#812 The Player
1992 // USA // Robert Altman
Criterion Release Date: 24 May 2016 (LINK)
Film industry is, first and foremost, a bloody business. After all, Hollywood is the battleground, the killing field. There are winners, and there are losers. Sometimes the loss could be as deadly as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), one of the thousands industrial reference (mockery or not) squeezed into the improvisational screenplay of The Player. Robert Altman had been both. After the astonishing works in the early 70s, including M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), Altman was largely at odds against the industry and, artistically and stylistically, much ahead his time. Finally in the early 90s, The Player emerged as a turning point in revitalising Altman’s career, a film that served as a stepping stone for Altman’s next passionate project of adapting Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts.
With a screenplay by Michael Tolkin based on his own novel, Altman dived into the ludicrous and acrid side of Hollywood that he was so familiar with inside out. From the opening 8 minutes long tracking shot by cinematographer Jean Lépine, featuring almost all the relevant main characters strolling or pitching ideas to each other’s in the studio backyard or officers, Altman wittily put the ostensible process of filmmaking onto the dissection table, playfully cut with satirical tone that reminiscent of his own breakout black comedy M*A*S*H (a proposed plot of Graduate 2? Appreciation of Orson Welles, who was an outcast from Hollywood, and the famous opening in Touch of Evil?). The audience would be constantly bombarded with film culture reference and industrial mockery that sometimes could feel overstuffed, not to mention the numerous eye-popping celebrities cameos that fortunately looked more authentic than one could imagine.
Altman claimed The Player was a “very, very soft indictment” on Hollywood, “Although we did lift up a few rocks, Hollywood is much crueler and uglier and more calculating than you see in the film”. Even the film is an softened version of the arduous Hollywood, we could still sense how a filmmaker could paradoxically love to hate and hate to love the “dream factory”. After all, everything is possible but not necessarily feasible in Hollywood. This bought us to the Sunset Boulevard-like main plot that is more compelling on the second watch, after the revelation of the self-reaffirming “happy” ending. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), the studio executive in charge of picking suitable (aka crowd-pleasing and money-making) stories and ideas for film from various writer, faced a death threat via postcards from an unknown writer whom he had promised to call back but never did. Griffin suspected David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) as the culprit and wrongly killed him after a confrontation. Griffin, with the help of the studio chief of security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), had to evade suspicion from the police force led by Detective Avery (Whoopi Goldberg). The guilt of murder and the fear of arrest did not stop Griffin getting emotionally involved with Kahane’s girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).
The elements of a classic film noir were there in plain sight, from the shadow-looming back alley to the (pseudo) femme fatale, but The Player distinguished itself from any film noir, classic or neo, by its self-awareness of being a film. It always bounced back and forth between taking itself too seriously and simply being a joke. Like when Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), Griffin’s rival in the studio whose existence threatened Griffin’s status and job title, suggested articulation of film plot directly from newspaper headline for eliminating the cost of script writer did sound totally feasible, but the scene ended with Griffin’s assertion of eliminating actors and directors as well in an unexpectedly serious fashion. All the tonal shift and hyper-realistic overlapping dialogue (a signature of Altman’s films, as well as the improvisation elements from actors) seems so effortless in the hands of Altman, although his artistic vision did not always click with the audience and critics.
The ending of The Player was the last master stroke of the film (according to Tim Robbins’ interview included in the Criterion release, it was actually his idea), it provided a circular form, and the film-within-film format that have the same effect as Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) or Fellini’s And The Ship Sails On (1983), both revealed a film crew filming the scene, thus the entire film for the whole time, at the ending. The Player did not show any “film crew” at the end, because it had already disclosed the the major fraction of film industry in its two hours running time. There is no moral lesson, frankly, the only lesson we learnt is Darwinian “Survival of the Fittest”, it’s one hell of a game to play.