Arguably the most illustrious living film scholars, husband-and-wife David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson began collaborating in 1977 on Film Art: An Introduction—now on its 10th edition by McGraw-Hill—the go-to text for all film-studies students. Together, the couple has published dozens of books for fledgling film students to grapple with and learn from since marrying in 1979. After decades of working in print and teaching at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison, Bordwell and Thompson brought their vast and immeasurable cinematic knowledge to the Internet. Writing at Davidbordwell.net since 2006, the insightful duo frequently use this space as more than just a hub to plug their latest efforts. One day Bordwell is responding to The New York Times, another Thompson is waxing elegiac about the end of an era in Comic-Con. This past summer, they graciously took time out of their hectic schedules to speak with The Dissolve via email about one of their favorite films, Jacques Tati’s Playtime. True to form, Bordwell and Thompson composed their answers together while attending Il Cinema Ritrovato, a film festival in Cineteca di Bologna, Italy.
The Dissolve: When and where did you two first see Playtime?
Bordwell and Thompson: David first saw the film in New York City in the autumn of 1973, shortly after its initial American release.
Kristin first saw it at the student union theater at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison in the spring of 1974; that was the only venue where it played in Madison. She watched it five times in one weekend.
The Dissolve: Why should everyone see Playtime?
Bordwell and Thompson: Playtime is arguably one of the greatest films in the history of the cinema and Tati one of its greatest directors. There are other films that could also be plausibly called the greatest, but they are not always as accessible and enjoyable to a viewer not used to watching non-Hollywood films.
The plot of Playtime is very simple, and it only progresses at brief intervals in the film. The rest is Tati satirizing modern city life by spreading a large number of characters in front of us and allowing or cajoling us to find the humor in the scenes—or even to try and figure out whether there is humor in the scene. The staging is so dense and many of the sets so big that we inevitably missed gags.
Theorist Noël Burch wrote that Playtime is the first film that one has to see more than once and, just as importantly, from different places in the theater. This is actually true, if you see it on the big screen. And this is the only way to see it, at least for a first viewing. Tati in fact shot it in 70mm, but usually these days people are lucky to see it in 35mm. We waited 25 years until we could attend a screening in the original 70mm, and it is overwhelming.
Aside from his brilliance at staging simultaneous gags and forcing the spectator to be active in trying to notice them all, Tati has a command of sound, substituting slightly different sounds for the ones an object or person would actually make; this creates another source of humor.
The Dissolve: Can you think of any other films where the location in which you watch it in theater radically changes your experience?
Bordwell and Thompson: Only in the sense that if you’re sitting way over on the side, you’re likely to have a diminished experience of a film, especially a widescreen one. But Playtime is probably unique in that you become aware of characters or actions that you might have completely missed in previous viewings. We can’t think of another film that has quite that same effect.
The Dissolve: You both have seen Playtime on many different occasions. Could you two discuss how your relationship with Tati’s opus has changed over the years upon revisiting it?
Bordwell and Thompson: The main difference is that we have probably noticed most or all of the little gags that are tucked away in the corner of the scene or in the background, so that we don’t make the same sorts of discoveries that we did during early viewings. Still, the film retains its freshness. Seeing it in 70mm also changed our relationship to it. We finally were able to experience it fully, as Tati intended it.
The Dissolve: Where do you see Playtime’s influence in contemporary filmmaking?
Bordwell and Thompson: Playtime probably has not been all that influential, in that it is difficult to create such a dense mise-en-scene on such a large scale. Tati basically went broke building a huge modernist version of some streets in Paris and shooting in 70mm. The film was not a success, to say the least.
The Dissolve: In the proverbial canon of cinema, where does Playtime fit in?
Bordwell and Thompson: Playtime is not as famous as some of the classics that traditionally make it onto 10-best lists, like Citizen Kane or Tokyo Story. This may be partly because comedies are not taken as seriously as dramas and partly because so many people see it only on video, and there are few films in this world that lose so much by being seen on a small screen.
Still, Tati’s films are established classics. Studio Canal just released a seven-disc set of all his films on Blu-ray, along with supplements, in a big, dignified black box. In 2009, Playtime was put out on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, which of course is the Rolls Royce of DVD/BD companies. [Since this interview was conducted, Criterion has since released its own box set. —ed.]
The Dissolve: This may be a bit broad and daunting of a question, but considering you two are widely considered some of the most knowledgeable individuals on cinema, why do you think comedies are not taken as seriously as dramas? Has that always been the case?
Bordwell and Thompson: There is a widespread belief among many critics that art, including films, should teach us something by making us face up to the realities of the world. This is odd, since we face the realities of the world every day, both in our own lives and in news reports. If you assume instead that films, like other artworks, affect us by renewing our perceptions of the world, then comedies and serious films can be equally valuable. Many people have noted that when one goes out of the theater after watching a Tati film, one tends to notice odd sounds and gestures and so on, and find them amusing. There are few filmmakers in the world who can have that effect.
The Dissolve: Why do you feel that nearly 50 years after the film’s release, people still love and revisit Playtime?
Bordwell and Thompson: For many people, it’s the appeal of Mr. Hulot, Tati’s recurring character, and the sheer entertainment value of the film. It is very funny, even if one inevitably misses some of the over-abundant jokes. Playtime never caught on in the U.S. nearly as much as it did in Europe. We have seen the film with a Sunday afternoon family audience in a small Parisian neighborhood theater and in another family audience in London during a revival of all of Tati’s films.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that one can see different things on each viewing—it’s that dense.
There’s the subject matter. It’s a satire on the impersonality of modern city life and the sameness of modern cities all over the world. It’s a gentle satire, not a bitter one, and much of it is recognizable even today, given that cities haven’t changed all that much in the intervening decades.
For us, it’s the combination of Tati’s utter mastery of all the techniques of filmmaking with a completely original way of looking at the world and making ordinary things suddenly seem funny.