***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B
starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg
screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel
directed by Robert Altman
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. In the opening scene of Robert Altman's The Player--an uninterrupted tracking shot lasting 7 minutes and 45 seconds--chief of studio security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) discusses long tracking shots with mailboy Jimmy (Paul Hewitt). Stuckel talks at length about Rope and Touch of Evil and says directors back then knew how to shoot a film. Jimmy mentions Bernardo Bertolucci's then-recent The Sheltering Sky and Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners as having terrific long shots, but Stuckel shrugs and mumbles that he hasn't seen them. It appears that Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (adapting his novel of the same name) are illustrating a point about the insularity of the studio system and how the studios have no reference point outside their own past. Today, a complaint like that seems positively churlish. I honestly would not expect any of the newer executives to know or appreciate Rope or Touch of Evil, much less any current chiefs of security! In my view, anybody familiar with American cinema to that extent is already distinguished from your typical capitalist.
The characters populating The Player know their fucking movies. They may even love them. Somebody mentions the noir classic D.O.A. to studio head Joel Levinson (Brion James) and Levinson rattles off the cast list and adds that it was remade in 1987 or '88 and didn't do much business. The film's anti-hero, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has posters of Laura, M., The Blue Angel, and the more obscure Prison Break and Murder in the Big House framed in his office. When screenwriters pitch their projects to him, they reference Throne of Blood and expect Mill to know what that is. At one point, he receives a call from a Joe Gillis, and though he doesn't recognize that it's an alias borrowed from the William Holden character in Sunset Blvd., he has no trouble finding someone who does.
I think it was important for executives to be familiar with the Golden Age of Hollywood circa 1992's The Player because movies were essentially still being made in the same way for the same reasons. Studio films in the 1990s had more in common with studio films of the '30s, '40s, and '50s than do today's. While hearing a pitch for the fatally compromised "issue" picture Habeas Corpus, Levinson says it needs a love scene between the two leads. This is a direct echo of the producer in Preston Sturges's 1941 Sullivan's Travels, who opines that director John Sullivan's own issue picture, O Brother Where Art Thou, could use "a little sex." The Player is saying that Levinson is basically the same producer and the conflict between art and commerce hasn't significantly changed over the last fifty years. That's true enough for 1992, but by 2010, it's clear we've entered a brand new era.
Before we go any farther, it might be instructive to compare the top ten highest-grossing films (in the U.S.) of 1992 and 2009:
|The Bodyguard||2.||Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince|
|Home Alone 2: Lost in New York||3.||Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs|
|Basic Instinct||4.||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen|
|Lethal Weapon 3||5.||2012|
|A Few Good Men||7.||The Twilight Saga: New Moon|
|Sister Act||8.||Sherlock Holmes|
|Bram Stoker's Dracula||9.||Angels and Demons|
|Wayne's World||10.||The Hangover|
It appears that the adult audience is being phased out. Five of the top-grossing 1992 films (The Bodyguard, Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon 3, A Few Good Men, and Bram Stoker's Dracula) were rated R, compared to only one on the 2009 list (The Hangover). In less concrete ways, the 2009 Top 10 has a more juvenile feel. The parents who took their kids to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York or Sister Act were able to find something they could directly relate to; these weren't good movies, but they were family movies in the literal sense. I was ten in 1992, and I remember my Mom was as involved in these films as we were when she took us to see them in the theatre. What adult would get anything out of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or The Twilight Saga: New Moon, other than the vicarious pleasure of seeing their children entertained? These movies are tailored very specifically to the segment of the population with the most disposable income, or perhaps the segment of the population with the most control over where the household allocates its entertainment dollar. Everyone else is actively alienated. The studios have discovered that this is much more profitable than the old tradition of trying to please everyone.
In the process, Hollywood has compromised a lot of the core values they previously took for granted. They've lost the ability to tell a story. While this is an issue with a lot of studio-made films today, it's especially evident in the action genre. If you watch an action film from the Eighties or Nineties, you can usually follow along pretty easily and understand one object's spatial relationship to another. With the action films of today, it's difficult to tell what the fuck is going on. I made this same point a few months back when praising Mark Lester's 1985 meathead classic Commando, and I used the counterpoint of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. You need to understand that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is not an outlier, but simply the most extreme and most popular example of its kind. G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and the remake of Clash of the Titans are all incomprehensible in very much the same way. These new films are like those selectively-bred chickens that have grown so meaty they can barely stand up. The genre's most stimulating elements are over-emphasized to a ludicrous degree. Not only is girl-next-door Rae Dawn Chong no match for Megan Fox--muscle-bound übermensch Arnold Schwarzenegger is no match for Optimus Prime. Exposition is kept to a bare minimum and every scene (possibly every shot) is designed to produce a strong visceral effect. There are no lulls or pauses between action sequences--it's crescendo after crescendo.
This isn't to say that movies were better in 1992 than in 2009, just that they were made by certain standards that brought audiences together more than they divided them. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an extremely polarizing film. I fully comprehend the theoretical audience member who declares it the greatest film he has ever seen. And I more than empathize with the theoretical audience member who considers it one of the worst things he has ever endured. But the sensory excess of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen demands an extreme reaction. You can love this movie, you can hate it, or you can do a little bit of both (that's roughly where I am with it), but you can't ignore or dismiss it. With the obvious exception of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which would be right at home in 2009, it's difficult to feel that passionate about any of the 1992 hits. They're all sort of bland and easily digestible. Safe. Risk-averse. Even the relatively baroque Basic Instinct and Batman Returns stay within time-honoured boundaries that idiot geniuses like Michael Bay (or his predecessor, yes, Dracula-era Francis Ford Coppola) would ignore.
Robert Altman says in his DVD and now Blu-ray audio commentary for The Player that it's a "very tame" satire of Hollywood, but it's possibly grown tamer still with age. There's something sweetly naïve about the picture. Crass commercialism is limited to crossbreeding The Manchurian Candidate with Ghost, pitching a sequel to The Graduate, or remaking The Gods Must Be Crazy with a TV actress as the Coke bottle. We're meant to laugh at the tasteless way Hollywood cannibalizes its past, but that's pretty small potatoes compared to the current regimen of films based on videogames and theme-park attractions.
To the extent that The Player is cynical, it's rather self-defeating. Take the Habeas Corpus subplot, for instance. The pitch is that a district attorney, sick of sending poor blacks to the gas chambers, decides that the next person he puts on death row will be rich and white. He finds the perfect target in a wealthy suburban woman whose husband recently died in a car accident. Detectives discover that the brake lines were cut and the wife is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his murder. In the meantime, the district attorney has fallen in love with her. When the D.A. learns that the husband is alive and had faked his own death, he rushes to stop the execution--but he's too late, and the woman dies. Habeas Corpus is to have no stars. The filmmakers want to keep it "real." Near the end of The Player, we see a studio screening of the finished product. The district attorney and the wife have been cast with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. And she doesn't die. Willis smashes the glass to the gas chamber and carries her off. She asks what took him so long and he smirks, "Traffic was a bitch."
Mill encourages the filmmakers to pitch their original vision to Levinson. In so doing, he's orchestrating Levinson's firing: Mill plans to come to the rescue following the inevitably poor research screenings with advice on how to improve things, the implementation of which will result in him taking over Levinson's old post. His plan works perfectly: the new version of Habeas Corpus is a big hit with test audiences and Mill is named head of the studio. Mill's ex-girlfriend, Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson), is the only one who hates the revised ending and is disgusted at how the producers have willingly sold out. She's fired for having the temerity to voice that opinion, and when she appeals to Mill to overrule her termination, he coldly rebukes her.
Does this mean the artistic integrity of Habeas Corpus has been compromised by greed and studio politics? That the people who make movies have lost touch with why they do so in the first place? Not exactly. Again, the Sullivan's Travels reference explicitly equates Habeas Corpus with the fictional O Brother Where Art Thou. Habeas Corpus was pretentious, self-serving Hollywood bullshit from the get-go. Of all the controversial political issues for Hollywood to tackle, capital punishment must be the safest. The controversy and politics are strong enough to be spicy, but not so strong as to actively alienate an audience. Plus, it's very easy to dramatize. Compare a capital punishment film, pro or con, to one about abortion or immigration. And even when we accept capital punishment as valid fodder for an "issue film," Habeas Corpus does not do it justice. Of course nobody would support capital punishment if a white woman were about to be sent to the gas chamber for a crime she didn't commit. Tim Robbins's own 1995 Dead Man Walking acts as an excellent rebuttal. Therein, the man on death row is a white trash piece of shit who did commit the crime for which they're going to execute him. And yet, the film takes a stance against the death penalty all the same. It is a sincere moral work.
On the short term, this makes us feel less sympathetic towards Sherow. If she believes that films like old Habeas Corpus are worth fighting for, this means she is something of a moron. She's sacrificed her career to try to protect a middlebrow piece of crap from turning into a lowbrow piece of crap. Can't say I rue not having somebody like that in the film business. On a broader scale, the crappiness of old Habeas Corpus signifies that there is absolutely no soul in The Player's universe. Habeas Corpus is the closest thing we have here to art that's getting produced within the studio system and Bonnie is the closest thing we have to an idealistic studio executive who can shepherd art into the marketplace. Once both are invalidated, we don't have anything.
The saga of Habeas Corpus acts as meta-fictional commentary on the central storyline of The Player. Mill has received a number of threatening postcards from what he assumes is someone whose pitch he rejected. He determines, through a process of elimination, that the culprit is David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), a struggling screenwriter who pitched him an autobiographical (and, from the sound of it, uninventive and navel-gazing) project about an American student studying overseas in Japan. Mill tries to talk Kahane into stopping the threats in exchange for a screenwriting deal, but Kahane is indignant and denies sending any postcards. He taunts Mill about his job security at the studio, then angrily but accidentally pushes him over a railing with his car door. When Kahane runs down to check if Mill's OK, Mill attacks and drowns the screenwriter in a puddle. The next day, Mill receives another postcard. He has killed the wrong man. What's more, the police know that he was the last person to see Kahane alive, thus he is now the chief suspect in their murder investigation. Nevertheless, Mill begins a romantic relationship with Kahane's girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), an Icelandic artist Kahane had aptly dubbed "The Ice Queen." Attending his funeral, she confesses to Mill that she doesn't feel at all sad about Kahane's death.
The police investigation is dropped after a witness fails to identify Mill in a line-up. In the final scene of the film, Mill takes a phone call from a screenwriter who pitches him a story about a studio executive who murders a writer he believes is threatening him. Only problem is that he kills the wrong guy and now has to deal with blackmail and the police. But here's the twist: "the son-of-a-bitch gets away with it." It's a real "Hollywood ending." The executive marries the writer's girl and they live happily ever after. Mill coolly offers the screenwriter a deal so long as he can ensure that ending. He then asks what the project is called. "'The Player,'" the screenwriter replies. Mill tastes the title and likes it. The film's closing shot sees Mill walking into his idyllic, rose-lined mansion with June, his pregnant new wife.
In suggesting that The Player itself was the product of blackmailing a studio executive who murdered one of his peers, Tolkin indicts himself with the rest of the scum populating the picture. He says that this movie he has written is meaningless bullshit--worse, he's saying it's meaningless masturbatory bullshit. But, of course, this ending is also intended as an ironic counterpoint to Habeas Corpus. The Habeas Corpus filmmakers insisted that the wealthy woman had to die because that is Reality--when, in fact, Reality is the rich and powerful continuing to live lives of sunshine and lollipops regardless of their transgressions. Yes, Mill dodges prison through sheer dumb luck, but his murder of Kahane is a function of more banal sociopathic behaviour (manipulating Levinson into getting himself fired and cruelly dumping Sherow for Kahane's girlfriend) that is directly rewarded. This blunt, consciously artificial happy ending, then, captures the truth of the real world better than a tragic one would. It's unsatisfying and frustrating--and that's the joke, I guess. An "unhappy" ending that shows evil being punished would bring us the closure we usually get from conventional "happy" endings.
What we are supposed to do with that, I'm not sure. The movie seems to have outwitted itself. The more you dig into it (could the cynicism of "the rich always get away with it" possibly be more comforting than the idealism of seeing the rich not get away with it?), the more The Player comes off as a hollow intellectual exercise. It probably goes without saying that it isn't conventionally entertaining as either a comedy or a thriller, while Altman's loosey-goosey stoner naturalism doesn't mesh with the film's self-conscious "movieness" nearly as well as it did in his 1973 comedy-noir The Long Goodbye.
The film's alienating effects make it an incredibly bizarre viewing experience. The actors playing the straight roles have oftentimes become more recognizable and bigger "names" than the ones comprising the film's famed 60+ cameos. It's difficult to remember when "Entertainment Tonight" was remotely interested in what Cher was doing; Gina Gershon is considerably better known to me, as she appeared nude on film during the crucial years of 1995 and 1996. (I was born in late 1981--you do the math.) In The Player, Gershon plays what we now initially assume is herself, but in actuality is a bit part as a studio lackey. Odder still is a moment where Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill says hello to Burt Reynolds. We're supposed to see Reynolds as Reynolds but suspend disbelief and accept Robbins (who is definitely more "A-list" than Reynolds circa 2010) as a movie executive. The boundary between "actor playing himself" and "actor playing a role" is blurred and confused. Altman could be saying that Robbins might as well be playing himself. Not because Tim Robbins is as big an asshole as Griffin Mill, but because the character's moral and psychological shallowness constitutes a "non-character." With time reconfiguring the once-famous into has-beens, The Player presents contemporary audiences with yet another distancing layer of artifice. All this starfucking likely worked as a satirical in-joke in 1992. In 2010, it turns The Player into something like an anthropological study. You can't quite relate to it, even on a prurient level.
SLANT MAGAZINE's Ed Gonzalez has retroactively called The Player the best film of 1992, ranking it above far more nakedly emotional experiences like Unforgiven, Bad Lieutenant, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and The Crying Game. I'm not saying he's wrong, exactly, just that his value hierarchy is implicitly skewed towards appreciating cinema primarily as text. I like to think of The Player as the film intellectual version of the risk-averse Hollywood films of 1992. It's challenging and sophisticated, but it doesn't really lead you to expose anything of yourself or to adopt a particular stance. Moreover, it's designed so that if anybody complains of not "liking" it, they can justifiably be dismissed as missing the point. I picture them quoting Godard: "I don't think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can't kiss a movie."
Mill meets Kahane at a screening of Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, and the brief glimpses we see of that film are the only frames of The Player with any pulse. And I'm neither a big fan of The Bicycle Thief nor terribly interested in Italian neo-realism. Through the Habeas Corpus storyline, The Player seems to be satirizing this white-bread ideal of non-actors and unhappy endings as a means of achieving authenticity and truth, and I'm personally sympathetic to the critique. Non-movies like The Player are not the antidote, however, and whatever The Truth is, De Sica is a lot closer to finding it. Hell, Michael Bay is closer to finding it. Whatever else, The Player has convinced me that movies truly are better today than they were eighteen years ago. If art no longer exists as a statement of value, regardless of whether that means merely celebrating the hotness of Megan Fox and the awesomeness of cars that turn into robots, then I fear it has lost its utility.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
New Line brings The Player to Blu-ray in a straight port of their late-'90s DVD release, whose supplementary material Alex reviews below. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer on this disc is a high-fidelity rendering of a film shot in that deliberately smoggy Altman style, though it appears that some effort was made to increase the contrast ratio--resulting, unfortunately, in rather steep drop-offs to black, as the image is of such limited dynamic range to begin with that telecine operators don't really have a lot of leeway on that front. Saturation has been toned down from the DVD but colours conversely have more pop, something I partly attribute to the loud early-'90s fashions standing out like a suddenly-sore thumb. A noisy LaserDisc and squelched-looking DVD made hay of the film's grain structure, which is handsomely restored here. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track represents a lossless conversion of an Ultra Stereo source; a cheaper alternative to Dolby that actually had superior processing capabilities, the now-defunct Ultra Stereo format offered only one channel of surround sound and very likely what we're hearing on the Blu-ray version of The Player is the four-track master with the same information sent to both rear speakers. Still, Thomas Newman's score is noticeably more spherical, and its complex instrumentation is well and truly honoured by a crystal-clear reproduction that proves the flatness of the rest of the mix is intentional. That being said, Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue is easier than ever to decipher, even without the aid of an excellent, all-new English subtitle stream.-Ed.
For the commentary, Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin were recorded separately and combined onto a single track. Rather than address the film specifically, Altman philosophizes about his method of directing and the nature of the movie business. Basically, he feels that everybody involved in the production of a film has a job to do and so a director has to be able to delegate responsibility and trust that each person knows how to do that single job better than he can. With Altman, directing was seemingly a managerial endeavour more than a creative one. He reminds us that The Player is pretty mild stuff and insists he doesn't hold a grudge against Hollywood. They aren't interested in the kinds of films he makes and that doesn't mean they're wrong or shortsighted--they are simply not in the Robert Altman business. Alas, Altman said this stuff for years and I have a feeling that his contribution to this yakker doesn't significantly differ from the other commentaries he recorded for his films. Anybody who cares about movies should listen to at least one of these, but I bet one is enough.
Isolating Tolkin has the welcome effect of freeing him to criticize the film and Altman's interpretation of his script and source novel. He mentions that Griffin Mill was sadder (and, accordingly, more tragic and sympathetic) in the book and strangely enough the scene in the film that best conveys this he didn't write. Tolkin has much less tempered disappointment for the way that Altman lost the thread of Griffin being stalked by the police and the disgruntled writer simultaneously. He says he made a concerted effort to put this in the screenplay and it somehow didn't reach the screen. To be clear, Tolkin doesn't dislike the movie, and at one point he admits he betrayed the novel with his screenplay much more than Altman betrayed Tolkin's screenplay with his film. His mild complaints sometimes suggest a partially unconscious attempt to promote his pilot for a TV series of "The Player" that had recently finished shooting. (The show, starring Patrick Dempsey as Mill, was never picked up.)
Despite focusing exclusively on the film, "One on One with Robert Altman" (17 mins.) feels a tad redundant next to the audio commentary. Altman does offer the interesting observation that Gudmundsdottir was designed to be so perfect for Mill, so sexily aloof, that it's almost as if he has invented her. Five deleted scenes, amounting to about 14 minutes, are included as a separate feature, though most of them are incorporated into the featurette. Alas, much of this material warrants Mike Nichols's memorable complaint about deleted scenes: "I've never understood that aspect of DVDs, where you suddenly put back the things you took out that could go. Why ruin your movie? With material that you've taken out? I never get that. I don't have that impulse... To put them back seems very unpleasant to me. And pointless. It's like when you've written something, when you cut a paragraph, doesn't it seem dead to you? Doesn't it look like something you'd never want to include, because the point is, it could go?" We get to see Patrick Swayze's famed lost cameo--where he practises karate moves with Fred Ward--and Lyle Lovett's detective character is shown to have initially had a greater presence in the narrative. Altman justifiably misses a brief scene where Mill explains to Gudmundsdottir that the desert hideaway they have gone to once belonged to Al Capone, prompting Gudmundsdottir to mention that Kahane was carrying a gun when he was murdered. Altman liked how it made Gudmundsdottir more threatening whilst compounding Mill's guilt, but on top of that we get a better feeling for the hollowness of their personal connection. Rounding out the platter is The Player's theatrical trailer. Originally published: November 8, 2010.