Wednesday, April 11, 2012

 

"If we can just get rid of these actors and directors,
maybe we've got something here."

NOTE: Ranked No. 83 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


"It's just a satire on the way people behave in the movie studios. There was such a fuss started about it. People started saying, 'Oh people are afraid you are going to do this and do this.' So the more afraid they got, the more ideas they gave me. Looking back on this whole picture, it's a pretty tame satire. It's no big indictment. Things are much, much worse than this picture seems to say." — Robert Altman on the DVD commentary for The Player

By Edward Copeland
To begin a post on the 20th anniversary of Robert Altman's film The Player by showing the clip of his fabled eight-minute, one-take opening and then waxing rhapsodic about all manners of ingenuity in that shot puts me at risk of sounding like Fred Ward's character in that sequence, railing about how everything in movies these days is "cut cut cut cut" and teaching Jimmy the bike messenger (Paul Hewitt) about Orson Welles' famous tracking shot that started Touch of Evil (Unlike Ward's studio security head Walter Stuckel though, I would recognize Absolute Beginners when Jimmy brings it up). Despite any negative connotation I may endure for choosing the most obvious part of Altman's 1992 film to launch my tribute to The Player, I stand by my decision and commence my piece discussing those eight glorious minutes, not only because the work that went into creating that sequence still amazes me two decades later, but because that bite-size morsel of cinematic art serves as a microcosm of the entire film. As Altman himself said in a video interview on the DVD, "The film actually is like a snail — it kind of turns in on itself and becomes itself." When Francis Ford Coppola held a news conference at the Cannes Film Festival to tout Apocalypse Now, he famously declared, "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam." You could say that Altman's film isn't about Hollywood either — it is Hollywood — and who truly can determine on which battleground more blood has been shed. Watching The Player now, you discover (as you find in many Altman films) that wily director had been operating on several planes at the same time during filming and, as funny and dead-on as its humor may be, The Player doesn't exist exclusively as a satire. An audience's boisterous laughter distracts a viewer from noticing Altman's use of some directorial sleight-of-hand. When the humor subsides, a surprised viewer realizes that the film now plumbs much darker depths. That Altman successfully coordinated all these disparate instruments into the orchestral composition we know as The Player remains miraculous. Now, about that opening shot…


Assuming anyone reading this watched the clip or has seen The Player, the actual preparations that Altman, his crew and the actors involved in the sequence took required planning — lots of meticulous planning. Often, you hear people mistakenly refer to this eight-minute take as a tracking shot when that isn't the case. A camera didn't run on rails as Akira Kurosawa did for The Woodcutter's long walk in Rashomon and isn't exactly equivalent to the move Martin Scorsese loves to do as in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, to name just two of his. Even a casual observer, seeing how the camera moves in those eight minutes, would realize that laying down tracks for all those angles and positions without any being caught on film by the camera as it switched heights and directions would be damn near impossible. No crews could remove or replace tracks that fast. On the DVD commentary track, Altman explains the steps he went through to achieve the scene. The director actually built a scale model of the studio set along with a scale-size crane that allowed him to see where he would be able to travel and reach and where he couldn't go. Using the model, he visualized roughly how the crane would circulate based on which characters and cameo players should appear in what order. "I had to set up the movie studio and I wanted to set up the characters that we were going to be dealing with and I wanted to get the audience's attention," Altman said. The director went to the real set with the real crane and choreographed the take. While he knew who would be in the scene, Altman hadn't the slightest idea what words would emanate from their mouths as everyone with a speaking part in the opening improvised his or her dialogue. The amount of time on a single reel of film determined the take's total length, so they had to plan how much time to spend at each spot. Altman said everyone rehearsed for a day while the actual filming took half a day, employing 11 microphones and a mere 15 takes. For such a complicated undertaking, while it required intricate preparations, they managed to lock it down rather quickly. It's far from the only time The Player displays a self-reflexive moment — that happens in the film's first image as a hand enters the frame with a clapboard (and if that's an honest clapboard, it means take 10 ended up being used in the film) as you hear offscreen voices asking for quiet on the set, marking the scene and, finally, calling, "Action" so the film can begin — and similar instances occur all the way to its final frame. For his part, Altman emphasized the show in his showpiece. "It's a very conceited thing — this shot with no cuts in it.…It draws attention to it. It's showing off.…It got attention to the picture," he admits.

What Altman set out to do in that scene — the setting-up-the-characters-and-the-studio part, not the garnering-attention-for-the-film part — he accomplished quite efficiently. We begin with the woman who, truth-be-told, keeps the studio running through who knows how many regimes, the studio president's executive secretary Claire (Dina Merrill) telling the studio president's receptionist Sandy (Leah Ayres) the proper things to say about the boss's whereabouts; we hear the first mention of a name of a rival that will haunt our protagonist, Larry Levy; Speaking of our protagonist, he arrives. One of the top executives, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) pulls on to the lot in his Range Rover and we get an immediate sense of his importance as he gets a movie pitch from real-life writer-director Adam Simon before he's even closed the vehicle's door. Griffin tells Simon to talk to his assistant, Bonnie Sherow; next we see Walter and Jimmy have their tracking shot discussion and pass Griffin's office window where he gets updates from his secretary Jan (Angela Hall) and receives his first official pitch from Buck Henry and we get our first reference to a possible part for Julia Roberts; Adam Simon reappears and we meet Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson) who begs him to slow down and write it down for her. A shriek is heard and they run over to find that a man driving a golf cart has run over Jimmy on his bicycle, scattering a huge pile of mail. On top of one stack, a postcard with drawings of old movie stars and the words YOUR [SIC] HOLLYWOOD IS DEAD; a young man (Randall Batinkoff) in a sports car pulls up to a young blonde sitting on the hood of a car and purposely mistakes her as Rebecca De Mornay in an attempt to pick her up; a low level exec (Jeremy Piven) sucks up to a group of Japanese visitors touring the studio; studio president Joel Levison (Brion James) arrives, driving to the door of his office and asking Sandy to park his car for him; three other executives talk about the bank that owns much of the studio "putting the screws" to them and sending the owner's son out from Boston. They talk about how it happens at all studios every few years and rumors that Griffin may be replaced by someone else, maybe even Larry Levy; Griffin hears his second pitch of the day; Director Alan Rudolph asks Jimmy where Griffin's office is and Jimmy tells him and also mistakes him as Martin Scorsese. Rudolph goes in the door as Jan comes out and collects Griffin's mail from Jimmy; Walter now bends Buck Henry's ear, this time going on about Hitchcock's Rope while continuing to gripe about all those cuts. Henry brings up Bernardo Bertolucci's great tracking shot to Debra Winger in The Sheltering Sky. Walter, of course, hasn't seen it; Bonnie chastises her assistant Whitney Gersh (Gina Gershon) for having coffee with Alan Rudolph; Rudolph sees Griffin and gives him his final pitch of the opening scene as well as the film's first mention of Bruce Willis. Mill receives his mail, including that postcard which reads on the other side, "I HATE YOUR GUTS ASSHOLE!" Rudolph hasn't stopped pitching about his cynical political thriller comedy that's "got heart in the right spot" but he gets the last line of that bravura opening, "Of course someone dies in the end. They always do in thrillers." Beyond the technical virtuosity displayed in that opening take, what an efficient introduction of most of the important characters and plot strands for the film. The single take goes beyond being a clever filmmaking stunt and prepares a viewer for most of what will be coming. If they didn't know what a movie pitch was, now they do. The film establishes the basic hierarchy of the studio's power structure. We know that shaky financial times embroil the studio and that its top development executive, Griffin Mill, could lose his job over it, perhaps to an executive who works elsewhere named Larry Levy. We've learned that someone representing the bank that owns most of the studio will be arriving to look things over. Griffin also has to contend with someone sending him threatening postcards. The movie even has laid the groundwork for the joke that leads to the final punchline. More ominously, as Rudolph says in the context of his movie idea, "Of course someone dies in the end. They always do in thrillers" as Griffin stares out the window after receiving his hate mail, the first scene of The Player doesn't end on a satirical note, but a suspenseful one, indicating the thriller blood flowing through its celluloid veins. Rudolph's description of the movie he wants to make inspires laughter, but it comes damn close to describing The Player as well: a cynical political thriller with its heart in the right spot, only its office politics and while the film does have heart in the right spot, the right spots occur only in isolated moments and not in the film overall.

One final paragraph related to the opening, since it affords me the opportunity to share an anecdote from my days long past as a pseudo-professional film critic as well as illustrates that some of the funniest dialogue that just screams satire — well, as animated Springfield mob boss Fat Tony (voiced by Joe Mantegna) once said on The Simpsons, "It's funny 'cause it's true." Altman says in his commentary that the performers improvised all the dialogue in that sequence, including creating their own movie pitches. It shouldn't be surprising then that Buck Henry delivers the funniest one with his idea for a sequel to The Graduate. The other two pitches speak the ridiculous language that most assume has to be exaggerated. In Griffin's second meeting, he listens to writer-directors Patricia Resnick (on left in photo), and Joan Tewksbury try to sell an idea about a television actress who takes a trip to Africa where a local tribe begins to worship her as an idol. "Kind of like The Gods Must Be Crazy, only instead of a Coke bottle, you have a television actress," Griffin says when he finally catches on to their concept. "It's like Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman," Resnick sums up. When Alan Rudolph spells out the basics of his story concerning a senator who develops the power to see what's inside a person's mind, his pithy summation of the film describes it as "Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate." On Jan. 31, 1992, less than four months before The Player opened, another film finally made it to movie theaters. Originally scheduled as one of its studio's big year-end releases, the studio punted it to the January dumping ground because even they recognized how bad it was. If you review films outside of major markets, studios either contract local agencies to handle publicity and press relations or use regional offices, if they have one in close proximity. (At least, they did this once upon a time. Now, smaller markets get frozen out, if their newspapers haven't axed their film critics first.) In late summer 991, this studio's regional rep drove up to give me and my paper's other reviewer a preview of the studio's fall and winter releases. As he flipped through large photos featuring images from the films, he came to Shining Through starring Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. After a brief synopsis, the man described Shining Through in a way that forced me to summon every ounce of strength in my 21-year-old body not to burst into tears of laughter. "It's like Working Girl goes to war," he said with a straight face. Yes Virginia, movie folk do talk this way.


"As a screenwriter, one gets used to sitting in the backseat on a film. One reason the writer is usually banned from the set by directors is so the writer's screams aren't heard on the soundtrack when they listen to all the changes being made," said Michael Tolkin, who wrote the screenplay for The Player, on the DVD commentary. Tolkin wasn't just writing the script for The Player, he was adapting it from his own novel and serving as one of the film's producers as well. Neither Altman nor Tolkin mention a Tolkin ban from The Player set on the DVD (in fact, he appears late in the movie with his brother Stephen as screenwriting siblings trying to make a deal). I guess Michael Mann kicking David Milch off the Luck set wasn't that unusual, but they both held executive producer titles, so how did that work? Oh well — horses under the tarp. While Hollywood at large goes beneath the microscope in The Player, how the film industry treats writers garners the bulk of the feature's focus — somewhat ironic given how often Altman allows improvisation or creates scenes on the fly. (I just noticed how easily I slip into present tense when I write about what Altman "does." He died more than five years ago, but when you watch his best films again, the man seems so vibrant, vital and alive.) In the sidebar I posted Tuesday called Untold Stories of Robert Altman's The Player or Who the Hell is Thereza Ellis?, I covered many details of this, especially concerning the great scene at the Pasadena police station between the police (Whoopi Goldberg, Lyle Lovett and Susan Emshwiller) and Griffin that Altman acknowledges the actors worked out on their own and that Goldberg should be credited as the scene's writer and director. Despite the fact that Griffin keeps getting threatening notes from a pissed-off screenwriter whose calls he didn't return, his reputation has earned the label of "the writer's executive" in Hollywood. Though Griffin ends up physically killing a screenwriter, the rival executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) plays the role of the man who would kill them all symbolically if he could. One fateful night, Griffin drives to Pasadena looking for screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), the man he believes to be behind the threats. Mill learns he's gone to a movie theater to see The Bicycle Thief from his girlfriend June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), who Griffin shares an odd and voyeuristic phone call where he watches her through her windows while talking on his unbelievably large 1990s-era cell phone. He asks why she didn't go with David, but June doesn't go to movies. "Why?" Mill truly wants to know. "Life's too short," she answers. Griffin tries to calm Kahane after he locates him, dangling the possibility of deals and apologizing for not calling him back. Kahane won't allow Griffin's belated asskissing — June told Griffin on the phone his nickname for him was The Dead Man. Since Griffin found Kahane at the movie theater, he deduces June told Mill where he went. "Talk to the Ice Queen? You'd like her Mill — she's a lot like you — all heart," Kahane says before walking out on Griffin. Mill gives up and heads toward his Range Rover when Kahane, pissing in a corner, calls to him and taunts him about Larry Levy, who he has heard will make meaningful films again, and the impending loss of Griffin's job. His paranoia drives Griffin to follow Kahane to his parking lot in an attempt to get him not to tell anyone at the studio they spoke and to stop the postcards. "I don't write postcards! I write scripts!" Kahane yells when Griffin grabs his car door and Kahane shoves him, sending him sailing over a railing onto a loading ramp. Kahane checks to see if Griffin is OK, but Mill snaps and starts bashing Kahane's head into the cement, holding it beneath the water until the bubbles stop, quietly sneering, "Keep it to yourself! Keep it to yourself!" As Griffin snaps back into focus, realizing what he did and trying to fake a robbery, dialogue from the next scene, which takes place the following morning, bleeds into the murder cleanup. "Who wrote the new ending to Fatal Attraction?" Larry Levy asks. "The audience did," he responds to his own question.

Levy's conversation turn out to come from his first meeting as a newly hired executive at the studio. It hasn't quite started as Levison waits in his office and Griffin hasn't shown up on the lot. Claire tells Levison that with or without Griffin, they should begin and he agrees, telling Walter, whom we've learned by now runs the studio's security department to "keep our noses clean, Walter." Levy complains to everyone about the high fees paid to writers and how they should make pictures the people want not the type writers want to give them when Griffin shows up. Levy asks everyone when was the last time they paid to see a movie. "Last night. The Bicycle Thief," Griffin replies. "It's an art movie. It doesn't count. We're talking movie movies," Levy says dismissively. As an exercise, Levy passes a newspaper to different executives and tells them to pick a story. Steve Reeves (Jeremy Piven) reads, "Immigrants protest budget cuts in literacy program." "Human spirit overcoming human adversity. Sounds like Horatio Alger in the barrio. Put Jimmy Smits in it and you've got a sexy Stand and Deliver," Levy smiles. It goes on for a while, but a headline that says “Man Found Dead in Theater Parking Lot” distracts Griffin. When they capture his attention, he focuses enough to zing Levy back at least. "I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here," Mill suggests sardonically. The frightening thing to me comes from the possibility that with the state of digital effects now, getting rid of the actors could be highly plausible. After the meeting, when Griffin returns to his office where Walter confronts him about David Kahane, he receives a fax with bad news. "SURPRISE!" it reads. Kahane wasn't the screenwriter sending him the postcards. At another time, Griffin again shows himself to be a bit of a writer's defender when he sends Bonnie to New York to look at the new Tom Wolfe novel and discern if it could be a movie. If it does, he tells her to offer $1 million, which makes Levy choke over the price. "It's Tom Wolfe," Griffin says, as if that's the only explanation needed. There's a catch that comes with Griffin's "writer's executive" reputation. The script still must fall within the proper parameters. He isn't a risk taker. When he becomes involved with June, she asks him what he needs to make a good movie and he rattles off a list of attributes. "Suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings. Mostly happy endings," he tells her. Damn if Altman — the maverick, the Hollywood outsider — doesn't manage to include every single one of those elements in The Player. "When people ask me, 'How much did Altman change the script into the movie?' I would honestly say if anyone betrayed me, it was me. As the screenwriter, I betrayed the novel much more than the director," Tolkin admits on the DVD. Altman also offers some words on his reputation as an outsider.

"All this about me being outside of Hollywood — the truth of the matter is I can't make the kind of movies they want to make
and the kind of movies that I can make and like to make and make are not the type of films they know how to distribute.
So basically, we aren't in the same business. There's no point in calling me to make a pair of gloves for you when I make shoes."

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