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

Giants & Toys (1958)

One of the most difficult genres to translate across cultural & language barriers is the comedy. While there’s a visceral, immediate impact from action & horror that make them near-universal, comedy usually relies on a mutual cultural foundation shared between creator and audience, so that those shared norms can be exaggerated or upended. The Japanese business-world satire Giants & Toys sidesteps the exported comedy’s cultural disconnect by centering its humor on a simple, easily translatable thesis that would resonate with any audience no matter their background: “Capitalism is bad.” That isn’t an especially complex or nuanced target for the movie to satirize, but it is one that’s only become increasingly relatable across all borders in the half-century since the film’s initial release.

A trio of cutthroat caramel companies compete to out-exploit each other over increasingly trivial differences in candy sales. As the Big Three candy companies race to out-Willy Wonka each other with the latest developments in caramel technology and marketing gimmickry, their tactics get progressively more vicious & unscrupulous, but the stakes for victory remain largely unimportant. There’s more than enough candy money to go around for all three companies to profit, but personal increases in sales is not enough to satisfy their corporate bloodlust. In a game where “Eat or beat eaten; cheat or be cheated,” are the only rules, success is only measured by the destruction of your enemies, and the stress of striving for that market dominance every waking moment drives the companies’ executives’ bodies into the ground. As they cough blood into their pristine handkerchiefs under the exponential, ulcer-inducing stress of the job, it never stops being amusingly pathetic that they’re sacrificing their health over something as frivolous as determining the best prizes for children to earn by mailing in UPC codes from candy wrappers. Capitalism is the farce, and this movie is smart about capturing it at its most inane & inhumane.

The only detectable shred of humanity in this picture is Hitomi Nozoe’s performance as the up-and-coming spokesmodel Kyôko, who functions as an element of chaos in the otherwise regimented world of corporate candy sales. When she’s first plucked from poverty & obscurity by the marketing executives who intend to make her a star, she’s a wild brat with an adorable distaste for being told what to do. The demands of being a spokesmodel for a corporate product—even a childish indulgence like candy—means that she’s pressured from all sides to be sexualized & politely mannered in the public eye. She refuses for as long as she can, subverting her handlers’ attempts to objectify her by lashing out like a goofball child on a never-ending sugar rush. Her rotten teeth & wagging tongue are especially powerful weapons in this effort to maintain her autonomy, earning most of the movie’s biggest laughs. Unfortunately, she can’t thwart the company who owns her image forever, though, and a corporation smoothing out her rough edges is one of the film’s greatest tragedies. This is a largely downbeat, defeatist tale—especially for a comedy—and much of its gloom & deviousness relies on Kyôko’s arc and the wild energy of Hitomi Nozoe’s performance.

Whether or not Giants & Toys has anything especially novel to say about the corrosive nature of Capitalism, its vulgar sense of humor and sleek stylishness (bolstered by an arbitrary Space Age marketing gimmick pursued by one of the Big Three candy companies) make for a fun, continually surprising watch. The intrusion of a chaotic outsider upending its corporate boardrooms’ routine exploitation schemes makes it feel like a Japanese precursor to Putney Swope (except that it’s more consistently rewarding than Putney Swope from gag to gag). Most comedies don’t translate nearly this well across cultural & language barriers, but most comedies don’t tackle such a universal, enduringly relevant satirical target. Giants & Toys‘s “Capitalism is bad” thesis may be surface-level & broad, but the film sets itself apart from other corporate-world satires by highlighting that culturally universal subject’s ugliest & most absurd extremes in a perversely fun way.

-Brandon Ledet

Shoplifters (2018)

In 2004, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda directed a heart-wrenching family drama about an apartment full of abandoned, impoverished children who spend countless months fending for themselves outside parental and governmental supervision. I have not seen enough of Kore-eda’s catalog to say whether Nobody Knows is a text that typifies his aesthetic or storytelling preoccupations as an auteur, but it’s a work that certainly echoes loudly in his latest film. Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes and nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture at the Oscars, Shoplifters is a much higher profile picture than Nobody Knowns. Yet it often plays like a slickly produced (read: better funded) revision of that earlier work. Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes. Either way, I can’t help but think of the two films as complimentary companions, which makes me suspect a wider knowledge of Kore-eda’s catalog at large could only improve my appreciation for either.

The most immediately noticeable difference between Nobody Knows & Shoplifters is that the latter film is vastly more expansive. This is literally true in terms of cast & setting, as almost all of Nobody Knows is suffocatingly confined to a single apartment populated by a small cast of ragged children, afraid of being found out by the outside world. Shoplifters, by contrast, features a makeshift-family of all ages who have to leave their own cramped living space to earn money & food to sustain the collective household through whatever meager means they can manage: shoplifting (duh), construction jobs, factory shifts, sex work, emotional grifts, etc. This opens the cast & locations to a much wider view of poverty-line Tokyo, and also necessitates a more tightly scripted storytelling approach (Nobody Knows feels as if it were patiently constructed out of meticulously edited children’s improv). Shoplifters’s expansion of the previous film’s tones & methods also extends to its camera work & emotional effect. No longer constrained to capturing spontaneous moments in a confined apartment, the camera is free to move in sweeping, energizing maneuvers that match the thrill of the characters’ high-risk/low-reward “shopping” trips. Those characters were also allowed to experience the full range of loving, familial emotions before the goings get toughest, rather than lowly rotting in steady decline.

In addition to Shoplifters’s slicker production aesthetic & expansive emotional palette, it’s a film that also finds Kore-eda willing to blatantly explain his themes in-dialogue. Throughout the film, characters in its makeshift family of near-homeless pariahs discuss in plain language that the familial bonds we choose are much stronger than the ones we’re born into. It’s not enough to demonstrate that community & solidary are the only saving graces for these victims of capitalism; they also have to reinforce the legitimacy of their chosen bonds by insistently using the terms “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” and “grandma” as if they were a traditional, blood-related family unit rather than a loose collection of societal castaways with no recourse but each other. As clearly stated & straightforward as the themes of unconventional chosen families can be, however, there’s still plenty of room for nuance & subtlety in individual characters’ personalities & histories. The world has been tough on these discarded souls, weighing them down with domestic abuse, economic exploitation, and pure deep-in-the-gut hunger. It’s a burden that’s made them understandably cutthroat & cynical, not the usual saintly saps you’d expect in this kind of drama. The familial bonds they form in crisis are heartfelt & sentimental, but the characters remain defensive, sardonic street toughs as individuals, which benefits the movie greatly as a character study and opens it to a more intricate, dense portrait of modern poverty than what the plainly-explained themes in the dialogue might suggest.

Its likely insulting to both Shoplifters & Nobody Knows as individual works that I cannot discuss their merits without comparing & contrasting them against each other. I still find the exercise unavoidable, as it clearly illustrates a growth in craft & sentiment from Kore-eda while also establishing a baseline for his political & emotional preoccupations as an auteur. Even though they’re not connected as sequels and the makeshift families they profile take remarkably different shapes, they still sit with me as sister films, bonding in unconventional ways. It’s a bond that strengthens each film as isolated works, as it puts both of their accomplishments in sharper relief, which only makes me want to see more films in the larger Kore-eda family.

-Brandon Ledet

The Belko Experiment (2017)

When we were praising the sci-fi fantasy superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. series last year, one of the things that most impressed me on the rewatch was just how much the Disney-owned Marvel Studios was able to reign in writer-director James Gunn’s nastier tendencies. There’s certainly a sense of tragedy & trauma hanging in the air above Guardians that’s missing from a lot of Marvel’s more whiz-bang blockbuster productions, but it’s far from the gleefully horrific cruelty of other James Gunn creations like Slither & Super. With the follow-up to that surprise 2014 hit approaching this summer, however, it’s actually kind of endearing to see Gunn return to the cruelty of his smaller, meaner works in his latest-produced screenplay. Released by the kings of cheap, but effective horror in the 2010s, Blumhouse Productions (who’ve recently had big enough hits in both Split & Get Out that they could probably just coast for the rest of the year), the Gunn-penned exploitation piece The Belko Experiment finds the once-restrained prankster shaking off the Disney cobwebs and returning to the gleeful brutality that defined his career before he was a widely-recognized name.

The poster for The Belko Experiment plainly promises a “Office Space meets Battle Royale” genre mashup and that five-word descriptor might as well serve as the film’s IMDb plot synopsis. A Columbian office building staffed with mostly foreign, English-speaking workers is shut down by mysterious, off-screen forces who prevent escape for the employees trapped within by barricading all doors & windows. The imprisoned population is instructed over an intercom to murder thirty of their own coworkers within a certain timeframe or sixty will be killed as punishment. Non-compliance means that participants’ heads will be exploded by a remotely detonated bomb. Of course, grabs for power arise within the group as former bosses attempt to pull rank among their now-equal employees and “fire” them with the aid of the security guard’s firearms. Our hero (10 Cloverfield Lane‘s John Gallagher Jr.) attempts to put an end to this disgusting, brutally violent mode of corporate ladder-climbing early & often with rationalized pleas for peace, but the killings continue anyway. As the experiment goes on it becomes apparent that no character, no matter how harmless or affable, is safe from being murdered in cold blood and that this is the kind of nihilistic exploitation exercise that deliberately avoids any possible chance of a “happy” ending.

This high-concept premise makes The Belko Experiment out to be something like a bloodier, corporate-set version of the recent sci-fi cheapie Circle. It initially traffics in the same social science philosophy in rationalizing who “deserves” to survive and what makes one life more “worthwhile” than another (youth, parenting, wealth, etc.), but honestly that’s far from its #1 concern. Mostly, Gunn just tries to have fun with his eighty or so archetype characters that populate the Columbian office building setting by strategically ending their lives for maximum comedic shock value. It’s clearly a video game-style premise, with explicit rules & objectives set by an off-screen gamemaster, but the film does manage to squeeze a few good corporate satire jabs out of the format. I was especially tickled by the way the basic concept of productivity quotas & metrics that drive capitalist enterprise were translated directly into lives lost in the film’s ridiculous dog-eat-dog fight for survival. There are some Trump-like platitudes about how to survive in the business world like, “We have to be bold here. This is not a time for timidity,” and some music choices like an elevator-friendly, Spanish-language version of “I Will Survive” that also got a good chuckle out of me. The Belko Experiment excels when it jokingly focuses on its fictional company’s eerie slogan, “Business without boundaries,” and in other jabs at corporate office culture, but not so much when it asks big questions like whether it’s best to futilely attempt to save everyone or strive for the seemingly more attainable goal of just saving yourself.

My one major problem with The Belko Experiment seems antithetical to what I thought made Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy film so enjoyable: it’s just not cruel enough. This is a bloody film with a ludicrously high body count and, yet, it seems to be shy of practical effects gore. If you compare the violence in this film to the recent superhero bloodbath Logan, the kills have a weightless frivolity to them that I think undercuts the film’s nihilism. The only time The Belko Experiment attempts to get truly grotesque in its gleeful ultraviolence is when one character’s skull is caved in with repeated blows from an axe. The cuts in that scene are rapid, though, only briefly flashing the consequences of the axe’s blows before shying away to focus elsewhere. If the film’s nihilism is supposed to mean just as much as its satire of office environment power structures, it makes no sense to shy away from the physical consequences of the violence in this way. The movie proudly displays plenty of blood. It was just lacking in viscera.

Maybe that one sticking point for me was a result of The Belko Experiment‘s allowance of gun violence to enter the scenario. Its office supplies murder weapons (including tape dispensers, letter openers, meat cleavers, Molotov cocktails, etc.) made much more interesting, grotesque kills. The film could’ve easily pushed the novelty & brutality of its high-concept scenario much further by sticking to that set-specific limitation. Still, The Belko Experiment was a decent exploitation exercise in all its own bloody-but-not-gory glory. If nothing else, it’s great to see James Gunn’s sick sense of humor return to the screen unfiltered and, given the current hard right shift of our political climate, a violent corporate culture parody might be the exact kind of mildly satirical schlock we need right now.

-Brandon Ledet