Get involved with enough fictional plots, and you’d probably start to think that you can take the wheel of a plot that’s dead set against you. What’s more, you might even think you can earn another twenty million if you cast the right star.
In 1992, Robert Altman unleashed THE PLAYER. The film is about a mid-level Hollywood producer named Griffith Mill (Tim Robbins) who begins receiving death threats on the back of postcards left in his office, his car, even his home mailbox. The postcards are clearly from a screenwriter he has jilted…but Griffith has jilted so many it’s hard to tell.
While going from meeting to meeting about project after project, Griffith believes he’s found his suspect when he remembers David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio).
After confronting Kahane at an art house cinema, Griffith kills Kahane in a moment of blind panic…and with no witnesses, he walks away.
Two problems though:
One – Turns out Hollywood does think highly enough of a writer to notice when he’s gone.
Two – the threats continue. Whichever scribe Mill jilted, it wasn’t the now-departed Kahane.
Mill is now a murderer and a suspect in the eyes of the LAPD. He might even confess if that would stop the ransom notes from coming, and the threats from increasing…but not before he gets the greenlight on his next project.
Once you get past all of the swirls of meta that paint the landscape of THE PLAYER (Altman regular playing themselves…Robbins in character introducing himself to longtime real life friend John Cusack), it’s amazing how many brushstrokes of true commentary are visible in this film.
Classic Hollywood is everywhere in this movie – from a legend like Buck Henry discussing the characters of THE GRADUATE…to posters for SUNSET BOULEVARD and KING KONG…to a rep screening in The Rialto (which was recently featured in LA LA LAND, and then more recently closed). The stalker claims he is characters from GONE WITH THE WIND, CITIZEN KANE, and (again) SUNSET BOULEVARD.
The beauty of it all – as LA LA LAND also tried to point out – is that so few of those in the business of adding to the motion picture legacy seem to be able to recognize the motion picture legacy. THE PLAYER suggests that everyone on the lot knows that United Artists was the studio that made SOME LIKE IT HOT, but nobody could tell you who wrote it.
Is it any wonder then that a film by a writer-director has nothing but contempt for producers who believe they can just “write movies themselves”. THE PLAYER wants to expose these power players for frauds; for men looking to line their pockets while they claim to be fostering artistic expression.
Hollywood loves movies about making movies – nothing gets the circle jerk going faster than seeing the old boys’ club represented up on-screen. But one wonders if anyone in Hollywood wants to see themselves represented in THE PLAYER? I can’t imagine any producer wants to be at that table that goes silent when Griffith asks if they can switch the conversation from Hollywood for a change.
Watching a movie like THE PLAYER, one gets a feeling like Hollywood is another planet: one that isn’t meant for us mere mortals.
So much of this movie is seen from a distance – like that long tracking shot that began the film just kept going and going and going. We watch the action unfold from across the restaurant, or the opposite corner of a house party. We lurk in the doorways of sprawling offices, and eavesdrop across the surface of a pool nobody ever swims in. These people who always seem to be talking, and never actually working, make decisions based on whimsy and fashion. They don’t watch movies, they make movies (there’s even a moment where an entire boardroom is asked when the last time any of them paid to see a movie).
So perhaps that’s the absurd notion that THE PLAYER is trying to present: Hollywood seems like such a closed-off and remote community because it is. We cannot understand its mindset nor its inner workings and vice-versa. Humans may be ushered into it, but it is not a place that we are allowed to visit at will.
Maybe that’s why we latch on to tabloid culture an paparazzi images: that’s as close as we can get to the world these characters inhabit without being burned alive by its hostile atmosphere.
We are reduced to skulking from a distance…like Lyle Lovett does in this film.
Only with better hair.
As the dust begins to settle on THE PLAYER, we’re asked to truly read the label of what we’ve just consumed. Sure a studio can say that they are in it for the art – for the want to create something “real” and “mature” – but how often are they, really? Even those rare times that a studio does go out of its way to create something prestige to further the art form, how often is that about expression…and how often is that about adulation?
You might ask yourself what it matters, but the fact of the matter is that in the absence of pure talent, adulation for a producer comes by way of financial profit or peer recognition…and the easiest way to do that is to package up something satisfying, and not at all challenging. Something that seems new, but tastes familiar, and appeals to the broadest possible swath of people.
So it is that we see the previously altruistic directors sell-out for the bigger payday, and previously earnest producers make a grab for a quick buck. No lessons are learned, no pipers are paid. Have we just seen a shyster have a moment of clarity, or have we just been duped?
It wasn’t lost on me that I watched this film on Oscar weekend, and that what is packaged as a recognition of artistic achievement might to be one more piece of peer validation to cement adulation. Not all of it, just some of it.
Don’t get me wrong…I believe that movies are about artistic expression, even in their most commercial form…but how many in Hollywood truly believe that?
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for February so far…
Erin watched LAURA
Simoa watched IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
Coog watched A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
Andy watched THE BAD SEED
Kristina watched THE MERRY WIDOW
Sean watched LAURENCE ANYWAYS
Katie watched TOP HAT
Kevin watched KRAMER VS. KRAMER