Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Player

I'm on a Robert Altman kick right now, probably because I keep finding used VHS of his movies from the 90s all over the place. I can't even begin to express my new found love of VHS. Very soon they will be entirely obsolete, but right now there are still buckets of them in video, book, and record stores everywhere with a fruitful combination of small, forgotten films, and great ones that have been re-released with equally great DVD packages. The only problem is that VHS does not supply a means for screen capping, forcing me to scour the internet for representations.

I was really pleased to find the opening scene on Youtube, so you should watch it. You have absolutely nothing to lose. The opening scene of The Player is famous for its 8 minute long un-cut tracking shot, featuring impeccable choreography, both of actors and camera movement, during which, you hear several movie types conversing about their favorite long, tracking shots. Altman does all of this while also introducing the main conflicts of the story: the threatening post-cards that Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) has been receiving, and his impending de-throning as a Hollywood producer at a foundering studio.

This movie is so incredibly self-conscious, it often makes you want to say, enough already, I think I could catch the noir references without the superfluous, repeated zooming on this Fritz Lang poster. Of course, this heavy-handedness turns out to be part of the trick, also. And arguably, it would be pointless for Altman to avoid endless self-referencing, given his subject matter. Early in the movie, Mill, becoming increasingly upset by the post cards, decides to placate the disgruntled writer by giving him an offer he can't refuse: a movie deal. To avoid tarnishing his image, or worse, he tracks down his supposed culprit, and drives out to Pasadena to talk to him. The writer is David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio). To make a relatively short story even shorter, one thing leads to another, and Griffin Mill ends up killing Kahane. A crime of passion, not intent. Worse, he quickly discovers that he has killed the wrong disgruntled writer.

Mill quickly develops an intense infatuation with Kahane's girl friend, a woman who he first glimpses through a window, creating abstract oil paintings. June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) is a European of ambiguous origin, with a messy name that, not incidentally, the Hollywood types can neither pronounce nor remember. Mill is infatuated with her, I think, because she represents a European mode of film making, or perhaps just an anti-Hollywood mode-- one that is based in art, feeling, and heart rather than financial gain. When Griffin asks what gallery June shows in she replies that her paintings are without design, and are never truly completed. She makes art from a compulsion, nothing more than that.

Throughout, Altman plays with screen stereotypes and Hollywood conventions. Mill is being tailed by shady looking man with an angular, pock-marked face and Eraserhead hair (Lyle Lovett), who we only see from a distance. We suspect, as Mill does, that this is the real disgruntled writer, the sender of threatening post cards. He turns out to be Detective Delongpre, a police officer, and a harmless weirdo. Mill is forced to participated in a police line-up, where the single witness is asked to pick the perpetrator. Delongpre happens to participate as well, as a control or something (is this typical procedure? I have no idea). Visual codes impounded by a hundred years of films influence us to read evil into his narrow-eyed, squirrelly appearance. Following convention, the witness picks the most suspicious-looking of the bunch-- Detective Delongpre. She claims that she has, assuredly seen him before, and she has. He is a criminal archetype living in the mecca of surfaces.

I might as well spoil it for you; Griffin gets away with it all. The film abruptly spins out into a sunny, Hollywood ending, where Griffin has climbed to the top of the studio, and is living happily with June. With the swelling Thomas Newman score and the dappled sunlight, it's hard to suppress the pangs of joy that are causing your more cerebral half some embarrassment***. Of course, the ending is very tongue in cheek. A final, telephone conversation with the elusive, disgruntled post-card writer implies that it is he who has written the film that we have just finished watching. Griffin's Hollywood remains a factory churning out formulaic products, and gone are the days of stories that echo with truth. But that's where Robert Altman comes in.

*** Confession: this is something I frequently experience in the kinds of movies I choose not to write about on here. It's something I'm still attempting to come to terms with.

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