More on Playtime, mobile culture and the city
I just finished watching my new copy of Tati’s Playtime for the second time, Mike having hipped me that it would reward close, sustained and purposive engagement.
He’s absolutely right, too: there’s so much going on in the apparent disorder of each frame that I cannot imagine anyone catching even half of it upon first viewing. Even knowing what to expect, though, after seeing the film a second time I still found myself hungry for insight beyond that offered by the primary text itself, something that might frame and contextualize what’s up on the screen, so naturally I turned first to the materials Criterion’s included in the two-disk set.
Unlike some Criterion editions, where the pamphlet you get approaches the average graduate thesis in length and ambition, Playtime features only a brief essay, by the Chicago Reader‘s chief film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Despite the brevity of Rosenbaum’s commentary, though, parts of it were so provocative that I want to quote it here at length:
Mobile phones have sadly made the sense of public urban space as it exists in Playtime almost archaic, a kind of lost paradise. The utopian vision of shared space that informs the latter scenes – beginning in the new Royal Garden restaurant at night and continuing the next morning in a drugstore and on the streets of Paris – is made unthinkable by mobile phones, whose use can be said to constitute both a depletion and a form of denial of public space, especially because the people using them tend to ignore the other people in immediate physical proximity to them. Nevertheless, given his capacity to keep abreast of social changes, I have little doubt that Tati, if he were alive today, could and probably would construct wonderful gags involving the use of these phones. And if he were making Playtime now, I suspect he’d most likely be inventing gags for the [film’s] first part that involved mobile phones, and then would have to find ways of destroying or disempowering them to make way for the second part.
There are a few notable things about this argument. Firstly, to my mind it’s about as clear a restatement as one is ever likely to find of the conventional humanist position on the impact of mobile technology on metropolitan experience. Though I’d differ from Rosenbaum in laying the blame on the mobile phone exclusively – the problems he identifies go back at least as far as the original Sony Walkman – I think many of us who consider questions of urban life and mobile technology from a nominally user-centered perspective would have to cop to holding some version of it.
But secondly, it’s striking to me that Rosenbaum explicitly asserts that mobile phones (and here I believe we can safely read “any mobile or ambient interactive potential”) must be destroyed or disempowered before any kind of sensed solidarity between user/citizens can again take root in the city. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recognize that for Rosenbaum any hope for the (re-?)emergence of such solidarity is located in and identified with the extended restaurant sequence, during which all sorts of physical and social barriers literally collapse, and “the customers and the employees of the Royal Garden eventually manage to carve out a common social investment in an establishment that’s gradually disintegrating around them.”
What Rosenbaum is clearly decrying here is the asymmetry that haunts mobile interactions and tends to undermine psychic investment in the immediate physical landscape. I’ve generally referred to what happens when someone moves through the city while simultaneously engaged in some kind of remote interaction as “multiple adjacency,” but of course it’s really no such thing: so far, at least, only one mode of spatial experience can be privileged at a given time in any such interaction.
And as long as the user isn’t stumbling into open manholes or trying, all Frogger-like, to survive having waded into multiple lanes of traffic, we can be pretty sure the privileged mode is not the one through which he or she is moving physically: if “cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone,” it sure as hell’s also the “place” you are when you’re indulging your Blackberry habit.
For a variety of reasons, it’s difficult if not impossible to participate in both of these realms at once, to the clear detriment of street life. Rosenbaum’s solution would appear to be the relatively maximalist one of somehow force-disabling the mobile device, allowing the physical city to reassert its prerogatives. (At least, this is what he suggests happen within the confines of an imagined filmic experience; I don’t want anyone to think I’ve taken this piece of writing as a literal policy statement, and I’m not at all convinced he’d endorse the same logic IRL.)
This line of argument is increasingly striking me as misplaced. Instead of surrendering to the determinism at its core, wouldn’t it be better to ask ourselves if the city can still be a meaningful platform for solidarity, whatever that word means? And if we answer in the affirmative, how might the technologies daily metropolitan experience is now founded on give rise to same, both as designed and used in ways that cut against the intentions of their designers? (This is, of course, the project of The City is Here For You To Use.)
Of course, poor Jonathan Rosenbaum can’t be held responsible for any of my free-associative ranting. Nevertheless, I’d insist that any from here on out, any project aimed at the restoration and enhancement of a meaningful urban public sphere that treats mobile interactivity as the enemy is already a loser.