Author: Simone Hine
How to Cite: Hine, S. (2022) “The Sound of Glass Shattering: From the Modern Cityscape of Playtime to the Virtual Office of 2020”, Film Criticism. 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2711
In the first half of 2020 I was working exclusively from home due to nationwide stay-at-home orders that formed part of the Australian response to the coronavirus pandemic. This was an extension of my usual work practice as a sessional academic. Without an office on campus, I would work between home and the classroom. On one of these days in late April, I was working at my desk at home. As I worked, my children in the backyard, I heard a van pull up outside my house. It was distinctly audible as it parked and the driver-side door opened. I clearly heard the back door of the vehicle open and boxes being shuffled around. I got up and headed to the front door. As the driver approached the house, package in hand, I told him that I heard the van arrive, because of the silence. He said that he was hearing that a lot lately. We exchanged a laugh about the current situation, him from the path and me still at the front door, on the veranda, a mutual effort to keep our distance while maintaining the conventions of mundane social exchange.
As he left, loudly pulling my broken front gate closed, I thought about the accumulation of individual sounds and the people that make them. At noon, or thereabouts, on any given day, these sounds would ordinarily combine to form the cacophony of sound that reaches me inside my house in the form of a low-level hum. This hum would usually conceal the sounds of a delivery van as it approached. The van would usually be just one sound among many in the working city. This hum connects me to people and actions, which are not registered consciously, but are experienced as a part of a collective system, even when I work at home.
As I walked inside my house, closing the lattice door that provides a porous barrier, separating me from the outside world as a matter of convention, I thought of Jacques Tati. As a counterpoint and a connection at once, I thought of his unusual use of sound in the mid-twentieth century films Mon Oncle (1958), Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971), which follow the character of Hulot. The soundtrack in each of these films isolates and amplifies ambient noise. This is most obvious when the human voice is heard because the expectation in narrative film is for the voice to be foregrounded over ambient noises. The muffled dialogue in Tati’s films shifts attention away from the agency of individual characters toward the general scene, which is dominated by technology and architecture. This unique use of sound presents individual subjects as minor actors in the broader system of the Modern urban environment.
In the absence of clearly audible dialogue, attention is shifted toward the visual structure of scenes. Lucy Fischer has identified unique framing methods, utilized by Tati, that disperse attention across the frame, including: scenes that consist of several fields of action, multiple narratives unfolding simultaneously and Tati fostering the expectation that any character or object maybe activated in the narrative. Tati’s employment of the long-shot makes each of these methods of framing possible.1 By isolating and amplifying ambient sound, Tati directs the viewer, both visually and conceptually, through the scene, creating subliminal connections between the isolated sounds and the visually dispersed scene.2
Tati’s soundtracks are defined, not only by the sounds he includes, but the sounds that he removes from his depiction of the urban environment. Sounds are isolated, played back in contrast, not in relation to other sounds, but against a background of silence.3 Silence acts as a framing structure that draws attention to individual sounds by creating a border of silence.4
I started to think about the cumulative chatter that Tati removes from his films as one and the same as the cumulative hum I sensed being removed from my urban environment. Without this hum I had become dislodged from the tactile connection to the working city and other people I might, by chance, connect with. This hum is a physical tactile connection between the individual and the movements and flows of the city.
There are obvious and wide-ranging differences between the culture, architecture and technologies that defined the urban environment in 1967 Paris, compared to Brisbane, Australia in 2020. For Tati the context is Industrial Modernism and for myself it is the information technologies of Late Capitalism. In this paper I will draw upon Tati’s theme of Modern urbanism to argue that, despite the different historical contexts, Hulot’s disjuncture with his contemporary environment can be understood as similar to the disjuncture I have experienced as a result of the rapid transition to remote labor processes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. In both instances, social interactions are defined according to the prevailing technologies. A similar disconnection occurs as a result of the removal of chance, which finds a visceral presence through the use of silence to isolate and amplify individual noises that would otherwise meld to create a hum.
A central critique of Playtime is the future-focused consumer culture, which tends to disregard the past in the pursuit of newness which drives commodity cycles. The astuteness of Tati’s critique, combined with a focus on the effects of technology on social and cultural organization, meant that with time the critique has become prescient. In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1973, Tati suggests that Playtime will become more relevant to audiences as the décor in the film becomes more integrated into their lives. It is his assertion that people do not change as much as the superficial surroundings that drive commerce, which creates the appearance of change.5
Writing in 2017, Omar Kholeif argued that Playtime has become more relevant over the subsequent decades. It is with hindsight that he locates the specific context of this change within the development of the internet, as the single most significant catalyst to cultural change in the twenty first century. Kholeif states:
The hyper-real disenchantment with capitalist culture that Tati evoked has now become part of our everyday fabric. Designed culture has subsumed us with its functional and programmed infrastructure. Still, it is not that we have become slaves to machines, but rather we have invested machines with our ultimate desires- the desire to be as efficient, attractive, and connected as possible. The conditions have developed rapidly since the millennium, altering the way human relationships are brokered, the manner in which global conflict is reported, and the way culture is produced and distributed.6
Kholeif draws on Playtime to support his general argument regarding the internet, and his interest in shifting the emphasis, in contemporary critiques of technology’s cultural impact, from hardware to the intangibility of software as an organizing structure. While hardware structures material environments, software structures the digital sphere that mediates increasing portions of our lives.7
Nikil Saval, writing in 2014, discusses a well-known scene in Playtime where Tati ascends an elevator within an office block. The camera follows him through the office to reveal a grid of occupied cubicles, viewed from the mezzanine where Tati stands. Saval discusses this scene as a critique of the mid-century office architecture and the consequent social conditions that it produces, while also suggesting there is a prescient quality to the scene:
Tati lingers on it, to convey its absurdity and mild horror. In the future, he seems to say, there will be no more offices. We will work inside these cub-like shapes – hidden from each other and from ourselves.8
In both Kholeif’s and Saval’s discussions of Playtime, the film is used, not as an historical document of past technologies and architecture, but as a critique of social practices that have their origins in mid-twentieth century industrial culture and continue to be relevant today. The last line of the quotation from Saval was published prior to the pandemic, but could be taken to describe the current climate of video conferencing under lockdown, demonstrating the pandemic as a catalyst, rather than point of origin.
While Playtime critiques the way Modern technological and architectural environments have the ability to structure human behavior in the mid-twentieth century, Tati does not present a totalizing structure. As the protagonist, Hulot, continually reminds us of the many possibilities that can arise if one remains oblivious to the behavioral cues set in place within the urban environment. Like Playtime, this paper will draw connections to contemporary technology, as a shifting context, in which to identify points of failure as sites where idiosyncratic approaches have an opportunity to prevail. Contemporary computing will be discussed as a potential vehicle for the production and dissemination of idiosyncratic responses, evoking Hulot, within contemporary digital workplaces.
Playtime will be used throughout this article as an allegory for the current transition from physical to virtual work and social environments which require technology. A viral video distributed across television, websites and social media in 2017 will be analyzed for its similarity to the disruptive logic of the Hulot character. This approach positions the current moment as part of a trajectory of technological evolutions, rather than seeing this moment as an anomaly. The technologies that facilitated global lockdowns were in place well before 2020. The pandemic simply gave cause for the technologies to be mobilized to a wider extent.
There was an acceleration of urban development projects in Paris between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, which Tati takes as the subject of Playtime. This development was the result of changes to urban planning that saw areas deemed to be slums transformed through Modern architecture.9 In 1967, building codes were relaxed to allow for the construction of buildings that exceed thirty meters in height.10 By the late 1960s, debates around demolition, renovation and conservation arose in response to proposed public planning. A central assumption in these debates was the alignment of Modern urbanism with a government agenda to devalue traditional urban forms as a way of sanitizing the city and separating it from what was perceived to be an undesirable past.11 While Tati acknowledged the limits of the existing buildings and a need to provide solutions to well-publicized housing shortages, he questioned the need to tear down existing buildings when other building locations were available.12 The elaborate city-like set of Playtime was indeed built in one such location on the outskirts of Paris.
Tati’s earlier film, Mon Oncle, directly addressed the contrast between the old quarters of Paris and the new suburban developments, with scenes in both locations. The old quarters of Paris are notably absent from Playtime. Instead, the old city is alluded to via the actions of characters, such as the American tourist, Barbara, who is seen throughout the film carefully constructing images based on a preconceived idea of Paris. Additionally, reflections of key monuments in Paris are seen in glass doors as they open and shut, at the moment when the internal space of the architecture is at a threshold with the external space of the street. The distinction between internal and external space is a pre-occupation of Playtime. It is at this threshold that we are fleetingly reminded of the presence of the old quarters of Paris as an apparition or memory.
The only time when the old city is seen directly in Playtime occurs when Hulot stands on an elevated balcony that offers a panoramic view of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance, at the center of the expansive view. This scene provides the viewer with confirmation of the spatial location of the film’s constructed set in relation to the many recognizable monuments of Paris, fortifying the distance of the old city from the ordered offices occupied in Playtime.
Roland Barthes, in his 1964 essay “The Eiffel Tower”, conceives of the tower as both an object that can be seen across Paris and an observation point that facilitates a panoramic image of the city. The tower synthesizes two states: “seeing and being seen”.13 Barthes argues that the tower constructs an optical system that places its observation platforms as the center of the city and the rest of Paris as its circumference.14 As Hulot looks out from one of the new office buildings that comprise the sets of Playtime, as a tourist might look out from the viewing platforms of the Eiffel Tower, the audience is left to wonder if the city center has shifted.
While the rezoning of Paris provides a context for the emergence of this architecture, Tati is not concerned with the history of urban restructuring itself, but is instead focused on the way Modern urban environments affect the people who occupy them.15 Scenes linger on people as they navigate design objects and spaces. The uniformity of repeated actions, such as the sound of a someone walking down a long silent corridor, replicates the aesthetic sameness that defines all the sets of Playtime. This provides a marked contrast with the housing that Hulot occupies in Mon Oncle, which is defined by the haphazard construction which forms part of the visual comedy as audiences watch Hulot navigate the maze of internal spaces.
Consumer-oriented technologies are presented by Tati as active entities that redefine lived experience and social exchange. Lee Hilliker notes:
One of the most salient aspects of Tati’s cinema is indeed the manner in which it foregrounds the interactions of human beings with contemporary consumer-oriented technology, and the ways in which such technologies alter human relationships and fabric of lived experience.16
Objects are invested with cultural and social significance as scenes slowly unfold to reveal the way people interact with design objects and space. This occurs in both private and public space, reordering every aspect of social existence.
Herbert Marcuse, in his popular text from 1964, One-Dimensional Man, identifies the mid-twentieth century as an historical moment when the rapidly evolving technology-based culture became so ubiquitous that the prevailing logic of efficiency via habitual processes overpowered the subject. He argues that a shift occurred, from a subject that actively engaged with the world of objects, to what he terms a one-dimensional subject that is defined by the rational order of technological production. Marcuse states:
Private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual, and industrial psychology has long since ceased to be confined to the factory.17
For Marcuse, the philosophical logic of dialectical exchange, which preferences a plurality of perspectives, has been replaced by the singular, rational and habitual logic of technological processes within modern industrial societies. Marcuse, like Tati, is less concerned with the specificity of individual technologies and is instead interested in the way that the combined effect of technologies create a singularity of thought that is transcribed within the actions of individuals. In particular he suggests, “elements of autonomy, discovery, demonstration and critique recede before designation, assertion and imitation”.18
The urban environment presented in Playtime is one of order and conformity, facilitated by the streamlined architecture of industrial manufacture and design. A disjuncture between the urban environment and its occupants forms the structure of Playtime, via an overarching transition from the ordered daytime behavior to the descent into disorder over the course of the evening. The architecture acts to imprison the characters by ordering their actions according to the straight lines it demarcates.19 As Michael Chion has suggested, the prominence of straight lines in the architectural setting defines the framing of each scene, which in turn allows the curved lines that emerge within this environment to become apparent.20
When the ordered behavior of characters who dutifully follow the straight lines provided by the architecture eventually breaks down, it happens alongside the physical dismantling of the architecture and décor that feature prominently throughout the film, drawing a connection to the material environment as a means of control.
The two halves of Playtime - the ordered daytime work environments, and the disorder of the party at the Royal Gardens Restaurant - hinge on a single moment when the glass door to the Royal Gardens Restaurant is shattered. The broken glass door not only ruptures the diegetic order of the urban environment, but seems to rupture the film itself.
The first establishing shot of the sequence features a neon light that consists of a red arrow curled around the Royal Gardens logo. The arrow is located above the entrance and points directly toward the restaurant. The curved arrow acts as a marker for the disorder that will eventually unfold. The curved line of the neon makes literal the invisible lines that modify behavior throughout the film. A point most clearly articulated when a drunk patron is thrown out of the restaurant, only to follow the curved arrow back into the restaurant. Even within the context of disorder, the lines of direction evident within the décor and architecture are followed without question. What is significant in the descent into disorder, via the replacement of straight lines for curved, is not so much whether one is better than the other, but the refusal to accept the paths prescribed to us.
Michel Chion notes that Tati described the story of Playtime according to the flows of characters through the urban environment:
The lines on the ground are indicated implicitly by the geometry of the modern décor, and the characters who respect them at first gradually learn to move forward diagonally. They begin to act like the dogs in Mon Oncle which are excited by a particular smell and so pull their masters ahead. They ignore, in every sense of the word, the arrows and directions inscribed on the ground.21
The shattered door, a moment on which the entire film hinges, is the example par excellence of Hulot’s refusal to follow the directions prescribed to him. Hulot is first ushered inside the restaurant by the doorman, who is an acquaintance. Owing to some confusion in the foyer, Hulot finds an opportunity to leave the venue. He manages to make it outside the building before his attempt to leave is noticed. Both men stand holding the handle on either side of the glass. Hulot, wanting to remain outside the building and doorman wanting him to enter. The door shatters as the result of a polite, but determined, pull and tug at the door handle. It is precisely the moment when Hulot refuses to politely follow direction that the door and film rupture into disorder.
Holding the detached handle, the doorman continues to mime the action of opening and closing the door, despite there being no glass. Likewise, patrons continue to be ordered by the glass, even in its absence, as they dutifully comply with the implicit direction of the doorman. Patrons oblivious to the absence of the glass make obvious the social, rather than physical, barriers that the glass creates.
While most characters observe the conventions of the glass door even in its absence, others, looking for points of rupture in the urban environment, move through without resistance. Most notably, a clearly drunk and stumbling patron charges the imaginary door. He passes through, undeterred, into the foyer. After this moment, characters begin flowing freely into the restaurant, dancing and reveling. The descent into disorder finds its climax when Hulot jumps up and brings down the ceiling. Regardless or more accurately because, of this, the party continues until dawn.
At this point of rupture, there is no silence, everything is noisy, and the sound is ambient. It is drunk and at night, where disruptive behavior is encouraged, that Hulot finds his place, across several of the films he appears within.22 Afterall, a measure of drunkenness is the inability to walk in a straight line.
Tati presents a society controlled by industrial methods of organization, which find their most prominent form in the architecture, design objects and technologies from which the urban environment is comprised. But within this, he identifies an unwillingness of human subjects to completely submit to these forms of control. It is the tension between these two elements that forms the structure of the film, but the unique use of sound produces a visceral response in the viewer.
The interplay between order and disorder is mediated via a material form that has distinct contemporary relevance, glass, which has been the subject of continued and significant industrial refinement.
Sound is used throughout Playtime as an indication of the human subject as a disruptive force within the sanitized order of the Modern built environment. The context of large empty spaces, dominated by glass, steel and concrete, creates a plausible context within the diegesis of the film for the isolation and amplification of individual sounds. Characters appear against the backdrop of chic blandness. So, when individual noises produced accidentally by everyday interaction are amplified, it is simply an exaggeration of what one might expect within these Modern environments.
There is a clear demarcation between the ambient sound of the street and the internal spaces of the glass-walled buildings. On one hand, glass amplifies sounds within buildings via reverberations across impermeable surfaces. On the other hand, the glass works to block ambient sound from the street. Glass blocks sound, but it does not block vision. It has the appearance of openness, but it acts to isolate and control our relationship to the haphazardness of the street.
Anne Friedberg suggests that the use of plate glass in Modern architecture acts to dematerialize the building, preferencing vision, while blocking the other senses. She suggests that the separation of vision from the other senses creates a virtual experience of space, where occupants are simultaneously present and removed.23 In this context we might see Tati’s interest in glass as articulating this strange dynamic of being both present and removed as the beginning of a process toward virtual experiences, in which glass has remained the prime conduit.
This use of sound is pronounced when Hulot enters the foyer of the office block where he meets Giffard for the first time. There is a clear demarcation between the noise of traffic on the street and the absence of noise when Hulot enters the space. Rather than following Hulot, however, the sound changes according to where the camera is located. When the camera frames Hulot from inside the building, incidental noises are isolated via the prevailing silence. When he is filmed through the glass with the camera in an external location, the sound contains the ambient traffic noises. The audio directs the viewer’s attention toward the location of the camera and, by extension, the difference between the interior and exterior of the building. There is a heightened awareness of the way sound is altered by the glass, while its visual transparency remains relatively unaltered.
Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron posit the idea that Modern architects viewed the transparency of glass as a symbol of an open and new society. In contrast, they argue, transparency was seen by artists as a matter of appearance and was instead used as a method through which to analyze the world.24 Playtime manages to capture both approaches, because the film takes on the visual aesthetic of an architecture dominated by plate glass. Tati has referred to the practicality of filming in these glass sets, which allow everything to be seen, both looking through the glass and in reflections.25 However, the film simultaneously questions the idea of transparency as a form of openness by constantly drawing attention to glass as a hard and impenetrable material. Glass is seen to reflect vision and deflect sound, while maintaining the visual appearance of transparent openness.
Playtime is littered with examples of glass being at once transparent and impenetrable, as when Giffard is seen running toward someone, who he has mistaken for Hulot, and runs straight into the glass he has been looking through. This slapstick moment finds its conclusion when it is later revealed that Giffard’s nose was broken by the glass. It is not insignificant that the broken nose is made apparent to Hulot at the end of a sequence involving blue-collar workers, under the cover of darkness, attempting to move a piece of plate glass. They teeter back and forth to the atonal rhythms of an ad hoc band of musicians on the street. There is a confusion between whether the workers are dancing or fumbling with the glass. The combination of both interrelated scenes shows glass to be both impenetrable and precarious.
The emergence of plate glass in the architecture of the mid-twentieth century has continued relevance to contemporary architecture via the ongoing expansion of the technical capacity to manufacture larger and larger sheets of glass. This is exemplified by the 2011 refurbishment of Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship store, where the number of glass panels was reduced from ninety to just fifteen, covering the same surface area. The approach to increased minimalism of design is in keeping with the general aesthetic of Apple devices.26 The development of eighteen meter panels of glass, from the previous limit of six meters, was driven by this refurbishment of Apple’s retail spaces and has been utilized by other architects and designers to increase the spans of transparency beyond what was previously imaginable.27
The transparency of Apple’s “cube” on Fifth Avenue is extended to the point that the building itself has the effect of disappearance, leaving the focus on the internal space, which consists of minimal display furniture featuring glass touch-screen products.
A dynamic emerges between the enormous expanse of the glass that is the basic architectural component of this building and its content: products that are themselves defined by their small glass panels. Touch screens rely on the flat glass panel to conduct electrical currents, which create circuits between the device’s sensor and the operator’s finger. Glass is a necessary component of the device, which adds an element of precarity, as many users carry these devices with them at all times. The necessity of glass in the design, coupled with the ubiquitous use of these devices across contexts, means that cracked glass is a common feature within the presence of touchscreens. The crack becomes particularly precarious, as the smooth surface of the interface that is designed to be touched has the potential to cut as fingers swipe across its surface.
The connection between glass screens and the use of plate glass in architecture is made explicit in a preceding scene in Playtime. Shot from outside a low-level apartment block, this scene frames a view of the interior of four apartments clearly on display from the street. The large plate glass windows, reminiscent of the architecture of Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier, leaves bare the internal working of these home environments. Each apartment is either an exact or mirror replica of the neighboring apartment. The décor is also replicated across apartments. The use of plate glass allows the interior spaces of the household to be visible, but the particularities of individual characters remains obscured by conventions of display.
The scene starts with Hulot exiting a crowded bus, followed by Schneller, an old military service friend, calling out across the street to Hulot. In a spontaneous gesture, Schneller invites Hulot into his apartment and Hulot reluctantly accepts. Once inside the apartment, Schneller, with the assistance of his daughter, parades every gadget and technology within the house before a somewhat despondent Hulot. This scene replicates the kind of social exchange witnessed earlier at an architectural trade fair. The plate glass façade of the apartment, which is reminiscent of a shop window, adds a further sense in which commerce and domesticity have become enmeshed.
The set is an integral part of the scene. It exemplifies what Beatriz Colomina has articulated as an effect of the ‘picture window” in Modern architecture. She discusses the ‘picture window’ specifically in relation to Le Corbusier’s use of such architectural devices, which conceived of the house as a framing device that turns windows into giant screens, using the window frame to create images from landscapes.28 Writing more generally about the relationship between internal and external spaces as it pertains to privacy Colomina states:
The picture window works in two ways: it turns the outside world into an image to be consumed by those inside the house, but it also displays the image of the interior to the outside world. This shouldn’t be confused with exposing one’s privacy. On the contrary, we have all become “experts” on our own representation. In the same way that we meticulously construct our family history with snapshots, equally skillfully we represent our domesticity through the picture window. 29
The sense of being on display within this environment is evident in every aspect of this scene, from the way Schneller’s wife is seen fixing her attire, to the way everyone is arranged within the room facing the window as though on a stage. Each person within the room is turned into an actor and every moment becomes a scene of domesticity to be consumed by passers-by. Here, I am reminded of the way contemporary mobile devices turn the world into a literal image via the ubiquitous use, or potential use, of cameras within the urban environment.
At the center of each apartment is a television screen that is built into the wall separating the apartments. The televisions in each apartment are in clear view at the beginning of the sequence, however, as the sequence progresses the camera angle changes to a central position. The wall between the two apartments is then seen at ninety degrees from the lens. At this angle, the televisions disappear from view as does the separating wall. An illusion is created whereby the occupants of the two separate apartments, with their attention focused on the in-built television screens, appear to be in a single apartment, facing each other and engaging as an entire group.
The occupants of each apartment are watching the same boxing match on television. Each household is linked via the same broadcast image, but they remain separated by the architectural space that they occupy. This assists the construction of the gag when the camera is positioned such that the occupants of the two ground floor apartments are facing each other. Their reactions become synchronized, sometimes by chance, and sometime because they are watching the same broadcast program.
The sequence is structured like a gag based on misrecognition, but it is structured in reverse. The illusion of the two families in a single room is shown after it has already been revealed that they are not engaging with each other but consuming television. The scene clearly shows two separate households with their attention toward the in-built television, but at points we knowingly misrecognize the scene as that of a single group communicating and responding to each other. The specificity of broadcast television as a one-way form of communication plays an important role in this gag because, in its perceived absence, the passivity of consumption is transformed into an active engagement.
The pandemic has created a large-scale test for the viability of transferring all human exchange beyond one’s immediate household, from face-to-face encounters to screen-based virtual encounters. In a moment of misrecognition, we might mistake this scene for a parody of the current situation. It could be viewed as an historical prediction of the trajectory of screen-based technology toward interactive modes of reception. Afterall, Playtime is full of technological predictions, such as parking meters, which were not actually used in Paris at the time of production.30
As a prediction, this scene suggests that people will become increasing isolated within their own physically sealed environments, communicating via the mediation of technology. Technology and social interaction specific to 1967 Paris is clearly shown, followed by a trick of perspective which acts to prompt a question regarding future technologies that collapse physical space into virtual space. The gag of misrecognition in reverse clearly points to this scene as predicting future technological uses of screens and architecture. With hindsight, this scene appears as a representation of the historical trajectory, from the one-way communication of television broadcast, to live streaming video conferencing.31
A notable absence from this scene in Playtime is the ability to hear the exchange between characters, as a result of the glass. As in the scene where Hulot first meets Giffard, the audio in this scene is indicative of the location of the camera, rather than the actions of the characters. Hence, the noise of the street is audible, rather than the conversations inside the apartments.
We can think of sound as a physical trace. When we speak, movement, in the form of vibrations, passes through the air from our mouth to the listener’s ear. We touch when we don’t touch. The tactile component of speech is inseparable from the content of the words spoken in face-to-face communication. The physicality of speech is lost when translated digitally, just as it is lost when it is physically obscured by glass.
The separation of corporeal bodies in space, which are connected virtually, is a separation that favors the logical transfer of information over the experience of physical presence. The separation is enhanced as a form of isolation when we consider the use of noise-cancelling technology. Video conferencing contains default settings that filter background noise to assist in isolating the voice from its surrounds and to give clarity to the exchange. This technology preferences the human voice over ambient sound. This is the very opposite of the soundscape that dominates Playtime, even though silence prevails in both instances. In Playtime, silence frames ambient noise that is indicative of physical presence, whereas noise-cancelling technology uses silence to frame the human voice as a conduit of information.
In video-conferencing, sound is filtered to remove background noise and to create a direct focus on the human voice you have chosen to contact, rather than the child that is screaming in the other room, or a truck on the road outside your house. Instead, the software focuses on the one sound that you already knew that you would hear when you turned on your computer. The ultimate goal is efficient communication.
Within a scenario where one is able to choose their context, where they do not have to take public transport or walk down a street to make their meeting, I wonder about how the disruptive logic of Hulot might operate. His playful connectedness largely comes about via his movement through the city. Hulot is a stranger to none, he is constantly being recognized by people he walks past in the street, drawn into conversations that carry-on into pubs, restaurants and homes. Characters seem to recognize him and see him in others. Playtime is littered with people thinking they saw Hulot and this misrecognition acts to disrupt the purposeful and efficient flow of people through the city.
Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted that the later scenes of Playtime, from the Royal Gardens Restaurant onwards, embrace a utopian vision of a shared public space, which he suggests is not possible in a world dominated by mobile telephone use. Rosenbaum reasons that the tendency for mobile phones to completely occupy the attention of its user facilitates a denial of public space, because one is more readily able to pass through public space while maintaining focus on the private space of the mobile screen.32 One might walk past a calamity accidentally caused by Hulot and not even notice.33
Hulot’s spontaneous and playful interactions provide alternative ways of engaging and understanding the everyday world that he occupies.34 The character exists through chance encounters and his happiness and independence is reliant on his ability to connect with others, usually initiated through accidents that are not possible in the closed parameters of a virtual environment, where one is either connected or completely absent.
John Fawell links Tati’s alternative engagements and reimagining of the urban environment to his particular use of sound:
One of Tati’s great talents was to turn the mechanical world in on itself, to playfully record and imitate its sounds until these sounds no longer seemed inhuman and oppressive but silly and harmless. Tati had no fear of the modern world. He had no doubts about his, or anyone else’s, ability to undermine, through humor, its dehumanizing effects.35
While technology might influence behavior, in the way outlined by Rosenbaum in relation to the use of mobile phones, Tati reminds us that we have the ability to choose other methods of engagement. He refuses to direct us through the mayhem of each scene of Playtime, except to playfully misdirect us. With this historical film cue in mind, I now wonder how we might disrupt the logic of video conferencing from the home office as a new mode of public and social engagement.
While the critique of Modernity is both obvious and consistent throughout Tati’s career, there is also an ambivalence within Tati’s depictions of Modernity. The uniformity of experience in Modernity is continually disrupted by Hulot and others. These gestures are clearly a critique of the homogenizing aspects of Modernity, which preference conformity over disruption and predictability over spontaneity. However, this is coupled in equal portions with an aesthetic reliance on the cool and slick styling of Modern industrial design. Everything could be uglier or more alienating, but it is not. Instead the film takes on the aesthetic of the objects that it critiques.36 This speaks to the medium of film itself: Tati chose the artistic medium most aligned with Modernity in order to critique Modernity. The import of American tourists to France, which forms a thematic foundation of Playtime, has parallels with the import of American culture via cinema.
The ambivalence found in Tati’s critique of Modernity aligns with my question regarding contemporary technologies for remote social exchange. Video conferencing is distancing, but at the current moment provides an unprecedented form of connection without the need for physical presence. In this context, ambivalence arises because of the urgency of the transition, which allows the negatives and positives to sit in relative equilibrium and cancel each other out.
Tati is less concerned with the immediate impacts of technology on the individual and instead, as Joan Ockman suggests, focuses on the far-reaching psychological impacts of technology.37 Tati does not resort to technological determinism. Instead, he champions the ability of individuals to invent alternative ways to engage with their context. As Chion succinctly states: “…each one of his [Tati’s] films teaches us that the only way to get somewhere, anywhere is by going astray.”38 Tati is not opposed to Modern architecture or technology, but to the way in which it is used to regulate behavior.
Following the provocation set in place by Playtime, we might think of working from home as containing the potential to disrupt the workplace in unprecedented ways. The many aspects of private domestic living exist just outside of the camera’s frame. Strict adherence to social rules is required to maintain the separation between work and domestic lives.
Slippers under the desk (which is really the kitchen table), children in the next room, a neighbor mowing their lawn. None of these aspects of domestic life can infiltrate the high-rise office block environment, but with their new physical proximity to the workplace, each provides their own threat to the ability to conduct oneself professionally within an online work context. Within the domestic environment strict protocols need to be implemented to avoid interruption and mishaps.
Sound is, of course, the most likely way in which peripheral domestic factors might infiltrate an online workplace. Hence the default use of noise cancelling technologies in video conferencing software.
Consider the viral video that circulated the internet and news channels in 2017, featuring a BBC interview with Professor Robert Kelly. The interview was disrupted by Kelly’s two small children, one dancing and the other in a baby walker.39 The comic underpinning of this viral video is that it so clearly demonstrates how easily the veneer of professionalism can be disrupted when streaming an interview from home. Kelly struggles to continue the interview, pushing the child away and continuing to talk. The child casually leans on a bed that is covered with piles of books, which draws attention to the room as a multipurpose domestic space, rather than an office. The way the children moved about the space suggests that the room is a comfortable space that they regularly occupied. The usual protocols of Kelly’s home office were revealed, via the actions of his daughter, to be inconsistent with the expectation of a university office.
Insert video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh4f9AYRCZYFigure 10:
The second punchline of this visual joke occurs when another child enters the room in a walker, followed closely by their mother, With a panic-induced zealousness, the mother pulls both children from the room closing the door behind her. The scene that played out behind Kelly contained two elements: the strict conventions required to maintain a façade of professionalism while working from home and the complete disregard of those conventions displayed by the children.
The disjuncture between the expectations and the reality of working from home provided the comic appeal of this viral video. The home office of late capitalism, where a professor of Political Science speaks to a global news network from the same room that he plays with his young children, provides a scenario that allows for the disruption of protocols, not because they are less enforced, in fact the mother’s response is a clear indication that they are not, but because of the physical proximity of work and domestic spaces. The sudden descent into disorder, via the rupture of home office and video conferencing protocols, demonstrates how easily these divisions are disrupted and, by extension, the precarity of the conventions.
Viral videos of this nature proliferated during the pandemic, where mishaps and interruptions became part of the landscape of video conferencing. An article co-written by Anthony McIntyre, Diane Negra and Eleanor O’Leary outlines a number of these videos within various contexts. Across the different contexts a connection is made between the disruptive nature of the videos and the disruptive nature of the pandemic. The authors suggest:
In the protracted catastrophe of the pandemic, interruption videos mimic our own broad sense of obtrusion; their virality may be attributed to their capacity to reproduce, miniaturize and contain the familiar condition of disruption that has marked so many lives since 2020. 40
The relationship to technology, discussed in this paper, is not associated with the immediate and severe impact of the pandemic within health, economic and social contexts, but with a long-term shift in the way technology is applied to work and social contexts that has been hastened by the pandemic.
As the pandemic and lockdowns continued, more research and debates emerged outlining the positives and negatives of the pivot toward video conferencing. It is precisely this dynamic that makes Tati relevant to the current situation, because Tati presents a dystopia of disconnection caused by the technology at the same time that he offers an escape from its effects. The ease with which the seemingly totalizing and alienating aspects of the Modern urban environment are disrupted in Playtime is manifested in the viral video forty years later. The comedic flippancy becomes a way of processing the enormity of the situation which spills in all directions.
Furthermore, the viral video has resonance with Tati’s approach to children in many of his films, as children often function to disrupt narratives and social order. In his last film, Parade (1974), two children continually disrupt a stage performance. The final scene of this film shows these two children in extended meandering play. The ending of the film is entirely reliant on the whims of these two small children. The film ends when they choose to return to their parents: a gesture that undermines the authority of the director to choose the timing of the film’s end.
The children act as a familiar form of interruption. They move through the world oblivious to the conventions that order adult behavior. Children do not see the invisible lines drawn by architecture. Kelly’s children did not see the line drawn by a closed door. Hulot, similarly, is oblivious to these conventions: he walks through life unable to assimilate to the social conventions that he observes.41 Hulot’s out-of-step gait and ill-fitting pants evoke the silent era of film creating a visual reminder of his distance from the conventions of the Modern urban environment of the mid-twentieth century. There is great freedom in his refusal to internalize these systems of order, but it comes at the cost of efficiency and agency.
Playtime has been discussed as an allegory through which to explore one small aspect of the current moment; namely the uptake of video conferencing during the pandemic. The urban Modernism of Playtime can be understood as representing a point on an architectural and technological trajectory, which continues to this moment and beyond.
In Playtime, silence dominates the soundtrack of scenes in internal spaces. This acts in contrast to the sound of the street where the hum of activity is prevalent. During the 2020 lockdown, as workplaces moved from physical to virtual environments, the streets became as silent as the internal offices of Playtime. Workflows occurred across the internet instead of the city, leaving the physical environment devoid of its usual movement and sound.
While silence sparked the initial thread of connection to Playtime, glass provides a conduit through which to understand the relationship between the transparent and impermeable qualities that connects the plate glass of Playtime to the glass screens of the devices through which video conferencing occurs. Glass acts as a metaphor for social control via unspoken, or silent, conventions.
Playtime finds relevance in the current situation because of the ambivalence with which it approaches the modification of behavior through architecture and technology. This ambivalence provides scope in which to question these tendencies, while acknowledging its necessity during a global health crisis. Hulot reminds us, time and time again, of the precarious nature of social conventions, which require constant reinforcement by individuals. Hulot reminds us that we have the ability to imagine the world differently and engage with it in ways that are unexpected and that have not been predetermined.
Simone Hine is an artist, curator and writer. Working across these three contexts, her practice is primarily concerned with the intersection of cinema and contemporary art. Hine holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne in Art History (School of Culture and Communication).