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Non-Review Review: The Player

I love The Player. I really do. When I was in college, I used to organise movie screenings – we’d show The Player once a year and it would always pack out. It was just one of those films that everybody had heard nothing but good things about, but never got a chance to see. Indeed, I would go so far as to say The Player, with all its wacky fourth-wall meta-ness, is my favourite Robert Altman film.

Who would want to kill this producer? Answers on the back of a postcard...

Of course, a lot of the appeal of the film comes from the inherent nerdiness of the premise. Hollywood has always been in love with itself – producing movies about movie-making and the inner workings of the Hollywood machine. It’s a topic that is tough to get right. After all, the inner workings of the studio system aren’t something we can easily relate to and a large potion of the movies – What Just Happened? for example – end up feeling self-important, like sitting at a pub listening to a guy go on and on about the “craaaaaaazy” things that happen in his work.

However, The Player gets it just right. The self-importance, which is typically half-heartedly mocked in other films, is torn to shreds right here. It’s a viscious satire of the workings of the system – the ridiculously out of touch people who work in it. These are the kinds of people who use the phrase (and it is uttered in the film) “the great unwashed” and insist on having their bottled water “in a water glass” as opposed to any other glass.

These are the kinda guys who are dumbstruck when somebody asks “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?” Or the type of guys who see a classic like The Bicycle Thief and think “we should do a remake”. They attend AA meetings because that’s where all the good deals are made. Hell, it seems that they are unable to properly articulate their thoughts without using the style of the industry – our executive asks for advice on his stalker by seeking input on “a story point” on a made-up movie about “an account executive” in a similar position. Shallow doesn’t begin to describe it.

The movie’s plot – so much as there is a plot – follows a movie executive whose life is falling apart. There’s a hipper, younger executive on the rise and some writer he burned a while back is sending him threatening postcards. This forms the framing story and drives the character arcs through the film, but it isn’t really what the film is “about”, so to speak. Altman is much more fascinated in how we look at cinema – whether it’s an artistic or commercial process. That the film centres on a conflict between a writer and an executive is but an expression of this idea.

“I can write, what can you do?” a writer challenges our lead at one point. However, the executives themselves – in their expensive suits and their convertables – are less than satisfied with how much they are paying these guys (even though the movie observes that writers typically make far less than actors or directors). One of the pitches from a hotshot young executive is to “eliminate the writers from the artistic process” – after all, he suggests, these executives can find their own stories, can’t they? At one point, we’re taken to a star-studded gala ball, celebrating the handing over of several classic film prints to a museum. The speeches make a case for film as a valid art form, and that’s one that Altman seems to be debating here. Yet, despite these high-minded goals, our executive explains that – in choosing which films get made – the primary concern of the studio isn’t the value of the film itself, but the elements they need to market it. Action, sex, nudity, happy endings.

The movie frames classic Hollywood quite nicely...

Along the way, several side stories play through the film. We witness a little-known British director pitch “an American tragedy”, a story about capital punishment without big name actors or audience preconceptions. He promises a movie without a happy ending. Why would anybody want that? “That’s the reality,” he explains, “The innocent suffer.” This is an idea that is brave and new – indeed another supporting character notes that while Hollywood films (including this one) aren’t afraid to allow the lead character to make dodgy choices, he must always “suffer” for them. However, that’s a Hollywood lie. The good don’t always win and the bad aren’t always punished. Films like that – which offer a harsh truth – should be made because “that happens”. Over the course of the film, we watch the idea develop and grow – and, above all, compromise.

Along the way, Altman demolishes the fourth wall, brick by brick. When asked by his date if spas like the one they’re visiting actually exist, our producer replies, “Only in movies.” A detective played by Whoopi Goldberg plays around with an Oscar statuette. The executive is familiar with police proceedurals from the Scott Glenn movie he’s producing. Hell, Altman introduces the film with a seven-minute tracking shot in which a character complains that they don’t do long tracking shots like in A Touch of Evil anymore. Bonus points for the young whipper snapper who then mentions Absolute Beginners. “It’s a British film.”

The film itself is a veritable “who’s who” of Hollywood talent – some of which is handled brilliantly. I love the sight of Jeff Goldblum wandering around in his little woolly jumper as movie executives dread the idea of making conversation with him, or just a silent cameo from Jack Lemmon playing the piano. The cast playing characters (rather than themselves) aren’t half-bad either. Tim Robbins was on a hot streak when he made this film, but his performance here is quite possibly my second-favourite Robbins performance of all-time (behind Bob Roberts). I especially like Fred Ward as the studio’s chief of security and Whoopi Goldberg as a dogged detective.

Thomas Newman provides the score here and it’s wonderful. Personally, I swear that I hear the background music from several studio logos playing off each other in there, but I have no ear for music. The technical specifications of the film are top-notch (although I understand it is yet to be converted to High Definition). Which is a shame, because every shot drips with heavily-stylised easter eggs and obscure references.

The Player is a classic. It really is. This is a film for movie buffs, but not exclusively. It’s a film for anyone with an interest in the relationship between artistic ideals and commercial reality, or just people who like a wicked satire with a sharp bite.

3 Responses

  1. For me breaking the fourth wall is almost always an enjoyable wink from the director (with the exception of Funny Games). I’m putting this in my queue yesterday.

  2. I’ve seen this a couple of times and it is quite good. Love the opening tracking shot, but what true film fan doesn’t love a good tracking shot?

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