Come next year, when I am trying to devise a list of the best films of the 90's, Robert Altman's "The Player" will be near the top of my list. This film skillfully creates a central plot around Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) (who hears about 125 movie pitches per day), a studio executive who is being threatened by a writer whose script or idea he likely brushed off. But what is even more brilliant about "The Player" is everything going on peripherally to the main plot; all the references to studio techniques of film-making, foreign film movements, homages and Old Hollywood vs. New Hollywood. The film is multi-layered, yet everything that we view falls neatly into the formula which Hollywood film-making survives by. What we see in the duration of "The Player" would potentially make a perfect pitch for a movie. This may sound confusing, but watch the entire film, and you will immediately know what I mean.
The film begins with a stunning homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope", an approximately eight minute long take where the camera moves freely around a studio encountering many people in the midst of their everyday routines. For example, we come across a couple discussing how Hollywood film is now much like MTV "cut, cut, cut". One of the characters even uses the example of "Rope" to illustrate his point. "Rope" is approximately a ninety minute film that appears to have been shot all in one take. Of course, it wasn't done in one take, as reels of film at that time were only ten minutes long. If one watches the film very closely, it can be determined where the cuts are made.
In the duration of the same take, we encounter Griffin Mill conducting business in his office. People walk into his office pitching movie ideas. It is here that we begin to learn about populist Hollywood film-making. Ideas, not stories or scripts are pitched to executives "in 25 words or less". Almost always, the ideas thrown out are based on previous films (e.g. "someone always gets killed at the end of a political thriller") and even combinations of previous films (e.g. "It's Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa"). When we see the usual films that are released into theaters each week, it is not difficult to believe that this is the way in which they are conceived. The usual Hollywood formula entails sex, violence, familiarity and most important of all "happy endings, a movie always has to have a happy ending".
"The Player" is filled with loads of Hollywood stars, most of them playing themselves. Jeff Goldblum, Malcolm McDowell, John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Burt Reynolds to name a few. Many of them are encountered at restaurants during lunch and at night time Hollywood gatherings, where the topic of conversation is always movies. Near the beginning of the film, Griffin suggests that he and his lunch guests talk about something else. "We're all educated adults". Of course no one says anything. Their lives are so indoctrinated by Hollywood, they do not know what else to talk about.
Right from the beginning Griffin receives numerous postcards threatening his life. He begins to suspect a certain writer and goes to his house one night to confront him. The man turns out not to be home, but there is an incredible scene where Griffin talks with the man's girlfriend on the phone while voyeuristically watching her through the window. This is an extraordinary symbolization of the voyeuristic essence that goes along with watching a film, or the notion of scopophilia to be precise. The idea behind the concept of scopophilia is that the cinema constructs the spectator as a subject; the beholder of the gaze, who has an intense desire to look. The cinema places viewers in a voyeuristic position in that the viewer watches the film unseen in a dark room. While Griffin is watching the girl as he speaks with her, it is night time and he remains unseen to her. This scenario metaphorically represents the theater and the film.
In the duration of Griffin's conversation on the phone, he finds out that the man he is looking for is watching "The Bicycle Thief" in an art-house theater in Pasadena. This film in itself represents the first contrast to Hollywood that we see in "The Player". Vittorio DeSica's "The Bicycle Thief" was part of a movement that lasted from 1942 to 1952 called ?Italian Neo-Realism", whose other main exponents were Rossellini and Visconti. Rossellini called neo-realism both a moral and an aesthetic cinema. Neo-realism, to a great extent owes much of its existence to film-makers' displeasure at the restrictions placed on freedom of expression. This film movement is quite different from the modern Hollywood formula of film-making. When Griffin first meets the man he suspects is sending the postcards, he suggests that perhaps they could do a remake of "The Bicycle Thief". The man responds with "yeah sure, you'd probably want to give it a happy ending".
Also interesting in "The Player" is one of the studio executives suggestions to newspapers as a source for script ideas. This serves to contrast Old Hollywood versus New Hollywood. In the older days of studio film, Warner Brothers (one of the studio's of middle-class America) would produce films with ideas seemingly drawn from real life or from the headlines of major newspapers. This gives us the sense that often Hollywood is stuck for original ideas, so ideas from the past re-circulate themselves.
I have touched on only a few of the many interesting references that run peripherally to the main plot of "The Player". The great thing is that even if you do not catch all the film references that I have been discussing, it is still enjoyable. When I first saw the film, I was really young and did not know much about movies, but yet I enjoyed it thoroughly. Now, it is one of my favorites. I definitely recommend it to anyone who has a keen interest in film.
**** out of ****
Comedy / Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Comedy / Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller
A Hollywood studio executive is being sent death threats by a writer whose script he rejected - but which one?
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