DVD of the Week – Disc Commentary Track for The Player (1992)
by NIR SHALEV
Director Robert Altman’s famous style of filmmaking involves hordes of actors pacing back and forth, and their dialogue overlaps one another. It’s not his original style because Orson Welles had used it back in the day and perfected it (most notably Touch of Evil (1958) and The Trial (1962)). And Welles wasn’t even the first. But Altman had managed to master it as well. When watching this film or The Long Goodbye (1973) or Gosford Park (2001) one can tell that they’re Altman films because of the familiar style. He is a master and this film is masterful.
Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a Hollywood Writer’s Exec, which basically means that he listens to hundreds of movie pitches every day and decides which might make a good, honest buck and which one plainly sucks. One day, Griffin receives a postcard with a message claiming “I hate your guts!!!” from a writer whose phone call he’d never returned. He doesn’t let it worry him but eventually receives more and more postcards, making other such remarks. He then decides to track down that writer, in a fashion that doesn’t quite make sense but works because it’s a movie, confronts him in a theater that had just finished playing Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, and after a few drinks, accidentally kills him. He attempts to cover it up by making the scene of the murder look like a botched robbery. From that moment on, Griffin Mill feels for the first time. Also, he’s killed the wrong writer because the postcards never cease to arrive at his office.
We all know, from the movies and from common knowledge that working in Hollywood takes a lot of guts; one must learn the meaning of “no,” whether dishing it or receiving it. Griffin was a stone cold “suit” until he took a man’s life but the film is not a drama; oh no. It’s a dark comedy and as it progresses, it becomes a grand, fun satire of Hollywood.
One giant conceit of the filmmakers is having the opening shot of the film last just over nine minutes in length while within it, periodically, two random characters discuss the best opening shots in film history. At one point, as a rebuttal, one of them mentions Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and its famous 3-4 minutes, single shot, opening sequence. Another great conceit is that this film employed over 70 famous Hollywood actors; 20-30 of them are part of the main cast and the rest are extras who played as themselves.
The Player is truly a biting satire that cannot be taken too seriously, as per the convenient accidents that happen in the story; but should be taken seriously when it’s presenting that certain way in which Hollywood execs operate. The general plot here is that a man commits a murder and ultimately gets away with it, because it’s just a movie. But the movie works on a joke within a joke basis, as a movie within a movie, and on great conceits that showcase many a homage while making them part of the on-screen story. Take for example my two favorite shots: one has Griffin leaving a restaurant. The camera zooms straight onto a wall where hangs a poster for Fritz Lang’s famous film M, and the other shot is of someone being lured away and as they leave the frame, the camera looks up and zooms onto another poster reading, “Just say no!”
The commentary track to this film contains two voices: that of Robert Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who’d written the screenplay based on his own novel. The tracks were recorded at different times and places so Altman and Tolkin never speak about the same topics at the same time or bounce memories off one another.
Altman speaks like a true director: he refers to the budget of the film and its marketing; he talks about all of the actors and famous extras and sometimes mentions them as they appear in the film; he talks about the film failing critically in North America because many thought it to be a harsh examination/exploitation of the Hollywood system and its behind the scenes shenanigans. And then he mentions the film’s critical praise throughout Europe and Asia. There is one moment that hints at Altman’s brilliance when, in a scene showcasing a party that involves a lot of actors and a Hollywood lawyer, Altman mentions that he’d always thought that the lawyer in the scene couldn’t be played by an actor, because he would appear to be just like all of the other actors and wouldn’t feel authentic. So he’d hired director Sydney Pollock, who coincidentally is also a good actor, to play a non-actor. Who thinks of these things?!
I only wish that, because Robert Altman is no longer with us he’d taken the time to speak about the technical aspects of the film, as a director. But he does mention how some directors have preferences of never using zoom lenses and that he finds that to be BS.
Michael Tolkin has a mild mannered voice and speaks with experience. He mentions how poorly his book had done and that its style was too poetic and personal to ever be considered as a treatment for a film. He was eventually convinced that he could pull it off and wrote the screenplay to the film. He mentions how a few scenes throughout the film do not resemble the novel in any way, and that the tone used by Altman had completely ruined what the novel was trying to portray. Overall he was pleased with the end result and had gone on to write a few other relatively successful screenplays.
Seeing this movie once is not nearly enough. The first viewing is a requirement. The second viewing is for all of the on-screen extras and famous actors within. And the third viewing is for all of those darn posters that appear everywhere; those famous film noir posters and other such meticulously timed cameos.