FILM THEORY & CRITICISM

The Player: Hope, Heart, Nudity, Sex, and Happy Endings

The evolution of the American film industry has seen a multitude of transformations since its inception. From the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930's and 40's, to the edgy, unconventional and personal films of the 1970's, to the big budget, sequel driven movies of today, Hollywood has transformed into a finely tuned mass consumer machine, based on proven formulas and marketable storylines that often sacrifice substance over style. Director Robert Altman's career spans over two highly different periods in the American film industry. In the 1970's he was able to create such classics as MASH, Nashville, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, films that went against the conventional grain, yet were still produced within the studio system. As Hollywood changed so did Altman's career, making it increasingly difficult for the director to make the films that he and not the studio wanted to make.

The Player serves as both Altman's and screenwriter Michael Tolkin's ode to disgust of the current state of American movie making. As Tim Robbins' character Griffin Mill snidely points out "I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here." It is these ideas and concepts coming from the powerful few who actually have the power to "Greenlight" a picture, that drive not only The Player but also the American movie business its self. The so called artistic process becomes whittled down to how many stars are attached and how closely the film follows Hollywood's proven formula of, "Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex and happy endings, mainly happy endings."

Altman wastes little time showing the hollow and vacuous innards of the Hollywood movie business with an impressive 8 minute continuous tracking shot to begin the film. In it, the films self reflexivity instantly presents itself as Fred Ward's character complains that today "The pictures are all MTV, cut, cut, cut... The opening shot of Wells' Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long." This playful contradiction is one of many that unfolds throughout the course of The Player. In the same shot Buck Henry is seen pitching The Graduate II, Goldie Hawn is suggested for a film described as "Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman", a group of studio executives discuss the latest rumors of who is in and who is out at the studio and Director Alan Rudolph pitches a movie that Griffin describes as "A psychic, political, thriller comedy with a heart." Clearly the genre specific film no longer exists in this Hollywood and in order to make the movie marketable it must have elements of all genres in order to get the go ahead for production. In one sweeping shot, Altman beautifully captures the artificiality of the movie making process, and in doing so sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Beneath The Player's satirical and often scathing surface, lays a story that very much follows the current Hollywood standard. As the story of Griffin Mill unfolds, it is clear that these events are no accident but rather a mockery of what sells in the movie business. It begins with suspense, and who is sending Griffin these mysterious hate letters. It then shifts to Murder, then Love, then Comedy and then any other subgenre or category associated with a "marketable" movie. The Player does not want to trick it's viewer but rather show them exactly what they supposedly want. Altman is not trying to break free from the conventional mold, but blatantly mock it by following its formulas so clearly. By following "the rules" in his own story, Altman statement about Hollywood is all the more effective.

After Mill has received the threatening letters from an anonymous source he pitches his own story to his script reader/girlfriend and asks her "How long until a person becomes dangerous?"As if her job as a script reader and knowing what's believable and what isn't qualifies her to respond. This is a clear example of the Robbins character being caught between the world of fiction and the world of reality. He is no longer able to separate the two, and the result is a character that is becoming as hollow as the movies he green lights. Interestingly the character of June, who has no interest in movies, says the reason she does not watch them is because "life is too short." Griffin seems to be drawn towards this apathy as a way of grounding him back to reality. She allows him to discern between what is fake and what is real. After she asks Griffin what makes a movie marketable he responds by giving the list of essential components the movie must have, and reiterating the importance of having a happy ending. June then asks "What about reality?"

As Larry Levy points out during a studio meeting, they need to be making "real stories" and it's the stories in the newspapers, not the ones created by the writers that make good movies. And yet when these stories are put in the hands of the Hollywood think tanks, any realness the story once had is completely drained out of it, leaving a polished, unrealistic piece of garbage. It no longer seems to be about the artistry but simply how much you can augment a simple story, ultimately making the actual events unrecognizable in the final product. The studios are interested in using the bases of a "real story" as a small, unstable building block and then piling on layer after layer of excrement until the initial block is no longer recognizable.

Interestingly, Griffin is recognized at a banquet for his efforts to restore old films prints. The party is filled with Hollywood notables and elites and as Griffin speaks of the importance of preserving classic cinema no one at the party seems to care. The celebrities at each table are seen speaking to one another and seem completely oblivious to why their even there. It is not about the movies anymore, it's about the idea of the movie business. Beneath their gilded exterior lies nothing more than the need for attention and personal gain. The glitz and the glamor has washed out the gritty and the real. And yet despite all this Griffin announces to the banquet " Movies are Art... Now more than ever" to which he receives a shallow half empty applause.

When Griffin approaches David after a screening of The Bicycle Thief he says "So refreshing to see something like this after all these... cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we'll do a remake of this!" to which David replies "you'll probably give it a happy ending" a statement that could not be truer. After hearing pitches for The Graduate II or Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate this Hollywood has no interest in delving into new territory but simply regurgitating previously proven successes in slightly different ways. The creative process has been sucked dry by studio bosses and all that remains are slight variations on previously viewed material.

David's character represents the struggling artist that is desperate to be admitted into the inner Hollywood circle and yet maintain his own artistic vision. Griffin Mill embodies everything that he despises about Hollywood and yet in order for him to ever have the opportunity to actually bring an idea from the page to the screen, it is Griffin or his equivalent at another studio that he must go through in order to make it happen. When he exposes Griffin for the vacant shell that he is, Mill responds by murdering him in a fit of anger. It's as if he agrees with Kahane but knows there is nothing he can do about it.

Director Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) shares the same passion as David except from the directors standpoint, and wants to make a "real" film that doesn't sellout to the classic Hollywood formula. His character begins with so much passion and artistic ambition and yet by stories end, he succumbs to everything he protested against in the first place. When he passionately pitches his idea for Habeas Corpus he has two very simple and seemingly reasonable demands. No stars and no happy endings. He vociferously repeats his terms so that his artistic integrity remains intact. When asked why no stars he states "No Bruce Willis, No Julia Roberts." When asked why the ending can't be happy he explains "because in real life... the innocent die." And yet when the film is at last is completed and screened for several executives, who other than Julia Roberts is being read her last rights and placed in the gas chamber. Who other than Bruce Willis arrives at the nick of time to shatter the chamber glass and save Julia Roberts before her wrongful death. When film executive Bonnie Sherow grills Tom on why he completely "sold out" he says the film with the unhappy ending screened very poorly to test audiences. Bonnie is then fired for questioning the film and ignored by Griffin when she pleads for her Job.

There are several interesting things going on here. For one, there is no place for criticizing a filmmaker's submission to convention when you are a Hollywood executive. By doing so you will quickly be replaced by someone who follows the crowd. Either conform to what's needed or keep your mouth shut, but never question the studio system. The second is the fact the initial idea from the director was to be "Pure" and "Real" and yet the finished product could not be any further from what was initially asked for. Interestingly the initial cut of the film did include the unhappy ending and yet tested poorly with audiences. So, if that is the case, than clearly the American moviegoer "does" in fact respond better to happy ending and many other proven formulas. Altman is not only blaming the studio system for the regurgitated bile released each year but also the moviegoer's themselves for shunning away from what's real, and instead choosing the happy feel good approach. These ideas and methods are not concocted out of thin air by movie studios, but researched tirelessly through test screenings and exit surveys gathering information on what audiences respond to and what they don't respond to. Clearly, we the moviegoer are just as responsible if not "more" so responsible for the lack of artistic merit most movies today have, due to our need for wanting it all in one nice neat little package. Naturally the argument could be made that the reason people go to movies is to escape the everyday realities of life and that truth has no place in the theatre. The studios are all too happy to oblige this need and it is ultimately the writers, the actors and the directors who must sacrifice their own artistic integrity in order to provide the public with what they want.

The Player is quite content giving the audience what it wants and the films self-reflexivity again presents itself at the end. Griffin has been reluctantly exonerated for the murder of David Kahane, he is now the head of the studio and he arrives to his beautiful home, surrounded by an assortment of flowers and a pregnant wife that greets him at the door. When asked what took him so long he replies "Traffic was a bitch" reciting verbatim the final lines of Habeus Corpus. All is well in Griffin Mill's world and also Robert Altman's. Altman has created a film that contains all of the elements needed to have a "successful picture" and wants his audience to be well aware that he has done so. The booming symphony that plays when Griffin passionately kisses June reminds us that we are watching a movie. The Player shows us the shallow process required to give us what we want. It does not attempt to blast Hollywood by going against its conventions but by simply making it blatantly obvious that it is following them. The Player succeeds by not only exposing the movie industry for what it truly is, but it is the rarest of films that maintains it artistic integrity by simply satirizing its own method. If this is what we want as the moviegoer, The Player is all too happy to show us just how vacuous that want can be.

One Comment

By Rob Shearer on March 31, 2011 at 12:31 AM

The Player is a great film that shows the dark, and unfortunately real, side of the film industry. You raise a great point in the second-to-last paragraph: who is responsible for the quality of films today, the filmmakers or the audience? It is easy for an artist, filmmaker, or author these days to shrug off negative criticisms of their work by merely stating that the audience "just didn't get it." Yet, many of the directors during Hollywood's "Golden Age" actually gave a lot of credit to the audience, unlike the producers in The Player who follow formulas and trends.

The great filmmaker Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night) had a quote during an interview at the American Film Institute regarding trends and audiences:

"Trends. It's the dirtiest word in films. Don't follow trends. Start trends. First of all, it's unethical. What you're doing is trying to capitalize on somebody else's creation, and you're starting with two strikes morally against you. Secondly, audiences do not want to see cheap copies of an original. Just because audiences liked a picture about a building on fire once, that doesn't mean they're going to like pictures about buildings on fire all the time. You make automobiles on an assembly line, but it's not how you make pictures. And as for "What do the people like now?"--the people don't know what they like until they see it. There is no trend. People love good films. So, be individuals, be mavericks, swim upstream. Never float down the tide with the rest of the people." (qtd. from Conversations With The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age At The American Film Institute by George Steven's Jr.)

I truly believe the "the people don't know what they like until they see it," but Hollywood is not willing to make that financial gamble. However, if filmmakers only relied on making audiences happy or playing off of previous successes, then we would not have classics like Star Wars, Reservoir Dogs, or Psycho. These films became classics because they were new, unique, and revolutionary, and not because they were designed solely to make money or cater to a specific audience.

If only more filmmakers, producers, and Hollywood executives followed this advice from Mr. Capra, then we would not be watching the poorly conceived and executed films that fill our theaters. However, we must never forget that we have the option of not seeing these films! So if we are tired of sequels and "cheap copies of an original" then we should not give them our money. Hopefully as we watch films like The Player, we will never forget that we as audience members have as much say on the types of movies that get made as the Hollywood executives.

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