Playtime (1967)

It was suggested to me recently that if I want to watch a movie that really sheds some light on what being autistic is like, then I should watch Jacques Tati’s 1967 Playtime.

Here’s what M Kelter from Invisible Strings had to say (this is copied from the comments section of my blog):

 m kelter November 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm

…I’ll tell you one thing: I said there’s no film that assumes an autistic POV…in a way, that’s not quite true. There’s a film by French director Tati called Playtime. I’ve always felt that, on many levels, this film replicates my experiences of the world. The sensory experience…the presentation of “normal”…all of it comes from a POV that replicates how the world feels to me. If an NT wants to understand how it can feel to experience sensory overload…or how it can feel to be confused by non-verbal communication, by systems of normalcy…Playtime is a great experience. I love the film, but I also think it puts the viewer in a world that is warped, confusing, hard to process…it’s a world I am very, very familiar with. Anyway, instead of films that present autistics as these walking diagnostic manuals, I’d rather see more films like Playtime, films that assume a POV that pushes normal to the side.

Well, I took M Kelter’s advice, and I’m thrilled I did. What a ride.


Now, if you haven’t seen Playtime, I strongly urge you to give it shot. Granted, it’s not for everyone. It hasn’t got a plot – not in the conventional sense, anyway – and it hasn’t really got characters – again, at least not in the conventional sense. There’s really nothing conventional about this film, to be honest, but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. It’s an experience more than anything else – a trip, if you will. By ‘trip’ I don’t mean the kind you get from LSD. Or maybe, somehow, it’s exactly what I mean; the same sort of metaphor applies. You get a glimpse of a world experienced differently: sounds are accentuated; your sense of orientation goes awry; things are not what they appear; confusion ensues – even panic. Is this the sort of thing you were referring to, M Kelter, when you wrote that “it puts the viewer in a world that is warped, confusing, hard to process … a world I am very, very familiar with”? I suppose it is.  And so as an anthropologist trying to appreciate the experience of what it’s like to be autistic, I relished the opportunity for this masterfully crafted glimpse at a different way of seeing the world; however short and artificial.

Now, for those of you who haven’t seen the film, I should probably give a brief description of what goes on there. Yes, I will be doing Jacques Tati a terrible injustice, because the experience of watching this film is precisely the sort of experience that just can’t be put into words. It is very much a visual and auditory journey, not a narrative. But I might as well give it a try.

The film is set in an imaginary “modern Paris”. Not the old city with its unique architecture and very particular charm.  No, there’s nothing old in Playtime; everything is sparkling new. This city, which was constructed solely for the purpose of the film, is ultra-modern, by what I imagine to have been the standards of “modernity” in 1967, the year this movie was filmed. It depicts modernity gone mad, stretched to its absolute point of absurdity. It’s all glass and metal, right angles, spic and span cleanliness, and abundant technology. Tati makes a good job at not allowing his creation to be reduced to any crude or simplistic idea of good or bad; it is neither, really. It simply is. In fact, oppositions are a theme in Tativille; friendliness and alienation, order and chaos, dreariness and ecstasy are all present and are intermittently drawn to their extremes at varying degrees of simultaneity.

And the noise!! It’s everywhere and it’s relentless, it starts off as protruding from a distance, but gradually it’s made to feel ubiquitous and near, as it virtually becomes synchronized at some point, or so it feels, with the viewer’s own fluctuating hart rate. Roaring vacuum cleaners, buzzing intercoms, wheezing sofa cushions, pounding footsteps, beeping car horns, ear-deafening announcement speakers and screeching TV sets, and the list goes on and on… Oh and the chatter! The constant, rampant rambling, loud laughs and indistinguishable babbling are at times almost too much to bear. Also, Tativille and its residents are perpetually in motion – bustling roads and lively shops and escalators and elevators and construction work. Later, in the evening, increasingly frantic dancers and waiters blend in a less-then-perfect harmony, gradually seasoned by random drunkards, who quite naturally join in the seemingly improvised though endlessly complex choreography.

Utter disorientation is perhaps the hallmark of this film, as along with the protagonist Mousier Hulot, the viewer is ingeniously led to constantly wonder in confusion: wait – are we inside or out? That there – is that a wall, a door, or just an absence? Am I looking into this building, or is it merely a reflection of that other one? Are those people up there dancing to the music…? (No, they’re just taking a window apart) Is that truck going to pull-over or keep going? Are these people leaving or just standing up to say hello to friends? Is that desk an item for sale or is it a functioning desk in an office? Do I recognize this person from before or is it someone else entirely? What language is that person speaking? Is he speaking to me? Where is everybody gone? Where on earth is this film headed??

I could go on. There is so much more to Playtime. So many astute observations on the various layers of absurdity in modern urban living; on divisions and their breaking; on the fine, almost invisible line between intimacy and estrangement; on globalization, with its apparent effect of alienation, but the underlying reality that people will always be people, for better or worse. Their behaviour does take very different forms, though; because the environment matters, and our interaction with it affects us, often in ways that are unpredictable to us, but that make sense nonetheless.

Well that’s enough of that. That’s all I can do to put into words what was in fact never meant to be worded. Just watch the film. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

So let us get back to the issue at hand – what has Playtime taught me about what being autistic might be like? What do I make of this film as an anthropologist? What’s to be learned?

As I implied a moment ago, I think Playtime can help us to understand the interaction between people and their environment; particularly those people who are more susceptible than others to being affected by their surroundings. But wait, are autistic people more susceptible then others to being affected by their surroundings? Well, yes, I suppose they are. We all experience the world through our senses. When our senses are enhanced or very sensitive, our experience of the world is likely to be affected.

Thus, it should be interesting to use Playtime as an example and ask – What effect do autistic people’s enhanced sensory perception and sensitivity – often to the point of it being unbearable, sometimes to the point of it being mesmerizing and pleasurable – play in their lives?

These are difficult questions. Social anthropologists often struggle to incorporate the body – in any form – into their analyses. Try and ask yourselves: What’s the role of sensory input in social structures, in social relationships, in social forces, in social dynamics? It has a vast influence, clearly, but isn’t it inevitably just a bit vague and elusive?

What’s difficult about this is that when we talk of senses and sensory input, or the actual ways in which the environment becomes inscribed on our bodies and brains, we almost inevitably wind up over-generalizing. After all, every sound is different. Every sight, every texture, every smell or taste is unique. Even if two sounds – identical in every measurable way – are played to 2 different people in different contexts, they will have different meanings, they will be interpreted and experienced differently; indeed, they will be heard differently. Every single sensory input is, in many ways, singular and unique. How can such a singular occurrence be incorporated into any sort of general theory?

And how can this even be framed within a social science perspective?

Well, the single most relevant concept that can help us to start making sense of these questions is what’s known as ‘affect’.

I will not presume to define affect; better men and women then me have tried, to varying degrees of success; and I’m not yet at a point where I can synthesize these often very varied framings of this concept to anything very coherent, or even intelligible, without this turning into a heavy-laden theoretical discussion, which would be grossly inappropriate for this platform (and not a whole lot of fun to write, either). Instead, I will toss around some very partial explanations of what ‘affect’, in the context of the social sciences, might mean:

Affect refers to the universal and innate human capacity to affect one’s environment (including other people) and be affected by it. Affect refers to that elusive sense of one’s body playing a significant role in the intensity of one’s experience of the world. Affect refers to the immediacy of interaction, that layer of it that has not yet been “contaminated” or thwarted by meaning, interpretation, or language. Affect emphasizes the singularity of any human experience, those aspects of it that can never be accurately represented, duplicated, translated, or reproduced. Affect refers to that constant sense of motion in one’s state of mind, mood or thought. It is that unnameable sensation that follows an idea, right before that sensation is translated into language to form just another idea. Affect is that which is inscribed on us through our senses in a way that makes a difference – whatever that difference may be.

Ah, I wish I could offer a more structured or coherent explanation. But that’s the whole thing with affect; by its very definition, it eludes structure and coherence. It is exactly that thing that language could never quite get a handle on, whether because it is pre-lingual, or extra-lingual, or simply ineffable. Affect pertains to those sensations we feel that we can never find quite the right words for. And the instant we find the words – the sensation is gone.

I don’t think I have ever spoken to anyone on the autism spectrum who hadn’t told me at one point or another about sensory sensitivities that they have. And this is never regarded as inconsequential, trivial, or insignificant.  Quite often, in fact, sensory sensitivities are mentioned as the single most important aspect of living with autism. And it makes perfect sense, after all. Our senses are our window to the outside world; it is the media through which our environments affect us, right from the moment of our birth (and, indeed, even beforehand). It is the basis of all learning, of all knowledge, of all experience. So when our senses work differently, this is likely to make pretty much everything different. Social interaction, language, communication, control of one’s limbs, the sense of one’s body, preferences, emotions – it impacts it all.

Have I explained anything at all? No, I don’t believe I have. But by throwing these observations around, I am merely hoping to sow some seeds of understanding. You know, for later.

So allow me to end this post with a question for those of you on the autism spectrum: what sensory sensitivities do you experience? And more importantly, how do you feel these affected you throughout your life? Feel free to give one or two examples, or if you don’t mind, a lengthier answer will do perfectly. I genuinely look forward to hearing your replies.

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7 thoughts on “Playtime

  1. Glad you were able to check out the film, and glad you liked it…the film that precedes this one, Mon Oncle, is also pretty brilliant for many of the same reasons and is worth checking out. His other films are also fun, but more for Tati super-fans…Mon Oncle and Playtime were definitely where he hit his stride.

    To the question: “what sensory sensitivities do you experience? And more importantly, how do you feel these affected you throughout your life?”

    What I would say is that sensory issues can have a very alienating, strange impact on a person…I can’t speak for others, but I know the average person tends to converse, interact in a way that is natural, intuitive…but when you are 1. struggling with social pragmatics and 2. bombarded with sensory impressions, it has the effect of taking you out of the moment. From an early age, I felt like I was always on the “outside” of social interactions “looking in”, due to these two factors. the world and the world of people can just be very odd, confusing. It’s one of the things I like so much about Playtime…not only is the main character “lost” in social environements…but because of the camera angles (everything is shot from a distance, leaving lots of disorienting spaces between characters) and because of the sensory input, the viewer is actually seeing the world through the eyes of someone who feels disoriented by social spaces. You’re not a detached viewer watching a confused character…the viewer him or her self is confused, due to the way the world within playtime is presented.

    conversely…most films about autism show an autistic character who proceeds to exhibit autistic traits…nothing wrong with that…but the perspective of the film is neurotypical…the perspective is, “look at this autistic charater over there”…it’s a removed perspective that sees the autistic character from a distance. Playtime on the other hand removes the distance…it has nothing whatsover to do with autism…yet the viewer is seeing the world through new eyes, and for me, that’s a much better alternative to most “autism films”. if someone can watch playtime and feel confused, feel that the sounds and sights are disorienting…that’s a moment of empathy for those of us who see the world that way every second of every day. Which gets back to your question…how do sensory issues impact our lives…the impact, for me at least, is that the world can become strange, alienating. the “outside looking in” effect becomes a factor.

    Thx again for this discussion, look forward to more posts, take care Ben.

  2. Hi m kelter, thanks so much for this comment. You write some really interesting things. Alienation is of course often mentioned in the context of autism. I suppose up until now I mostly took this to mean “other people actively exclude me, therefore I feel alienated”. But it seems like you’re describing another sort of experience; one in which you feel alienated due to sensory processing (and difficulties with social pragmatics), which I suppose is only indirectly related to what the people around you say or do. It’s an interesting distinction that I wasn’t really aware of.
    And the “outside looking in” effect that you describe, I think I get it. But this mostly happens in social settings right? Because as far as the material world is concerned, I actually often hear autistic people talk about a very strong feeling of connection; of actually being very much “inside”. Anyway, very helpful stuff to think with, thanks for that.

  3. ‘Alienation…’

    When I discovered Science Fiction, it was a revelation. I spent the next several years of my childhood eagerly awaiting a fleet of space craft, who would turn up in order to take me home to the planet I belonged; people like me, who would ask me questions about those strange Humans of Planet Earth, and what I had learned about them as someone who had grown up amongst them in disguise (though not a very good one!).

    Needless to say, I am still here (perhaps something went wrong with their schedule 😉 ).

    I’ve had more than half a century of being an ‘alien anthropologist’ on Earth. (When even your own culture makes no sense, you have to be an anthropologist to survive).

    And what have I learned? That the fleet must be truly huge, because there are a lot of us stranded here. 🙂

    Honestly, though, I have learned that most people are not like me in a variety of ways.

    Most people can ‘filter’ input to avoid being overwhelmed by it, instead of having to turn it off altogether.

    Most people are able to ‘mute’ sound, for instance; they can pay attention to someone talking in their environment without noticing anything else, with the exception of their name being called.

    If I pay attention to someone talking, I am forced to hear every other noise in the environment. Everything, inside and outside.

    Conversely, if I need to quell the racket I have to turn all sound input off. Everything, even someone calling my name. Which tends to frustrate people, I’ve noticed, especially at school.

    At least I am old enough that I went through school at a time when students were expected to sit still, at their own desk, and remain quite whilst teacher was talking. Even so, my attention would frequently be distracted by other sounds in the environment. My school reports would often be a variation of ‘needs to pay more attention’ even when I was getting As.

    Visual input is the same. When I used to drive, I often noticed hazards that my passengers had failed to see – even when they were looking at the same scene that I was looking at. On the other hand, the nearly overwhelming input led to me being very slow to learn to drive; mostly, the time was needed to train my brain to give different weighting to what I was seeing, so that I paid more attention to everything on the road than I did to things in the distance that were never going to be a hazard.

    Then there is touch. Unexpected (human) touch can be intensely painful to autistic people; even anticipated touch can be unpleasant. On the other hand, I know autistic people who need intense physicality (bear-hugs, for instance) in order to be able to feel themselves at all. For me, although I dislike unexpected human touch and do not feel at all deprived if no-one touches me for days on end, I can cope with and even enjoy the occasional hug (especially from people I really love).

    When I was little, I loved being tightly wrapped in my bedclothes; even now, I sleep better in the winter, because of the heavy bedclothes. My favourite part of a visit to the dentist is the lead apron they put on people for X-rays. The weight relaxes me and makes it easier to self-hypnotise to cope with the stress and pain (like other people with EDS, local anæsthetics don’t work very well on me).

    All of which might go a long way to explain why the NT friends of spectrumites are often of a different generation, and sometimes a different culture entirely; is it easier for NTs to tolerate their ‘eccentric’ friend’s foibles if those can be rationalised as age/cultural differences? It makes no difference to us. We don’t fully understand *anybody*.

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