Friday, April 13, 2012


Pragmatic anarchy

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post concludes my main tribute piece to Robert Altman's The Player.
If you started reading here, click this and read the first part of the post before you read this

When we met Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), he already carried a heavy load of burdens. Rumors swirled that his financially struggling studio would replace him soon, a hot executive at Fox named Larry Levy seemed to be "in his face" all the time and a screenwriter whose calls he never returned kept sending him threatening postcards. Oh, how Griffin longs for those good old days. Now, Pasadena police suspect he killed screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) — which he did, Levy (Peter Gallagher) has landed at Mill's studio and, perhaps most distressing of all his plights, it turns out that Kahane wasn't the writer threatening him — and those continue. Only one bright spot shines in the dark hole that Griffin dug himself into and she happens to be the intriguing June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), girlfriend to the late David Kahane. Trying to date her would look improper so soon after David's death and it wouldn't be a nice thing for Griffin to do to his girlfriend and executive assistant Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson), the film's most decent character. My return visit to the Hollywood of Robert Altman's The Player clarified to me the pivotal roles the two women, particularly June, serve in making The Player much more than just a satire or even a thriller.

I never read Michael Tolkin's original novel The Player, but I did read his sequel The Return of The Player. While on the DVD commentary, Tolkin ultimately blamed himself for what changed in the movie from his novel, much of his tone on the disc tasted bitter, including frequent references to how he never wanted the novel turned into a film in the first place (something that sounds particularly odd given that he wrote and produced the movie as well as created and wrote a pilot for a proposed TV series version that never aired). Though Tolkin's name appears alone as the credited screenwriter, based on the sequel novel and what Robert Altman said on the DVD, I have to believe that the director sparked the transformation of the novel's June into the June of the film. Based on The Return of The Player, June isn't a cypher of a character who says she comes from Iceland (though when asked by Griffin at a later time if she really hails from there, she responds, "Did I say that?") Altman said that he wanted June to be like an alien, almost to the point that you could believe she exists only in Griffin's imagination. I don't think Altman meant anyone to take that literally — June Gudmunsdottir definitely exists — but she does function as the only person in the film who doesn't speak Hollywood. She and Griffin both may communicate in English, but they speak entirely different languages and that's part of the attraction. June paints and creates other types of art, but when Griffin asks where she shows her work, she tells him she doesn't. For a man who greenlights movies for production so they eventually can be seen, this makes no sense to him. He inquires why June doesn't try to display her works in a gallery and she explains that it's because she never finishes them. The reason for their renewed contact after one phone call comes courtesy of David Kahane's funeral, which Griffin feels compelled to attend. When the graveside services end, June approaches him, recognizing immediately that he doesn't look like the other mourners, all writers. When Griffin explains who he is and that they spoke the night of Kahane's death, June remembers, adding, "You're the only person I know here." Griffin offers the standard funeral apology and tells June that David "was a real talent." She looks surprised. "You think so? I always suspected he was uniquely untalented," June declares, free of emotion before begging Griffin to drive her home because she can't deal with what's expected of her from the others. These people.I don't like it here. They're all expecting me to grieve and mourn. I can't talk to them. David's gone and I'm somewhere else already," she tells Griffin, who seems to be showing more genuine regret about Kahane's death than the slain writer's girlfriend.

Cynicism seeps from the pores of all the characters in The Player to some degree, though most would call it a pragmatic and realistic attitude spawned by the industry in which they work. Bonnie Sherow and Griffin Mill speak the same language — that's why they work (and play) well together. Admittedly, Griffin keeps his guard up, even with Bonnie. As they relax in his hot tube one night where she reads him part of a horribly lurid script, Griffin tries to talk to her about the threats he's received, but he phrases it in the form of a movie pitch, making the victim someone who works in advertising. He wants her opinion on how many months of these threats it would take before the sender should be considered dangerous. Thinking he's actually discussing a pitch someone gave him, she responds sourly, "Does he have to be in advertising?" Bonnie can be tough on her assistant Whitney (Gina Gershon) and likewise Griffin can point out when Bonnie makes a social faux pas ("Never bring up script changes at a party"), but, at least at the beginning, nothing comes off as mean-spirited. She also displays a wit as cutting as anyone when the opportunity presents itself. When Larry Levy conducts his exercise in picking newspaper stories to show he can envision movies without needing a writer, Bonnie latches on to the headline, "Further bond losses push Dow down." Before Levy responds, she quickly adds, "I see Connery as Bond." Bonnie's unambiguous sense of right and wrong and her streak of moral clarity distiguish her from the rest of her universe. It almost goes without saying that some sort of doom awaits her. Altman always had a great eye for casting, even if he did tend to return to his unofficial repertory company time and again, but hiring Cynthia Stevenson to play Bonnie might have been the best choice since, of the performers in The Player's major roles, she was the least-known to most. I had followed her for some time, first noticing her on a very short-lived, quirky and one-of-a-kind show called My Talk Show which was an unusual sitcom where she played a young woman who hosted a Wisconsin talk show from her living room mostly with friends and neighbors as guests, often while she did other things, though celebrities wandered through town sometimes such as William Shatner and, to my joyous surprise, there's a YouTube clip. Altman said that he came close to hiring Julianne Moore for the role of Bonnie, but decided she was "too glamorous" and he wanted someone who didn't look like an actress. He'd seen Stevenson on an episode of Cheers (She appeared twice in the later seasons as Norm's secretary who suffered from extremely low self-esteem.) When Altman informed Stevenson that the role required her to take off her top for the hot tub scene, the actress couldn't believe it. "Why me? No one has ever asked me to take my top off?" Altman said she asked him. "That's the reason," he responded. As he explained, that afforded him another chance to upset expectations and Hollywood conventions. "You never see Greta Scacchi nude," he pointed out. He wanted to use Stevenson's nudity to comment on the beauty in all types of female nudity, not just the usual kind you see in movies, as well as the state of Bonnie and Griffin's relationship.

While Bonnie, like Alan Rudolph's movie pitch, has heart in the right spot, the question of whether a cardiac organ beats within June's chest remains unresolved, despite Kahane telling Griffin sarcastically that Mill and June both were "all heart." The late screenwriter's nicknames for his girlfriend and the movie executive though seem to be honest assessments: June's the Ice Queen, Griffin's The Dead Man. Bonnie gave Griffin a tenuous hold on humanity and, ironically, his killing of Kahane actually brought Mill to life. "Although the novel was very much about Hollywood, I also was really writing about guilt," Tolkin said on the DVD. June's manner, tone shows stays at a constant level no matter what has happened, almost like a flatline on a heart monitor. When Griffin takes her home after David's burial, she immediately starts working on the art she never finishes or sells. She asks Mill why he met with Kahane that night and Griffin tells her that he planned to share an idea he'd thought of that would improve his script. When she says, "the Japan story," Griffin fears he'll be caught, so he gets vague, suggesting that it needed an "up" ending before asking June what she thought of the ending. "I never read it. I don't like reading," she admits. This woman intrigues Griffin further. She doesn't go to movies/ She doesn't like reading. "Do you like books?" he inquires. "I like words and letters, but I'm not crazy about complete sentences," she tells him. June then asks Griffin to place his face behind this shower curtain so she can photograph it. She plans to put him in one of her paintings, one of an Icelandic hero. "He's a thief and he's made of fire. You might not like that," June says. Griffin asks her why. She figures that given his job, he couldn't see thieves as heroes. "I don't know about that. We have a long tradition of gangsters in movies," Griffin informs her with a smile. The exchange that follows illuminates Griffin's thoughts clearly, but makes June more mysterious.
JUNE: Yes, but they always have to suffer for their crimes, don't they?
GRIFFIN: We should pay for our crimes, shouldn't we?
JUNE: I think knowing you've committed a crime is suffering enough. If you don't suffer, maybe it wasn't a crime after all. Anyway — what difference does it make? It has nothing to do with how things really are.
GRIFFIN: Do you really believe that?
JUNE: I don't know what I believe, Mr. Mill. It's just what I feel.
GRIFFIN: You know what you are, June whatever-your-name-is? A pragmatic anarchist.
JUNE: Is that what I am? I never was sure.

Of course, if Griffin succeeds at juggling his women and getting away with murder, he still must contend with the matter of the shaky hold on his job and the stalking screenwriter who lurks somewhere, probably with a fair idea of why David Kahane got killed in a movie theater parking lot and who did it. (The film never spells out explicitly the identity of the real stalker, though Altman did on the commentary track of the old Criterion laserdisc edition of The Player. I wrote about it in my sidebar Untold Stories of Robert Altman's The Player or Who the Hell is Thereza Ellis? if you haven't read that and would like to know.) While looking at dailies at the studio, he gets a message from a Joe Gillis telling him to meet him at the patio bar of the St. James Club that night alone. Griffin actually has to ask the others in the screening room if they've heard of a Joe Gillis and studio president Levison (Brion James) informs him that Gillis is the name of the character William Holden played in Sunset Blvd. "You know, the screenwriter who gets killed by the movie star." Mill tries to laugh it off, saying the guy called before claiming to be Charles Foster Kane. When he goes to the hotel that night, he runs into the two most over=the-top characters in the film — writer-director Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) and Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell). If the movie they corner Griffin into listening to a pitch for weren't so pivotal to one of the biggest laughs in movie history, they might a bit too annoying. Griffin does his best to get rid of them, but he relents and Tom takes over.
TOM: We open outside the largest penitentiary in California. It's night. It's raining. A limousine comes through the gate past demonstrators holding a candlelight vigil. The candles under the umbrellas glow like Japanese lanterns.
GRIFFIN: That's nice. I haven't seen that before.
TOM: A lone demonstrator, a black woman, steps in front of the limousine. The lights illuminate her like a spirit. Her eyes fix upon those of the sole passenger. The moment is devastating between them.
GRIFFIN: He's the D.A. She's the mother of the person being executed.

ANDY: You're good! I told you he's good.
TOM: The D.A. believes in the death penalty and the execution is a hard case — black and definitely guilty. The greatest democracy in the world, and 42 percent of people on death row are black. Poor, disadvantaged black. He swears the next person he sees to die will be smart, rich and white. Cut from the D.A. To an up-market suburban neighborhood. A couple have a fight. He leaves in a fit, gets in a car. It's the same rainy night. The car spins out and goes into a ravine. The body is swept away. When the police examine the car, they find the brakes have been tampered with. It's murder, and the D.A. decides to go for the big one. He's going to put the wife in the gas chamber. but the D.A. falls in love with the wife.
GRIFFIN: Of course.
TOM: But he puts her in the gas chamber anyway. Then he finds that the husband is alive. That he faked his death. The D.A. breaks into the prison, runs down death row -- but he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She's dead. I tell you, there's not a dry eye in the house.

GRIFFIN: She's dead?
TOM: She's dead because that's the reality. The innocent die.
GRIFFIN: Who's the D.A.?
TOM: No stars on this project. We're going out on a limb on this one. This story is too fucking important to risk being overwhelmed by personality. We don't want people coming with any preconceived notions. We want them to see a district attorney.
ANDY: (whispering) Bruce Willis.
TOM: Not Bruce Willis or Kevin Costner. This is an innocent woman fighting for her life.
ANDY: (whiapering) Julia Roberts.

Griffin tells Tom his pitch had more than 25 words. "But it was brilliant. What's the verdict?" Andy asks. Griffin doesn't betray his thoughts one way or the other when a waiter comes by with a postcard he says a man left for him at the front desk. It reads, "I TOLD YOU TO COME ALONE!" Mill gets up, telling Tom and Andy that the person he was waiting to meet isn't coming. Andy pushes again for an answer about a deal and Mill admits it's an intriguing idea and suggests they call him at the studio the next day. Griffin returns to his Range Rover and finds a note on his steering wheel suggesting he look beneath his raincoat, which covers something on the passenger seat's floor. He lifts the coat and finds a metal box that reads, "DO NOT OPEN TIL XMAS." He flips it open anyway and discovers a live, hissing rattlesnake inside. Scared shitless, he drives erratically until he gets to the side of the road, gets an umbrella from the back of the vehicle and beats the snake to death while cursing the mystery writer. In his rage, paranoia and vulnerability, Griffin drives to June's.

The Player remains one of Tim Robbins' best performances and the scene where he arrives disheveled in the middle of the night at June's gives him his finest in the movie. It also provides the most solid evidence of the multiple layers the movie functions on. Altman may have called The Player at one point in his commentary possibly the "most contrived" film he ever made (which, quite frankly, I can't imagine a more ludicrous statement coming from the great filmmaker who had films such as Beyond Therapy, Quintet and Ready to Wear in his filmography), but Robbins gets to a deep core of emotional truth here. His brush with death via snake prompts him to try to confess to June, but it's as if she knows intuitively and doesn't want him to confirm it. He admits that she was all he could think about when he saw the snake and thought it would kill him. "Are you making love to me?" she asks. He says he supposes that he is; he knows he wants to make love to her. "It's too soon. It's so strange how things happen. David was here, then he left. You arrived. Maybe it's just the timing, but I feel like I would go anywhere with you if you asked, but we mustn't hurry things. We can't hurry things any more than we can stop them," June tells him. Most of the many times I've watched The Player before, it seemed clear to me that Griffin pursued June. This time, it looked more to me as if she was pulling him into her web. Both the DVD and the dear departed laserdisc contain the same deleted scene that I found to be a rarity among deleted scenes. Most of the time, you view them and you see exactly why the scissors snipped them out of the final cut. One of The Player's cut scenes I've always thought to be an exception and I hadn't thought of it in awhile. When Griffin and June finally start dating, they go on a trip to the Two Bunch Palms resort. The film abounds with posters and references to noir and crime movies as it is, why not plant the idea that June could be a most unusual type of femme fatale? Immediately before they leave on the trip and Bonnie learns he's embarking with another woman, Altman shoots a close-up of a movie poster for M. At the resort, Griffin gets greeted as Mr. M. and his reserved seat at dinner has a card with the same shortened name and courtesy title. They stay in the cabin Al Capone used when he visited California. June leaves her purse open on a dresser and Griffin notices that she's packing a gun. She tells him that Kahane got it for her and, in fact, had it in his satchel the night he got killed. She wondered why David wasn't able to use it. The cut scene set at the resort cast an entirely new aura of mystery about her character. One masterful scene set kept in the film captures the consummation of Griffin and June's relationship. Not only did Altman not use nudity, he filmed their lovenaking entirely from the neck up, but it never gets the notice it deserves when it's competing with eight-minute single takes and 60 celebrity cameos. Regardless, you definitely see with certainty that as the movie progresses and Griffin spends more time with June and less with Bonnie, he becomes a more soulless creature. If June isn't a femme fatale or an alien as Altman suggested, she's some kind of vampire, and on the ethical scale of the film, June doesn't even seem to register, floating above it in an amoral cloud as Bonnie stays on the moral side and Griffin weighs down the immoral one further and further. In the DVD video interview, Altman admits that the scene was the very last one to be taken out and, if he was making The Player when they did that interview, he would probably have kept it in. The tightrope that Altman walked while juggling the various styles and genres in The Player without ending up with a complete mess boggles the mind.

The final subversion of expectations comes with Griffin's ultimate victory on all levels. First, he tricks Levy into selling Levison on producing Tom and Andy's no-stars-woman dies movie (titled Habeas Corpus). Levy sound leery at first, especially about having no name actors playing the leads, but Mill tells him that Levison made his reputation on two hits with nobodies and his motto used to be, "No stars, just talent." Afterward, he confides to his secretary Jan that he just set Levy up with a dog of a script with no second act and a downbeat ending, but Levison will do it because he's hot to make a movie with him and when they both fall on their faces, he'll sweep in and save the day. Poor Bonnie though has been seeing through Griffin for a while. "Why are you bullshitting me? You never used to bullshit me," she tells him at one point. The Pasadena police appear to be closing in on him, having found a witness, so Griffin faces a lineup. However, the lady with fairly poor eyesight ends up picking the police detective played by Lyle Lovett. "That's him! I swear on my mother's grave," the woman declares. Detective Avery asks the woman if she can be personal and then inquires, "Where the fuck is your mother buried?" As Griffin walks out of the courthouse a free man, his defense attorney states the obvious of how that witness really made his case by picking that cop out of the lineup. A title card appears telling us it's one year later and we see several stars, obviously playing parts before the witness room of a gas chamber. We realize that we're seeing the ending moments of Habeas Corpus. The camera moves down the hall of the execution unit and we see that, yes, Julia Roberts indeed is playing the part of the condemned wife. She's led off to the gas chamber, strapped in and fumes start to rise when suddenly a guard yells into a phone, "WHAT?!" A man comes running down the hallway. Understandably, it's Bruce Willis. He grabs a shotgun, blows out the glass of the gas chamber runs in and whisks Julia to safety. "What took you so long?" she asks. "Traffic was a bitch," he replies. THE END.

Many movies have made me laugh in my lifetime, but few offer moments so funny that just thinking about them — even months later — can cause convulsions of chuckling. Off the top of my head, I recall two. One comes from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut when the Army general tries to show his plan to his troops, but Windows 98 keeps crashing so he orders men to bring Bill Gates to him. "You told us that Windows 98 would be faster, and more efficient with better access to the Internet!" the general yells at Gates. "It is faster! Over five million — " That's all Gates gets to say before the general blows his head off to the cheers of his troops. I didn't hear the cheers. The theater audience and I were too busy laughing and applauding. Habeas Corpus in The Player takes the prize for the other moment. When I first saw this film in a screening and I saw Julia Roberts, I started to laugh, but then when Bruce Willis barrels in and grabs the shotgun, I literally was on the floor. I had to watch the movie two or three times until I could concentrate on what took place after the moment. It pushed me into that heavy a fit of hysterical laughter. Eventually, I did see what happened as Bonnie turned to Tom Oakley in the screening room, asking him how he could have sold out. "What about truth? What about reality? she asks the writer-director. What about the way the old ending tested in Canoga Park? Everybody hated it. We reshot it, now everybody loves it. That’s reality," Tom tells her. Bonnie stands her ground, insisting that it didn't have to end this way. Larry Levy shakes his head, tells her it's a hit and that's why they work there before firing her. Bonnie promises to go over his head. As she marches toward the president's office, breaking a heel on the way, Claire tries to stop her. She begs to see him. "I'm not just me. I'm also the job." Claire informs her, before feeling sorry and going in where Walter and retrieves basketballs that Griffin shoots from his spot in the president's chair. Claire tells him that Bonnie wants to see him. "Did Levy fire her?" he asks. "Looks that way," she replies. Griffin declares he can't talk to her now and gets up to head home. On the way out the door, Jan informs him that Levy is on the phone for him. He tells her to wait a few minutes then transfer it to the car. Bonnie tries to get Griffin’s attention. "Bonnie, don't worry. I know you'll kind on your feet," Mill tells her as he gets in his car. He takes the Levy call and it's a pitch from a writer, but not just any writer, one who used to sell postcards. He describes a story about a movie executive who is being threatened by a screenwriter so he kills him, only he kills the wrong guy. The twist: He gets away with it. He ends up married to the dead writer's girlfriend and it's a happy ending. Mill asks Levy to get off the line so he can talk to the writer alone. "Can you guarantee that ending?" Griffin asks. "If the price is right, you got it," the writer replies. Griffin tells him that if it's guaranteed, it's a deal and inquires about the title. "The Player," the writer answers. "The Player. I like that," Griffin says as he pulls into his driveway where a very pregnant June waits. "What took you so long?" June asks. "Traffic was a bitch," Griffin replies as he puts his arm around her and leads her into the house. Altman and Tolkin's funhouse mirror has turned back around on itself again for its final, perfect closing moment. What started in flat-out satire, ends in irony with plenty of suspense, truth and reality managing to sneak into the picture along the way. Altman couldn't live forever, but don't we deserve someone close to his daring and talent? (First one to mention Paul Thomas Anderson gets spit on.) I fear a large part of my interest in new movies somehow died the moment he did.

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Great retrospective Ed, really enjoyed it. I've always thought the subtle score of the movie enhanced the tension and stress of all the events.
I wanted to find a place to praise Thomas Newman as well especially since Altman specifically mentions that he usually knows going into a movie want he wants the music to be and tends to dislike normal, movie scores but thought Newman served it well, but I never found a good spot to slide it in.
Of course The Player is Altman's most contrived movie; do we have a disagreement on the definition of the word? It's his most carefully, knowingly, 'intelligently' plotted and planned and rounded film, as well as surely his most overrated (of those I've seen, which is about half). Of course, I don't mean it's 'bad', anymore than saying 'contrived' means 'bad', but it's a work where the cleverness and contrivance become the focus and the subject of the movie and turn it into what feels like, for me, a technical and intellectual exercise with little emotion or sympathy or characterisation of any significance...but then maybe I just generally prefer to watch a MOVIE (like The Bicycle Thief, say), rather than a 'movie about movies', one which is too busy telling you that it's a 'movie about movies' for it to just be the kind of movie that I want to watch.
There's a great moment in The Player where, after we've heard the pitch for Habeas Corpus two or three times and Larry Levy has taken control of the picture away from Griffin, he goes back to his office and explains to his secretary that it's all part of his plan, Habeas is a terrible idea for a movie "with no second act", and he's going to let Levy take the project so he can come in and rescue it later. It's a great moment, a shocking turn as the viewer had thought Griffin was losing his position with the studio and suddenly realizes just how on top of the situation he really is -- which provokes the idea that he's actually on top of the other problem in his life (the murder investigation) as well and also has a plan for surviving it.

With regard to your comment about your interest in contemporary films dying along with Mr. Altman... I must admit that I largely agree with you.
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