Bonus Features: Playtime (1967)

Our current Movie of the Month, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, is a dystopian farce that clashes futuristic sci-fi sterility with the slapstick chaos of Silent Era comedies. Playtime isn’t as screamingly funny from gag-to-gag as its Silent Era sources of inspiration; it’s more of an intellectual exercise that drolly pokes fun at the absurdity of Modern Living. In that respect, the film is undeniably genius. It’s a patient, nightmarish vision of the way that technology worship is slowly homogenizing all culture & art into one amorphous, spiritless Hell. The minor laughs along the way only soften our frustrations & despair over Capitalism’s momentum towards that inevitable global monoculture, in which new product is more valued than natural humanity.

My initial impulse for recommending further viewing to audiences who want to see more films on Playtime‘s wavelength was to dive deeper into the Monsieur Hulot catalog. Tati directed himself as Hulot in four feature films, most of which overlap thematically with Playtime‘s humanity vs. technology themes. Watching the entire Hulot saga in one go would likely be a bit draining, though, since most of Tati’s directorial work operates with the same low-key tone. Instead, here are a few suggested titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that touches on its themes & charms without repeating them wholesale.

Jour de fête (1949)

Part of the reason I expected bigger laughs out of Playtime is because the only other Tati movie I had previously seen was his debut feature, Jour de fête. It’s a much, much funnier movie than Playtime in terms of staging laugh-a-minute gags. It’s also a much less distinguished movie, creatively speaking, as it merely feels like Tati emulating the Silent Era comedy stylings of Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin without adding much innovation of his own. Like Picasso learning to paint naturalistically before he devolved into Cubist mayhem, Jour de fête feels a lot like Tati earning the right to play with the purpose & structure of traditional, vaudevillian comedy by proving he knows how to effectively play it straight.

In terms of setting & atmosphere, Jour de fête is the total opposite of Playtime. Tati stars as a bicycle-equipped mailman in a tiny French village who’s overwhelmed by the sudden influx of work that accompanies a traveling carnival arriving on the scene. Eventually, though, the film adopts the same skeptical eye that Tati’s later work would have for modern innovation, as the mailman attempts to deliver mail in a rapid, new-fangled “American style” that causes exponential chaos on his delivery route. Modern techniques & innovations disrupting the simplicity of daily living was apparently something Tati was interested in exploring from the start of his career, and it’s refreshing to see him pull that off in such a stripped-down, deeply silly context (as opposed to the massive, Parisian-scale sets he built for Playtime).

If you want to see Tati in full, unrestrained goofball mode before his work got more intellectually heady, Jour de fête is a wonderfully funny film from start to end. It’s not as memorably grandiose or artistically mannered as Playtime—so it’s not nearly as essential—but comedies don’t need to be astounding achievements in craft to be worthwhile.

Modern Times (1936)

Chaplin’s Modern Times obviously shares a technophobic sensibility with Playtime in its basic themes, but it’s also stubbornly old-fashioned in a similar way in terms of its form. Made in the post-Depression 30s long after talkies had taken over filmmaking as the industry norm, Modern Times is just as nostalgic as Playtime for Silent Era artistry. There’s minimal spoken dialogue in the film, and it’s mostly sidestepped through the intertitles & pantomime that Chaplin was used to working with – a stubborn nostalgia for filmmaking tradition that Tati would pick back up decades down the line.

Like Playtime, Modern Times is highly skeptical of the convenience that modern tech is supposed to afford our daily lives. Instead of mocking the pointless, homogenizing consumerism that Tati’s film spoofs, however, Chaplin instead warns of the way technology will be used to further exploit working class labor. The film’s most iconic gags are anchored to its opening stretch, wherein factory workers on an assembly line are surveilled & tormented by their supervisors in a series of escalating indignities. This culminates in a few key images from a near-future automated dystopia: Chaplin being admonished via video screen for taking a breather in the company restroom, Chaplin being force-fed a meal via robot to cut down on lunch-break productivity dips, and Chaplin being consumed by the machinery wholesale – whimsically traveling through the assembly line cogs & gears as if it were an amusement park ride.

Overall, this is a much angrier picture than Playtime. Instead of bumbling through absurdly contrived machinery meant to streamline modern life, Chaplin’s tramp character is a chaotic agitator who breaks down the very machines that was were designed to exploit his labor. It’s also a much funnier picture than Playtime and, not for nothing, a masterpiece in its own right.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The dystopian warnings of Playtime & Modern Times were fairly accurate to the nightmare we live in now all these decades later, but it still wouldn’t hurt to pair them with a more modern update. The 2018 Boots Riley comedy Sorry to Bother You is a gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire that taps into the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re living in today like no other film I can name. Just as angry about class disparity & economic exploitation as Modern Times, Sorry to Bother You is bursting at the seams with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out in every over-the-top gag. Unlike the even-tempered, carefully curated confection that Tati achieved in Playtime, Riley’s film is never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands all at once, subtlety & restraint be damned. Where the films differ in tone, however, they greatly overlap in their fear of an inevitable, homogenized monoculture – a world without any recognizable sense of genuine humanity or localized community.

Overall, Sorry to Bother You‘s concerns are more aligned with the labor exploitation fears of Modern Times; this becomes especially evident in the film’s back half when its corporate villain, the fictional Amazon surrogate Worry Free, redesigns the human body itself for maximum labor efficiency. Worry Free’s insidious mission does overlap greatly with the monotonized, spiritless dystopia of Playtime for much of the film’s runtime, though. Their preference would be that the entire working-class population live on campus at their factory jobsites, six workers to each bunkbed slumber cubicle. Billboards with cheeky slogans like “If you lived here you’d be at work already” and desperately “chill” MTV Cribs episodes advertise these uniform live-at-work cubicles as a convenience that’s too tempting to pass up, but for the audience at home it’s easily recognizable as a nightmare vision of our not-too-distant future under the rule of Emperor Bezos.

While Riley’s film is much more tonally & politically chaotic than Playtime at large, it does have its own touches of carefully curated twee whimsy when it’s in the mood (including an out-of-left-field Michel Gondry gag). Both movies also share a bumbling protagonist who’s just trying to get through his day while a rapidly modernizing world around him makes every decision feel like a complex puzzle – whether one of morality (Sorry to Bother You) or one of practicality (Playtime). As you can likely tell by this group of recommendations, I tend to gravitate more towards Riley’s chaotic, messy sensibilities over the restrained subtlety of Playtime, but I still found a greater appreciation for both titles through the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond