Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Player

People often like to say that a director or an actor couldn't have made a certain movie of theirs when they were younger, that experiences (particularly hardships from the system) shaped a new mindset that informed the film. A good example would be Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler, a performance that had so many echoes in his own life that the line between player and part just about disappeared. Kurosawa himself has said that he could not have made his late masterpiece Ran as a young man.

The Player, contrary to a great many opinions I've seen, is not such a film. Robert Altman would have gladly taken a knife to the veins of Hollywood in his mid-70s heyday, when he was already considered "box office poison." It was the system itself that needed time to change in order for maximum effect. Had Altman gone after the creative titan that was New Hollywood, he would have seemed like a whiner, a sore loser who took his poor box office receipts out on the studios that allowed his genius free rein. But after Star Wars and the various hits of Steven Spielberg ushered in the wave of the blockbuster on the heels of the crumbling excesses of New Hollywood, the studios overhauled themselves back into safe, pedestrian hit-backers.

It is this Hollywood that Altman savages, the Hollywood that finally threw him to the wayside in the 80s after the commercial "failure" of Popeye. He establishes immediate distaste for this system in an epic, near-8-minute opening shot that references other great tracking shots by both style and even in name on-screen. Altman drifts over a sea of actors, many playing themselves, who all speak of projects they're working on while the producers gab on the phone for the next hit.

We meet Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a producer who spends his days fielding pitches. Writers and lower-level producers rush to him and sell him on their movie, in 25 words or less. If Griffin likes it, he takes it to the executive; he can't approve money for a film. So why the middle man? Well, the president can't hear every pitch of course; just as the sergeant and not the officer always seems to be in charge of the troops in a war film, producers like Mill really make the movies. The pitch-men live in fear of him, as he can kill their movie before it ever even comes close to a deal. If he likes it, it's almost a guarantee.

This stress leads some writers to take drastic measures. One day, Griffin receives a postcard that contains a death threat. Soon, he's inundated with the things. The postcards come from a writer; Griffin heard his pitch and said he'd call, but never did. Griffin's done this so many times he can't remember who it could possibly be. He convinces himself that a crazed, pretentious writer named David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) is behind the threats, and agrees to meet him and approve his movie. But Kahane gets drunk and starts berating Mill, and the two eventually start fighting until Griffin accidentally kills the writer.

The rest of the film plays out as a merciless thriller, as Mill must continue to work, continue to receive death threats and contend with a murder he covered up. We plunge into the emptiness of Hollywood when a pretentious British writer pitches a paranoid Mill on Habeas Corpus, a segregation-era legal thriller with "no stars, just talent" and "no tap Hollywood ending." He makes sure to spout these phrases constantly to Mill, who says he likes the idea even though he knows how terrible the script is. Then he rallies with a clever notion: convince the president to back the film, dump the project on a rival producer, only to swoop in and tack on an upbeat ending to "save" the film, thus ensuring a promotion. Nice to see that fear hasn't crippled his business acumen.

What Altman and writer Michael Tolkin are saying with the film is that Hollywood, as with America as a whole in the 80s, fell into deep and unrestrained greed. Just as Nashville predicted the personal isolation of the 80s that would eventually manifest in the fragmented relationships of Short Cuts, The Player reflects the times, the avarice implicit in Reaganomics that only widened the class gaps. But it's not just the executives filling this role; Whoopi Goldberg plays a detective investigating Kahane's murder, but she spends a great deal of time wondering if capturing the killer is worth losing the dark comedy of letting it all play out.

The Player, as with any good piece of satire, only gets funnier the more you know about Hollywood. I imagine I would have barely found it amusing it all three years ago, and the more I read over memoirs and histories and the more I watch movies I imagine this will only get funnier. The film could easily have been little more than an excuse for actors to get together and bite the hand that feeds while patting themselves on the back (and there is an element of that to be sure), but with Altman's cynical yet human hand at the helm The Player becomes much more. Its characters are despicable but fleshed-out, and they serve not only as indictments of a system that castrates art but as an emblem of the negative side of capitalism. This is simply one of the finest offerings from one of the all-time cinematic geniuses.

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