Monday, April 30, 2012

Now More Than Ever

When I was first discovering certain Robert Altman films years ago some of them already felt like relics of another time, radio transmissions from a world gone by. The Los Angeles depicted in THE LONG GOODBYE in particular has always seemed distant, not in any way resembling the town as I know it. Now Altman’s Hollywood satire THE PLAYER, released in April 1992, is twenty years old and I’m forced into thinking of this film that I saw on opening night at the Beekman in New York in a similar way. It makes sense, I suppose, the way time just keeps moving forward. The industry as presented in THE PLAYER (even if it is a satirical, exaggerated representation of what it was then) isn’t quite the same anymore and it occurs to me that if the film had been made just a few years later some of the references that are dropped would have been substantially different. But in ’92 we hadn’t yet gotten to FRIENDS and PULP FICTION, the explosion of CGI and comic book movies. It really was a movie of its time—one reference to Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR was shot months before that film even opened making it seem all the more current and Rodney King even gets mentioned in dialogue which must have been a little surprising when the film hit theaters right around the time of the L.A. riots. Even the logo of the film’s nameless studio—“Movies. Now more than ever!”—feels like it comes from another era considering all that has changed in the multimedia landscape of today with pre-sold concepts of remakes and board games so much a part of the grand design. A substantial box office hit on the arthouse circuit THE PLAYER was officially deemed as Altman’s grand comeback after over a decade out of the limelight. Never mind that he had been working pretty steadily throughout the 80s (as far as I’m concerned, the HBO series TANNER ’88 remains one of his best works) suddenly he seemed relevant again and continued to work steadily right up to his death in 2006 after helming A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. Now that he’s gone and we’ve been forced to get used to a world without him I wonder what else he could do with what the landscape has become out there. THE PLAYER, big a hit as it was, isn’t my favorite of the director’s (neither is his blockbuster MASH, for that matter) but considering that changes that are continuing to occur out there in Hollywood and beyond I feel like we still need him. Now more than ever.
Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is living the high life, listening to pitches from writers all day long and spending nights with girlfriend Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson) who also works at the studio as a story editor. But out of nowhere it seems that his job is being put in jeopardy by the arrival of the rising Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) over from Fox, an exec who has his own ideas of how writers should be dealt with. Also, a steady stream of threatening anonymous postcards begins to unnerve Griffin and he begins to believe that they come from a disgruntled screenwriter upset at him for never getting back to him about a pitch. Going through his own call logs he comes to believe that the postcard sender in question is a writer named David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and after a phone call to Kahane’s mysterious, Icelandic girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) he drives out to the Rialto in Pasadena where Kahane is seeing THE BICYCLE THIEF to have it out with this writer once and for all…
The word was out when THE PLAYER opened, there was excitement in the air felt even on opening night in New York from that lengthy opening shot that repeatedly comments on how it’s an opening shot to the endless stream of cameos that occur from start to finish (far too many to name, with some having actual speaking parts and others little more than extras), including a string of Altman regulars which maybe makes it feel even more in the past than it actually is, not that I’m ever going to complain about Elliott Gould turning up. The release of the film came just a few months before the premiere of THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW on HBO, another behind the scenes look at Hollywood with real people playing themselves not always in a flattering way and regardless of whether there was something in the air it was like the beginning of true meta as we now know it in pop culture. For Altman this conceit was probably born during the production of TANNER ’88, his HBO series detailing the campaign of a presidential candidate played by Michael Murphy which mixed real-life figures such as Bruce Babbit and Kitty Dukakis into the fictional storyline in a way that was a little startling at the time. I don’t know if THE PLAYER is quite so incisive—maybe it really wasn’t even then, much as everyone seemed to think it was—but as broad as the satire might be the film is still very funny throughout and it’s easily one of Altman’s most effortlessly entertaining pictures.
The director’s visual style eschews his expected anamorphic look in favor of concentrating on star Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill in the frame, seeming interested in his lead actor in a way that I don’t think he always was, while still keeping his camera forever active throughout scenes, zooming in everywhere to poke at all the elements within a shot. As glorious as his wandering camera can be at times here his method feels more controlled than it sometimes does with a blue-tinged hue involving layers, glass, water, the different kinds of water Griffin Mill is always ordering, the slippery score by Thomas Newman (his later Oscar-winning score for AMERICAN BEAUTY in utero, you could say) accentuating the mood through a soundscape that gives a feel of being forced to swim through all this Hollywood madness, always in danger of drowning even in four inches of dirty water. The frame is always active in a way that shows Altman at the top of his game whether it’s two characters confronting each other, something going on in the periphery of a shot or that look Robbins always has on his face as he tries to figure out this mysterious woman from Iceland (Is she from Iceland? Did she say that?). I forget what piece on the film at the time pointed out how Altman never seems to shoot Griffin Mill’s office the same way twice (I wish it had been me) through the numerous scenes that take place there and in adding to our continual feeling of disorientation it forces us to make our own way through this world that we’re peering into. And it’s a world where nothing is real anyway, just as the mysterious June Gudmundsdottir almost seems like she was designed by Griffin Mill in his own head as if there’s going to be a twist where she’s revealed as completely imaginary. This isn’t at all the case, of course, it’s made very clear that she’s real and yet nothing about her is real. Maybe she is imaginary after all, since she’s just a character in a movie.
With a prominent flag seen in a shot at the very end, THE PLAYER came at the tail end of Reagan/Bush and it’s hard not to think of how much had changed since Altman last directed for a studio twelve years before (all hail POPEYE). There’s nothing really sympathetic or likable about David Kahane and Griffin Mill, always in search of Happy Endings, no doubt believes it’s the winners are the ones who really matter. Who’s going to miss one less screenwriter? Plus, as gets stated in dialogue anyway, if you don’t suffer maybe it wasn’t a crime after all. Griffin Mill behaves as if he’s the hero in his own proto-noir storyline, underscored by all those posters of old movies sprinkled around the studio that I doubt almost anyone there has ever seen, yet films are all they know anyway (“Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?”). People seem to answer every single mention of a film, no matter how tenuous it may be to the actual discussion, with a query about how much it made and Richard E. Grant’s character is repeatedly telling the real Andie MacDowell that she shouldn’t live in Montana since it “ended Cimino”. Maybe I’m the same way. There are lots of references adding to the house of mirrors feel, even down to how the then-recent remake of D.O.A. gets mentioned by studio chief Brion James (cast by Altman because he was so well known for playing villains) who was actually in that film. But the past doesn’t matter any more than old movies do or any screenwriters do—anybody know who Joe Gillis is?—just as June has no particular feelings for the departed Kahane since she’s ‘somewhere else already’.
THE PLAYER may be a period piece by default by this point and I don’t know if its earth-shattering revelations about the industry go much further than test audiences dictating how films should end but as far as I’m concerned it’s forever rewatchable, if only to see moments like the scene where Peter Gallagher’s Larry Levy cynically describes the uplifting films that could easily be made out of articles in the newspaper or simply the sight of Burt Reynolds muttering ‘asshole’ after Griffin Mill walks away. Or about twenty-five other things I could easily name. There’s a sense of joy felt in how Altman is putting this all together that goes beyond that famous opening shot, down to how he shoots what has to be one of the greatest sex scenes of all time and does it in a way unlike any other. And when Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill lists off the various elements that a commercial film needs to contain he makes it sound flat-out insidious yet is so calm and rational about the process…which maybe makes it seem all the more true in Hollywood. It’s one of those ironies that this film whose plot turns on a disgruntled screenwriter was made by a director who always had somewhat complicated relationships with his writers which in turn mirrors Larry Levy, itching for a way to cut writers out of the creative process. But however much the actors improvised—a huge amount, no doubt—the solid foundation in Michael Tolkin’s screenplay (based on his novel) gave the director something immeasurably strong to work off of with its solid structure, like how the HABEAS CORPUS pitch introduced as a joke dovetails into the ending. It’s slightly more grounded than I remember the novel being yet still stylized in its own way so that it really isn’t some kind of ultra-incisive look inside the business. It’s an exaggeration, a glimpse at the absurdity which is still there, even if the game has changed. And besides, I’m not sure that there’s anything in this film which sounds as absurd as a movie made out of BATTLESHIP featuring aliens. With some of its screenwriters coming off as disgruntled or desperately pitching lame-sounding story ideas (“Who plays the sons?”) and executives who barely seem to care about what the movie is as long as it contains the right elements to make money THE PLAYER is saying that every side is responsible for the madness. And we’re all kind of trapped. The clapperboard that comes in on the opening shot feels like it’s there every day in Hollywood anyway. And, as far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s there in the rest of the world as well.
Taking a character who is essentially a shallow prick, the intelligence in Tim Robbins’ face as Griffin Mill is undeniable and makes him that much more dangerous. He’s not a dumb guy and Robbins makes it clear that he knows what THE BICYCLE THIEF is, even if it’s not something that Mill would ever get made. Throughout every calculating moment as his hair gets more and more unkempt Robbins is amazing, giving what is still one of his very best performances and keeping him somewhat relatable no matter how hateful he ultimately is, making his work here as integral to the movie’s success as anything. As June Gudmundsdottir, the pragmatic anarchist who never finishes her paintings and doesn’t go to the movies, Greta Scacchi is hypnotic, essentially a total enigma that we can never fully get since it’s never clear just how much she knows or what she doesn’t want to know. In the large supporting cast Fred Ward is particularly enjoyable as studio security chief Walter Stuckel, approaching each scene as if he’s chomping into a huge side of beef, enjoying the hell out of bouncing around in Griffin Mill’s office chair. Also doing strong work are Peter Gallagher, Whoopi Goldberg, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Sydney Pollack and Dina Merrill. Seen in early roles are Jeremy Piven, offering to take some of the visiting Japanese execs for Sashimi and Gina Gershon who gets nice moments in an early role as a d-girl who reacts enthusiastically when just about any movie is mentioned. Michael Tolkin and brother Stephen are the Schecter Brothers, Buck Henry’s pitch for THE GRADUATE PART 2 is always a favorite moment and so is CARNOSAUR director Adam Simon’s pitch for the science fiction film with the two suns. As for the many, many surprise cameos, Malcolm McDowell in particular stands out during his encounter with Griffin Mill as does John Cusack who nails the awkwardness at having to deal with such a guy in just a few seconds.
So THE PLAYER was twenty years ago. Things have changed in this town since then. I showed up, for one thing. I got to see a few films at the Rialto, now closed, but never ventured around to the back. Just trying to be safe. And I’ve never been to a desert hideaway like the kind Griffin whisks June off to but I have been to places in L.A. that feel like they exist ‘only in the movies’. You’re here long enough, or even just a brief period of time, you can’t avoid those moments. Watching THE PLAYER again I was suddenly struck by how Thomas Newman’s faux-uplifting closing theme actually isn’t all that different from the composer’s later uplifting theme for THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION which also starred, whaddya know, Tim Robbins. Nothing against that movie, of course, but I wonder if Robert Altman ever noticed the similarity and how it was used in what has to be one of the most uplifting movie endings of the past twenty years. I suspect Griffin Mill, for one, would have approved. The Griffin Mills are still out there but there is a difference since for them movies aren’t needed ‘Now More than Ever!’ anymore. In 1992 and a few years after the studio heads may have been able to say that they were trying to make films by the new Frank Capras, John Fords, etc. even if they were still just trying to make the same old crap. By now, of course, the jig is up. It’s all theme park rides and they don’t need to try to hide it anymore. Bad guys win. They still do. That’s their Happy Ending. Only by the time he made THE PLAYER I suspect Robert Altman had figured out a way not to be bothered by it anymore and maybe that’s part of why the movie is not as bitter as it might have played in other hands, why the insidiousness of the industry is seen as strangely likable as it slithers along like a snake. And it still is. Anyway, see you in the next reel. I’ve got a screenplay to work on.


Unknown said...

Excellent review! I believe that this was the first Altman film I got to see on the big screen and I loved every minute of it for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently.

I also seem to remember that the time of THE PLAYER Tim Robbins seemed to be everywhere what with SHORT CUTS and also BOB ROBERTS and also THE HUDSUCKER PROXY a few years later. But out of all of them, THE PLAYER may be my fave... alto, he is VERY good in BOB ROBERTS.

And for some reason when I think of LA, in my mind I always think of it as a cross between THE PLAYER and LA STORY, which I know is not true but in my mind's eye that's the mental picture I have of the place. Much like people who've never been to New York City might imagine it to be like something out of a Woody Allen film.

Anyways, thoroughly enjoyed this review and it makes me want to pull out the DVD and give it a watch. It has been too long.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Many thanks, J.D.! L.A. of course isn't really like THE PLAYER. But like any number of other movies also set in the city every once in a while there are moments...