The Player (1992)

Directed by Robert Altman


I almost don’t know where to begin with The Player.  There are so many layers and at the same time everything is right there on the surface.  It’s a movie about the death of Hollywood, and the ending tells you it has already died.  This is coming from a director, Robert Altman, who had plenty of experience working within the Hollywood system.  Altman made his first film almost 40 years before The Player and went on to direct television episodes spread across 25 different shows.  He worked within systems and developed a strong enough point of view to ridicule those systems.

A lot of Altman’s other films have felt like they’re exposing something or simply subverting a genre so as to say something about that genre.  MASH is a war movie that isn’t really about the war.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an old western of sorts, but the film is filled with gloomy landscapes, frigid snow and guns that only kill the people we like.  The Long Goodbye is a detective film that is more concerned with its character who seems like the exact opposite of every detective we’ve seen onscreen, and then you have Nashville which is about no one in particular and ends up saying something about all of us.

Altman’s films focus on atmosphere over exact lines of dialogue and character over plot.  A lot of his dialogue is improvised because it never matters exactly what they’re saying, just what they’re implying, and exact meaning is rarely conveyed through words.

The Player spends time in a world where people communicate almost exclusively through movie language.  That means when one character tells another that they will meet again, he refers to the future as “reel two.”  When the movie studio’s head of security approaches Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) about protecting him against a police murder investigation, he starts by pitching him a story, the story of the murder Griffin committed.

Griffin is a young studio executive who looks bloated with bullshit and afternoon martinis.  He’s the walking symbol of everything a lot of people hate.  His hair is slicked back, his sunglasses suggest he’s hiding something, either secretive or the reality that he has nothing to offer the world, and his most prized possession is his Range Rover, even though he only uses it to drive around well-paved streets from one lunch meeting to the next.

The movie opens with an 8 minute long take as the camera cranes and pans around a studio lot, showing us this manufactured world.  Movies are often filmed on sets that are designed to create the illusion of life existing just outside two inch plastered walls behind which really sit empty space and production meetings and crew members on their smoke break.  But The Player doesn’t try to hide this illusion, instead it embraces it.

In this opening shot, though nothing is cheated or made to look unreal, everything looks like a two dimensional set.  We follow characters walking in and out of buildings so that in one moment we’re listening to two characters talk about the opening long shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and in another we’re looking through the window as a writer pitches Griffin The Graduate 2.

This scene shows characters who aspire to be like the greats but are eager to settle for cheap sequels, knock offs and uninspired star vehicles.  The bottom line is money, and everything else is a curtain draped around this not so hidden truth.  So when the camera peers in through the window at Griffin, I couldn’t help but wonder how they mic’d up his dialogue as well as the dozens of other characters.  Then I noticed how brightly lit everything was.  It wasn’t so much as to look unreal, but it made me think about the way all films are lit, to look normal but really to stand out from the real world.  A movie, in that way, is like our lives but with the boring stuff cut out and the rest of the stuff punched up, typed in bold font and dressed in a way to make us think that could be us one day, even though it is but also will never be.  Yeah, okay that was confusing, but there really seems to be a tough to distinguish line between reality and film, at least in the way films are designed and consumed.

Movies are meant to reflect us back onto ourselves.  We either identify with or aspire to be like the characters onscreen, and part of us is convinced we can make close that gap.  So The Player is about the ways in which Hollywood has died, meaning they have lost their grasp on theater-going audiences, and yet, they still push out crap not unlike The Graduate 2 because it still makes money, meaning that Hollywood’s death is linked to our own, like a drowning clown taking you down with him.

The Player ends with Griffin hearing a movie pitch that is exactly what has happened to him in this movie.  It is filled with familiar but unbelievable movie tropes (he falls in love with the girlfriend of the man he kills) but insists on a sad ending, contrary to most Hollywood films.  And yet, that sad ending is a happy one for the character we spend the entire movie following.  When Griffin hears this pitch, he shows no signs of recognizing this story as his own, and he says it would make a great story.  It’s at this point, at the very end of the film, that Griffin, while still looking and talking like the Griffin we’ve come to know, completely stops being himself.  He’s no longer a character, instead just a vessel for a message, like he’s been taken over by the invasion of the body snatchers.  This is where the illusion, which has mostly been embraced throughout the film, is actually finally let down.  Through all the winking and meta humor, we’ve always been following Griffin as a character with a goal, motivation, fear, etc.  He’s a real character, but in the last scene he is nothing, and that’s what all movie characters are.  They’re manufactured and artificial, and though their dialogue is given the pretense of being said on the spot, created through an active, engaged mind, it is really prewritten and spouted over the course of a handful of takes like Siri telling you the weather outside.  There is nothing underneath.

And isn’t every meta movie like this one really just a way of making you look at the seams?    The idea is to show you some kind of truth, and here in particular it feels like an indictment of the movie making industry.  At the same time, this movie ends the same way as other movies that this one condemns.  It says that this is the way it works, and nothing will change because money is money.

To touch on the plot a little, we follow Griffin as he receives threatening post cards from a writer whose pitch he once turned down.  When Griffin looks through old files of previous writers, he is led to David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), an idealistic, pessimistic writer.  David hates Griffin, and a parking lot altercation leads to Griffin killing David.  Right away this is a little heavy-handed: the studio executive murders the writer like Hollywood has butchered what film can be by reducing it to marketable assets.

The film burrows itself in this heavy-handedness, committing to it to a degree that it loses it’s startling, possibly eye-rolling impact and becomes the language of the film.  The next day, a new studio executive (and Griffin’s rival), Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) joins the studio and announces his plan to abandon writers all together.  Instead, he suggests, they can just pull stories from the news and make them into movies.  He wants to kill the writer symbolically.  Griffin stands up for the “writer,” which is funny considering he just killed one, and this sets up as a little more than hypocritical.

Later, as Griffin investigates the threatening postcards he has continued to receive despite David’s death, he receives a pitch from a hungry producer/writer team about a melodramatic, absurd but not meant to be absurd Hollywood story about a DA who convicts a woman of murdering her husband but then falls in love with her, then finds out her husband faked the murder, then can’t save the woman before she is executed.  It’s absurd and full of Hollywood tropes, but the writer insists it must not have a happy ending because life doesn’t have a happy ending.  Though it’s easy to understand his disdain for the riding off into the sunset type of ending, the writer’s logic is paper thin.  His reason for this is only because it’s contrary, not because it has any significance.

Griffin considers this idea and gives it to Larry who loves it.  Griffin’s plan, though, is to sabotage Larry because he is sure that this movie is destined to fail.  Ultimately, after a jump forward in time (and after Griffin has successfully evaded arrest), we see a screening of the movie but now with a happy ending.  The writer also insisted on no celebrities in the film, but we see Bruce Willis and Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, and the film ends with Willis saving Roberts at the last second.  When Griffin’s former girlfriend, who works at the studio, Bonnie asks what happened to the sad ending, the once idealistic writer waves her off, saying test audiences hated it.  He sells himself out with remarkable speed, but the casting of Willis and Roberts imply that he sold out even longer ago.

The Player positions the writer as just as culpable as the studio.  It’s not a problem of individuals but rather of the system.  People are bred and raised within the studio system to feed the money beast.  Everything serves the profit, and in doing this they are undermining the stories they have cultivated.  What does this say about our own lives if there is so much identification between audiences and film?

I don’t completely know, but it suggests a lack of meaningful living.  Maybe you could spread this theme to social media today, with people comparing their own lives to those of their friends but through the medium of things like Facebook or Instagram.  There is that famous story that when the Lumiere Brothers showed their film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” (1895), people fled the theatre, believing the train to be heading right for them.

This might not be true, but the story has been passed around so many times that a lot of people think it happened.  There is an identification between our world and what we watch onscreen.  Back then this identification was much more literal, but now it’s metaphorical or symbolic or simply subconscious.  We’re no different than the people running from the screen.  We see the movie world as real, again only on a subconscious level, because I’d say we assign value to anything we give our time to.  Even if you know Tom Cruise isn’t really deprogramming bombs in real life or that your average FBI employee isn’t really as good looking as Cruise, part of you believes this is true.  You expose yourself to it and you take it as some kind of truth.  This may not be your life, but it’s someone’s life.  Except that it isn’t.

Now, I know I’m going out on a limb here and making some assumptions that may not be true, but I’m speaking from my own experience.  When I was a kid, I loved the movie Small Soldiers (1998), and I was convinced that my toys could come to life as they do in that movie.  I was only 6 at the time.  A more recent example is when I saw (500) Days of Summer (2009), a movie I still love.  This story is grounded in realism, the characters look real, the city looks real, they have what seem like real jobs and real concerns, but then I started to picture in that world because it felt so real.  But things in real life are not lit as nicely as they are in that movie or any movie, and not your average couple is as jointly handsome as Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt.  And lastly, you don’t always follow a breakup with an introduction to another incredibly attractive woman who just happens to recognize you.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all this, but movies are like our siblings or maybe our cousins.  We’re not always in touch with them or thinking about them day after day, but they are influential with our lives and we occasionally make time for them.  The Player is like a relative who brings the whole family together and then calls attention to himself with a bit of an obnoxious “he always does this” kind of toast, but then he he says, “watch this” and sneezes, making him fall apart, revealing wires underneath like he’s Ash the robot from Alien.

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