Thoughts On: Modern Times/Playtime - Chaos In Modernity


Modern Times/Playtime - Chaos In Modernity

Thoughts On: Modern Times (1936) & Playtime (1967)

A look at two comedies that deal with the modern world and its new order as chaotic for the lost individual.

If anyone watches Jacques Tati's 1967 masterclass in world building, Playtime, for the first 45 minutes, they will be feeling lost in a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, of stifling modernity, suffocating consumerism and dehumanising capitalism. Tati's use of humour and the blundering fool archetype is then likely to veer a viewer towards thoughts of Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times all too easily. However, there is fault in this, for there is a very simple, but incredibly significant difference between how Chaplin and Tati close their narratives which entirely transforms their initial commentary on their modern worlds.

The initial commentary of both Modern Times and Playtime is captured by each film's respectively iconic shot:

From Modern Times, we have the Tramp caught in the cogs of the machinery, having gone deranged. The metaphor here is all too literal; the Tramp has been integrating into a mechanised system to the point that he lost his personal sense of morality, ethic and sensibility, taken over by conditioned impulse, in a system that does not understand his humanity - nor does it care to. This image emerges from the Great Depression era in the U.S, after the initial shock of modernity and industrialisation had pretty much entirely settled in society. This image and scene more generally takes a step into what would have been the norm, literal falling into the belly of the beast that is the industrialised world in crisis, to see an average man fall prey to a system that he cannot come to grips with, which is consistently taking him on a perilous ride through tragedy and luck that he cannot control.

Tati's iconic image has its similarities, but also its differences:

Here again we see order presenting itself as chaos with a lost man unable to come to grips with the machine that he is in. Far more modern than Chaplin's film in respect to us in the present day, order is presented here as faceless and purposeless. Whilst a cog has no face to speak of, one could argue that it has some character. And whilst a cog is just a small part of a larger system, its purpose is obvious; it spins so that the cogs connected to it can spin respectively. In Tati's world, there are no cogs, there are no faces, no character, and there is no explicit purpose. Looking down at the cubicles here, we do not know what is happening. In Modern Times, we never get to know what the machines that the Tramp falls into produces, but at least we see it making something. In Playtime, we don't even see production - we see order without purpose - and so there is nothing that our character can fall into. When he descends, he is lost in a world of reflections and glass; we never get to know why he even entered this building - we knew why Chaplin was at work. So, the concept of consumerism, work and capitol isn't as present in Tati's Playtime. Rather, this is about navigation in a system, about trying to find a good time and, quite possibly, reason and purpose itself in a foreign land. This, it seems to me, is why the above image is the most expressive, is the iconic shot. It shows a man trying to come to terms with the modern world, to see it from above with intentions of descending into it with purpose, direction and reason. Modern man is then shown to have learnt something since 1936. His power to act in the world, however, isn't shown to have developed much.

With just this basic analysis, one can tell that Playtime is a more complicated and layered film than Chaplin's Modern Times. Modern Times has more character, however. It uses to character, in turn romance, to bestow the narrative purpose. It is then through the Tramp falling in love with an orphan that he finds direction, a job and a goal to strive towards. The world is still chaotic, a battalion of archers still slinging luck and tragedy at him from a distant fog, but reason manifests from within thanks to romance. Thus we come towards the narrative's close: the Tramp and orphan marching into the distance...

The resolution Chaplin provides is entirely based in the characters and romance he develops over the course of the narrative. The world beneath his figures' feet is not shown to have changed, rather it is those walking that have. They have found strength and reason, have fought for it, and so are willing to face whatever the world has to throw at them. And such, I believe, is the most powerful element of Chaplin's film; it believes in a dichotomy of reason (which manifests as romance, commitment, happiness, adventure, friendship and love) and strength being the cure for all modern struggles. In essence: the world sucks, but we have our potential and we have each other.

Tati's ending is very different. In fact, it is so different that it cannot be reduced to an image, or even a few. To attempt a description, Playtime concludes after a disaster of an opening night for a restaurant in which the facilities are not properly constructed and the staff don't know what they're doing. Though the night is full of chaos and things going wrong, the patrons almost all have a great time, getting drunk, meeting people, dancing, singing, playing music, etc. The crowd, which includes our lost fool, eventually spills out onto the streets of Paris. The fool, Mr. Hulot, has found a friend in a tourist who is seemingly trying to find and experience the 'real Paris' (the classic vision of Paris that is entirely divorced from Tati's modern presentation). It is early in the morning, and Paris is coming to life. Mr. Hulot wants to help the tourist get a photo, and he does. This is in fact the only thing he is shown to be semi-successful at during the film: assisting others. We assume, that from this assistance will come romance as in Modern Times, but no such thing occurs. Mr. Hulot attempts to buy the tourist a gift to remember Paris, a more romantic vision of it, just before she leaves on her departing bus. However, he is stopped by bureaucracy for not going the right way to exit the shop. He then has to give the gift to a stranger who passes it on to the oblivious tourist as she boards the bus. As she leaves with her gift at hand, she sees Paris for the second time, during a new day, and she begins to see the beauty in all the chaotic order; all the small details of character and life. These details do not appear absurd as other details spotted throughout the film are (moments like works' movements seeming like a choreographed dance), but have a hint of natural levity to them that has the tourist leave the new Paris that they didn't come to see with a vision that they understand to a degree.

This final scene really pulls out the differences between Modern Times and Playtime. Put simply: Tati's world undergoes a transformation where Chaplin's does not. This transformation in Playtime is connected to character; it shows how a foreigner's eyes can be opened to what is new; they can see humanity, they can see the music of order as opposed to its droning, meaninglessly productive hum. This vision of the world centralises alienation to not necessarily criticise it (though, there is critique given), but to show a simple disconnect between he or she who is foreign to the system and the ominous system itself. Unlike Chaplin's film, there is an implication that coming to terms with the system will not see you lost in a set of cogs, inhuman and deranged, but part of a system's music. So, whilst there is a commentary on the chaos of the modern world that is found in its order, and whilst there is a yearning for beauty that isn't entirely fulfilled, the main statement made by Playtime concerns positive normalisation.

If one looks at the extended restaurant scene in which nothing for the employees goes well, we see that it is because the restaurant is new and has just opened that there is this fault. Nonetheless, the patrons have a good time. This is, in part, thanks to the fact that the restaurant is in uproar, but it is mainly despite this fact; hence, the blundering foreigner - whether is be the foolish Mr. Hulot or the new restaurant on opening night - is shown to manifest chaos in a system themselves instead of having it pressed upon them. It is then in not understanding the system that they make trouble for themselves. We see this with Mr. Hulot in particular. It is because he is so taken aback by the modern building that he enters in the beginning of the film that the whole narrative proceeds as it does. He doesn't wait where he is told to, he doesn't do as the system requires, hence, he is lost and the system can never properly serve him. This is a negative for him, but, with trust in people and in serving them, Mr. Hulot finds his way through to a good day. So, it is not necessarily bad to inject what is foreign into the system. Some chaos may emerge, and whilst this won't make things easier, it might just make the day brighter.

The resolution of Playtime is then a marked movement away from chaos and towards order, though never is there a rest at either polarity. It is in crossing the boundary between chaos and order, in dancing on the line, that beauty, purpose and joy is found, that the system and the individual find harmony and resonance. So, unlike Chaplin's view of the modern world, Tati's is seemingly positive. He believes in people and the system; both have their faults, but they can work together to not just produce, but to produce something of meaning and substance. In the end, I then believe that Tati's narrative is a little more sophisticated because it recognises how both the system and individual can harmonise. Chaplin's narrative assumes that the world may not change, but can still be confronted. These two viewpoints are valid and have their applications. For instance, Modern Times far better suites America in the Great Depression than Playtime would. The Great Depression was a time of great uncertainty and tragedy. To suggest that individuals should attempt to confront the world as an army who bear chaos and luck at arms fits such a context. Arguably, a statement towards embodying a fool, a foreigner, and trusting in oneself and the system doesn't work as well. Playtime's assertions are better suited towards a France that is undergoing a cultural shock. This shock was a new wave of industrialisation that was very much so perceived as American in the late 60s and 70s. And so it was after WWII and through the late 60s that France saw a significant change in its national image as a nation that was trying to build itself up despite political turmoil, the dissolution of their empire and the decline of the Parisian iconography. So, no longer was France really seen to be the cultural centre of world in the late 60s. America was clearly taking over as a cultural power, and it is arguably America that Tati presents with his architecture of modern Paris as a landscape of glass skyscrapers. Alas, it is France that emerges from America, character and humanity that emerges from modernity, true culture that emerges from commerce, over the course of the narrative. And so the harmonisation of the individual and the system indicates that a positive future for France comes from an acceptance of change, of adaptation, yet also a few sprinklings of chaos amongst order, of the old person as the new, as the foreigner, experiencing the new land as the norm.

To conclude, I will only again emphasise that Modern Times and Playtime may seen like very similar films, but are, upon analysis, incredibly different in their aims and social commentary. So, I will now leave things with you. Have you seen both films? What are your thoughts on either of them?

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