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Self-reflection helps Altman's Player poke fun at Hollywood

The Player
Directed by Robert Altman.
Written by Michael Tolkin.
Starring Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

Robert Altman's The Player begins with a wonderfully audacious scene that sets the tone for the remainder of the film. After a clapboard appears to announce the beginning of the movie, Altman uses a strikingly elaborate eight-minute tracking shot to introduce the audience to executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) and the Hollywood studio that is his world.

Jean Lepine's camera follows characters as they walk through the studio's parking lot and zooms in to look through nearby office windows, all the while eavesdropping on the comically exaggerated conversations taking place. Sitting in their elaborate and tackily-furnished offices, Mill and other movie executives listen impatiently to writers pitching their prospective projects, most of which recycle ideas from other past successes and easily fit into familiar and predictable storylines. One writer tries fervently to describe his grand and exciting plans for The Graduate 2 while a few floors below another is explaining the mood that he wants to achieve in his lighthearted but hard-hitting supernatural political thriller with a heart, which he envisions as a sort of "The Manchurian Candidate meets Ghost."

In the middle of this immense shot, security chief Walter Stuckle (Fred Ward) walks out of his office and starts to tell another man that he is disgusted with movies' current obsession with constant cutting. He complains that audiences today are too used to an MTV style of editing, and that no one ever attempts to film long tracking shots such as the famous opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. This one exchange shows what makes The Player the excellent, and occasionally brilliant, film that it is. A very good movie could have the complex technique, daring style, and hilarious humor of this one huge shot. But only a movie like The Player would at the same time poke fun at itself -- simultaneously grabbing the audience's attention and reminding them that it's only a movie after all.

The plot of The Player focuses on Griffin Mill, a senior vice president of production who oozes confidence and success. He is familiar with the rules of the game at the studio, and he is truly a master player. Lately, Mill has been having some problems, though. Larry Levey (Peter Gallagher), an executive from another studio, is rumored to be after Griffin's job. Also, Mill has been receiving a steady flow of threatening anonymous postcards that seem to come from a writer whom he refused to get back in touch with. Griffin starts to feel uneasy about the mail, which gets more ominous day by day, but he has an even greater fear that if he lets the postcards become public knowledge, he will further destabilize his questionable hold on his position of power. Instead of involving anyone else at the studio in his predicament, he drives out to see David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), his primary suspect, and his Icelandic girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).

The story of The Player is filled with twists and turns, but the most interesting fact about them is not that they are truly surprising, but that they seem to obey some unwritten rules of popular scripts. At one point, Griffin tells June that all movies need to have "suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and a happy ending." It's all here, and the audience is invited by this amazingly self-reflective film to keep track of each requisite ingredient as it appears.

Indeed, the greatest thing about The Player is this self-reflectivity, which appears in many more places than just Stuckle's reference to the opening shot and Griffin's comment about typical movie formulas. Another key element of successful movies that everyone in the film agrees on is star power, particularly that of Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis. Over the course of the movie over sixty easily recognizable actors show up to play themselves, including, in one absolutely inspired sequence, Roberts and Willis themselves.

In another scene, Griffin waits in a restaurant to meet the writer who has been harassing him. The audience is shown a shot of a foreboding-looking man (Lyle Lovett) intently watching Griffin's every move. Then the camera pans to a photo of Alfred Hitchcock, the director who made giving the audience suspenseful extra information like this standard practice. Later, Griffin and June seek seclusion at an ultra-private resort. June tells Griffin that she never thought places like this existed, and Griffin says quite frankly that they actually exist "only in the movies." The effect of all this is truly unique and eerie. This is not some wildly anarchistic movie like some of Mel Brooks' or Woody Allen's works in which a crew member is injured by the action he is filming. The Player works much more subtly, providing a movie that is in many ways completely standard, while at the same time suggesting that Altman and his production crew lie just outside of the frame, carefully orchestrating everything that the audience sees.

At one point during the initial eight-minute shot, the camera focuses on a postcard that has fallen on the ground in the studio parking lot. Written across the panoramic view is the slogan, "Your Hollywood is Dead!" A good deal of The Player provides a convincing argument of this point. Every time one of Griffin's required plot factors turns up, the recognition of it is both funny and painful, because as a satire of Hollywood, it is dead on. There are unquestionably too many films that look for a successful pattern and do not dare to tamper with it. When Larry Levy suggests that studios refuse to talk with writers and instead take current news headlines and adapt them to proven formulas, the idea is funny because it is so exaggerated, but it is also scary because today's movies seem like they might have been produced by just such a process. Still, when something as excellent as The Player is made, even though it is mocking the death of quality film, it suggests that Hollywood itself might have some of the hope and heart that Griffin spoke of, and perhaps even a happy ending of its own.