I can only speculate whether Robert Altman's new subversive satire, The Player, would make it big at the box office. Such speculations would submit to the movie's most obvious target: judging a movie's quality with an accountant's mentality, by the number of tickets sold. The movie landed in town with much hype and fanfare, due to its references to industry figures and large number of big stars cameos; hopefully, it would also provoke some interesting discussions.
Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin assume that we have some knowledge of how the film industry works. How else can you explain the popularity of "Entertainment Tonight," Liz Smith's syndicated column, and all the tabloids you see at the supermarket What Altman has blessedly given us is a self-reflexive, multi-layered interpretation of the film industry, one that goes beyond conventional wisdom–a real insider's point of view.
Those who perceive The Player as a drama or melodrama may miss its point. One of the great things about Altman's movie is that it is a light satire. The point of reference for this movie is not Billy Wilder's noir melodrama, Sunset Boulevard (l950), but Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, made precisely 40 years ago, with Kirk Douglas as a corrupt and egotist director.
Irony defines the movie’s strategy. In one of many brilliant scenes, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a slick young studio executive, explains to his new girlfriend (Greta Scacchi), that he will "greenlight" film projects only if they have certain "elements." These are: suspense, laughter, violence, heart, nudity and, above all, happy endings (See below). The irony is that The Player itself includes all of these elements. The Player is not the kind of movie Mill would normally approve, except that he not only ends up making it, he actually commissions it–another great irony that will become clear when you see the film.
Tolkin’s script abounds in cynical wisdom. For example, an executive may go to A.A. meetings, not because he is an alcoholic, but because "that's where all the deals are being made." In Hollywood, perception is real because, as one character says, "all rumors are true." There has not seen a movie about Hollywood that is so precise and observant of the routine (and, yes, tedious) work–we follow Mill on his daily rounds of power lunches, pitch meetings, and parties.
The film's opening, a tracking shot of eight minutes, is illuminating, depicting a typical day in a studio. Altman's constantly moving camera challenges us to find the crucial details. There isn't one high-flown minute in the movie. The Player is a movie of nuances, of small details that have cumulative effect; at the end, the movie emerges as bigger than its parts. The scenes aren't resolved; they are left slightly askew. Altman's storytelling allows for ambiguity, a characteristics which is missing from most Hollywood movies. The Player also works as a thriller, even though the identity of the killer is known. Mill murders an angry screenwriter who he thought was sending him life-threatening letters. But whether he gets away with murder is just one of the film's puzzles.
In most Hollywood movies, moguls have been portrayed as caricatures or stereotypes. Mill is a monster, but he is a human monster. Rather than pre-judging the character, Altman makes him sympathetic, so that we root for him. He also gives Mill some credit for being an excellent player–it takes shrewdness, savviness and talent to know and play the game by its own rules.
The Player is not strictly about Hollywood. Altman's observations about the film industry are equally applicable to other large conglomerates that are impersonal and profit-oriented. In this dizzying hall of mirror, no one is spared, least of all the audience. The Player persuasively suggests that, to some extent, we are all players. Altman doesn't want us to forget that while it is executives who "choose" what movies to produce, in the final account, it is the public that has the power to make or break a movie. Indeed, the most frightening thing about The Player is that if we watch too carefully, we might catch a glimpse of our own compromised self.
The movie's theme, the inherent tension and entanglement of art and commerce have been Altman's lifelong theme. This thematic continuity is what makes Altman an auteur par excellence. Altman has devoted his entire career to bending and correcting the conventions Hollywood's genres, be they Westerns, detective, war movies, and even biopictures.
While The Player represents a great comeback for Altman, it is not that he has been out of work. He fell of favor in the l980s, because his movies were not popular with the public. But Altman arguably made some of the most interesting movies of the decade. Streamers (l983), based on David Rabe's Vietnam play, was the closing-night selection of the prestigious New York Film festival Come Back to Dime Jimmy Dean took a trashy, melodramatic material and made an innovative film that featured great acting (it's Cher's film debut). Vincent & Theo (l990), a deconstruction of another Hollywood melodrama directed by Minnelli and starring Kirk Douglas, is a masterpiece that was on many critics' Ten Best Films.
The Player showcases Altman’s cynicism to a fault. Consider this exchange between Griffin and June. Griffin says: “The story lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.” When June asks, “What elements?” Griffin says: “Suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”
The Player is a daring movie that works on its own relentless terms. It has a fluid pace and a quick tempo. Under light, seemingly improvisational surface, Altman has produced a rigorous deconstruction of the Hollywood system. As noted, the movie is cynical, but not bitter or angry. In its own way, it is rather optimistic–it is extremely hard for the truly committed artist, to work in Hollywood. After all, Altman is a living proof of it.
Running time: 123 Moments
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins)
June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi)
Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward)
Detective Avery (Whoopi Goldberg)
Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher)
Joel Levison (Brion James)
Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson)
David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio)
Andy Givella (Dean Stockwell)
Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant)