For the past couple of months, I have been hard at work at a new “Let’s Study,” the most ambitious so far. It’s for Half-Life 2, and I foresee it being spread over seven parts. Part One: Linearityis now posted.
There’s a lot of material in this particular Let’s Study adapted from the first chapter of my dissertation, as well as material I developed when teaching the Half-Life franchise in class (including this lesson from my “Comparative Media Poetics” course). My first “Let’s Study” was just a playthrough with some commentary and a bit of b-roll; for this particular series I’m really leaning in to the video essay format more, trying to create shareable versions of what are basically class lectures, or conference presentations. This particular series is still geared very much toward a general audience, but I’m using it as prep for potential future adaptations of dissertation material into video essay format for submission to a genuine peer-reviewed academic video essay journal.
As usual, the script is below the fold. Part two coming soon!
So, this isn’t a proper lesson plan. It’s just a quick cheat sheet. When teaching PlayTime, I pair it with Kristin Thompson’s chapter “Play Time: Comedy n the Edge of Perception” in her book Breaking the Glass Armor. (I consider myself incredibly lucky that I can pair one of my favorite films with a piece of writing that I consider to be one of the more astute and persuasive pieces of academic film criticism ever written.) My lesson, therefore, largely revolves around the conclusions of Thompsons’ analysis: that “the comic and the non-comic become indistinguishable” in PlayTime, and that the way the film “forces us into new viewing procedures” holds the potential to “successfully transform our perception in general.”[i] To view PlayTime, in other words, is to encounter a new way of seeing the world, one that might persist beyond the theater.
How do you successfully persuade students that PlayTime requires specific viewing procedures from its audience, ones unlike those we use when viewing a more traditional narrative film? My tactic is pretty simple: I pull student attention to moments that reward close viewing. Thompson herself lists a bunch of these in her chapter. I like to point to additional, different ones, so that I can show students new, unexpected visual rewards—therefore making both me and Tati seem smarter than we otherwise would! Please feel free to steal these.
Jacques Tati often liked to say that the only real star of his film Playtime (1967) was the set itself. With his brilliant manipulation of its mise en scène, those words hold to be quite true. The minimally dialogued, loosely plot-based film is mainly structured around the changing of settings. As the movie goes on, an apparent pattern emerges among the scenery—it almost entirely consists of grey, pristine buildings, from the steely Orly Airport to the shiny new Royal Garden restaurant. Tati establishes this foundation in order to build up and play with the dichotomy of public and private space. Throughout the film, he juxtaposes these two ideas and questions the boundary that divides them.
The only moment of private space we see in Playtime is when Monsieur Hulot’s acquaintance from the army invites him into his recently bought apartment. However, Tati takes this scene and challenges the extent to which the space could be deemed personal. First off, the design of the apartment complex remains consistent with the public buildings that we have previously seen—grid-like, silver, and clean-cut. In the below collage of the six main scenes in the movie, the apartment (middle picture of the top row) blends right in with the other buildings of this ultra-modern world. By making the aesthetics of families’ homes parallel that of public locations, the distinction between them becomes slightly blurred, for our expectations of how the two different spaces should look are challenged. Tati creates a disturbance in what we think we know—if we are not certain of how a private space should appear, do we even know how they function?