The Player

Lawrence Russell

The Player (1992) dir. Robert Altman writ. Michael Tolkin (from his novel) cine. Jean Le Pine music Thomas Newman star. Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (The Icelander), Vincent d'Onofrio (David Kahane), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie), Fred Ward (Stukel), Peter Koch (Walter), Lyle Lovett (Det. DeLong), Whoopi Goldberg (Det. Autry)... and many Hollywood stars "as themselves"

This is a very clever film -- too clever for the plebs, but just great for film students -- as one would expect from a script by Michael Tolkin. Like all films about the industry, it allows you a vicarious entry into the dream-factory, a sort of starfucker's tour of the studio where you walk the walk, talk the talk with "the players" in the biggest propaganda machine in the world. Stars ancient and modern appear in cameos while the famously unknown writers and producers duke it out in the historic battle for artistic supremacy. It's an old battle, one the movie industry inherited from the theatre -- who is the primary artist? The writer, the director, the actor or the entrepreneur?

"I like words... letters... I'm just not crazy about complete sentences" (Ice to Griffin)

It's a strange culture, one where screenwriters routinely pull down millions for a script, yet get less critical recognition than a college poet whom no one reads except the committee who gives her the grants to publish. The screenwriter is like Shakespeare, a phantom artist who might be a team or a solitary dreamer, a marginalized figure in the industrial production line. Even the famous writers who come to Hollywood -- like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, West -- find themselves written out of the credits in a business paradox that operates as a commune controlled by fascists.

So the idea of a writer as an artist with a grievance is all too true. Ironies abound -- you eavesdrop on Buck Henry, the writer of The Graduate, trying to pitch his script idea in twenty-five words or less to a young studio executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who wasn't even born when the famous film appeared. Two writers successfully pitch the scenario of a beautiful young woman (Julia Roberts) who is wrongfully sentenced to die in the gas chamber without anyone -- including the writers -- realizing that it's a rip-off of Robert Wise's 1958 film I Want To Live! starring Susan Hayward.

American movies are like junk food, part of the consumer loop, where you must never feel bad unless you need to feel bad in order to feel good. Sex, killings, and the happy ending -- this is the Hollywood paradigm, one which Altman and Tolkin satirize, yet follow themselves without a trace of self-loathing. Griffin kills a writer, screws his woman, and turns blackmail into a post-modern script of his own success. You can't beat that. It's a Roman fable, like Nero killing his mother and marrying a boy -- everything he does is theatre.

You can't fault the acting in this film where everyone is playing himself as he used to be or expects to be. Nor can you criticize the cinematics, which start with a long tracking shot (a self-confessed homage to Orson Welles) and proceed with journeyman efficiency to the farcical ending. But you can see moments where the action becomes too esoteric and in-house, where its audience narrows to the film workshop... and sometimes Altman's infamous ambient dialogue allows important information to be buried in the general noise.

"Ya fuckin' dogshit writer! Try to fuckin' kill me?" (Griffin, as he kills the planted rattlesnake in his Land Rover)

Despite the apparent complexity of the plot, the action follows the common four crises narrative typical of many features: one, the advent of Larry Levy, the rival executive who bails from Fox, a threat to Griffin's authority; two, the killing of David Kahane, the writer Griffin thinks is stalking him; three, the rattlesnake Griffin finds on the passenger seat of his Land Rover; four, the police line-up that Griffin is forced to endure ("No witness, no crime"). You could argue that the blackmail "pitch" at the end is a fifth crisis (or even Bonnie's betrayal and firing) but by now Griffin is so smooth, so completely within his own rectum that his confidence is unassailable -- it's merely another business opportunity, a prophylactic for his good fortune.

© LR 92/99


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