dawn’s bold pastels; and an existentialist joy imbues each and every frame. With a love for humanity in all our vanities and ungainliness, Tati embraces his characters the way a parent unconditionally loves an errant child.

When I emerged from the theater this afternoon, the sun was still shining and Thanksgiving was still giving–Chinatown being nearly empty of white people save this middle-aged lady swathed in fur and cashmere and a big, goofy grin. I fell into step with everyone chattering and arguing and laughing on the streets–wailing along with the crowd when a gust of wind bowled us over. At a noodlehouse, I sat at a table of strangers, we loners sharing secret smiles while slurping soup and poring over our phones. Communing. And I felt it really really big: Grateful for NYC, grateful for the movies, grateful for all God’s cousins–which is all of us, don’t you know.

All the world’s a Tati parade.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy