the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Player (1992)

The Player's Player
    Robert Altman has been very busy since Nashville was finished in 1976. He has traveled all over the map turning plays into movies: from the army base (Streamers) to little towns in Texas and the South West (Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean & Fool for Love), the forgettable stay in the White House (Secret Honor) and the equally forgettable European jaunt (Vincent & Theo). Plays aren't movies. Whether this was an epiphany or a sabbatical designed to keep the engine running is hard to figure. No more playing around. Robert Altman has returned with The Player.

    Movies are the media du mode in self-reflective, entertainment-obsessed, American society. The Player has therefore become the film of choice for filmgoers "in the know". Word on the street has Altman, an American auteur operating outside the system, creating a scathing indictment of the industry via a brilliant parody in which "the players" play themselves. It is more than "great" it is "important"; too serious to be a financial blockbuster. As Jeffrey Lyons, a critic of "The Living Section" sensibility, states "this is a film for people overly concerned with how movies are made."  Well isn't a slap from Jeffrey really a compliment? Everyone who is anyone is overly concerned with how movies are made. If only there were more people of Altman's integrity who might "tell it like it is". Confessions from con men, however, should be regarded with the utmost skepticism. A Hollywood film which purports to expose the evil doings of an insider in the movie business, a player, must be greeted with kid gloves (or a falconer's mitt). Con men and socio paths are often charming and fun and at times even brilliant. (As John Guare and David Mamet have proved). The Player shares all these characteristics but one must never forget we are dealing with a player. The danger lies not in being killed or robbed but of being taken.

    Before canonizing Altman it is important to closely evaluate the miracles. He needs three and without doubt he should be given two: M*A*S*H and Nashville. These are his masterpieces. Here institutions (the army & the country music business) are brilliantly rendered through collections of individuals. This is his strength - institutional portraits via the group. A Fred Wiseman of dramatic filmmaking. The result is the same as Wiseman's - heartfelt social satire. Altman's genius lies in his weaving together disparate groups and different levels of reality. M*A*S*H and Nashville oscillate from the serious to the absurd; from harsh reality to complete fantasy. They are driven by juxtaposition of characters and settings which keep the audience guessing and happily wandering through his mad cap worlds. To experience a good Altman movie is not to have taken in a linear story but to have visited a strange land and met the natives. When Altman stumbles it is like being at a boring party in an awful place (Buffalo Bill,The Wedding). Even at his worst, not counting those endless play-movies, Altman had an eye and ear for what people were saying and what was going on. In capturing the specific absurd incident, whether a traffic jam in Nashville or a military R&R trip during the Korean war, he spoke universally. His work is usually entertaining, often disconcerting and most importantly, well done.

    It was an exciting prospect: Altman tackling Los Angeles. The master of contemporary American social satire captures the Movie establishment. What went wrong? In short Altman abandoned himself to formulaic Hollywood filmmaking and ironically hide behind the facade of parody. Interestingly the film chronologically self destructs. It is as if Altman slowly turned the directors chair over to the scores of agents, script doctors, studio executives and movie stars who appear in the film. In the opening sequence, the director is in top form. The camera effortlessly glides over a Hollywood lot as a collection of characters goes about the business of "making movies". This is definitive Altman: revealing the essence of the Movie business through a diverse collection of people while oscillating between the absurdly funny (Buck Henry pitching the Graduate II), to the seriously funny (The Japanese taking the studio tour), to the serious (the mail carrier collapsing). It is strange to think that the same person who created one of the best film openings of all time could end this same work with hollow melodrama. Altman's defense would be the formulaic, soap opera finale and the tedious linear plot were all part of the design of the grand parody. Never forget we are dealing with a player and a smart talented one at that.

    The degree to which The Player is a parody is at the heart of the matter. I remember having a discussion with a woman from Tennessee soon after the release of Nashville. Her reaction to the film was telling:"It (Nashville the movie) is just a slick Jewish New York look at my hometown." Racism aside, her remarks reveal a significant degree of anger and defensiveness. She was oversensitive. The target of the satire was neither people in the country music business or the citizens of Nashville but America circa 1976. Career army doctors might have had the same reaction to M*A*S*H. It was certainly not the Army of "be all you can be." The point is: however stylized and unrealistic the films became, they never lost their bite; not that Altman was solely interested in biting. M*A*S*H and Nashville are too universal to be promoting narrow political agendas or cataloging social ills. Altman watched and listened to everyone and in the end told us everything. This includes things which, for politeness sake, might be better left unsaid; but what is the fun of eavesdropping on a censored conversation?

    The Player is a censored conversation. Don't let the blatant negativity and the general reprehensiveness of everything and everyone, fool you. Altman decided to climb on a soap box and preach. When players done white collars - watch out! They'll do anything to attract a congregation. Whatever they say remember: the only real sin is sitting on the bench. How do you redeem your player-status when you've been drifting in the desert of small-film, small audience limbo for so many years? How do you come back when you are worse than an unknown - you are a has-been? You do what all great players do - you play the part. They think you an outsider - you're the king of the outsiders! The system stinks. Down with the system! Altman is the cinematic Jerry Brown, the outside-insider coming clean, imploring the masses to join him in screaming "Oh the horror, Oh the horror". If you get all the inside jokes and can identify the supporting cast - all the better. We all love the speeches - but really is this for real? Can every star in Hollywood truly hate a system which created them? More likely Altman's film is the consummate insider's joke. Altman is no Sammy "the Bull". He's not a stool pigeon. He's an underboss; and a damn good one at that.

    The Player has no heroes. The murdered screenwriter, who along with the ex-girlfriend are the only people who posses some degree of integrity, is very deliberately shown to have no talent. There are hints that he might be good. He dutifully goes to watch the Bicyle Thief; his screenplay sounds somewhat intriguing. Then his friend undoes him by reading an unfinished work at his funeral. There can be no doubt; a dead, well intentioned, buffoon. At that cemetery Altman completely puts to rest any hint that the issue is the system suppressing the truly gifted in favor of the thoroughly crafty. This is a Machevelian cultural wasteland devoid of talent. The only nod at greatness comes from the obligatory nod at De Sica, Hitchcock, Bogart…. Creativity died years ago in a galaxy far far away. With the "talent" issue in the grave, what remains is hollow scoundrels and pathetic victims. Ironically with no heroes there can be no real villains. This is a cartoon and unlike Pop Eye, not a very daring one. It is the deliberate timidity which is so infuriating. Everyone dressed up but unfortunately no one really played. Altman created even what the most cynical of studio executives could never hope to achieve: an Altman parody.

    Even in the most obvious of Altman devices the master's hand seemed deliberately tied. The primary mystery character, for example: M*A*S*H had the disembodied voice on the P.A. system; in Nashville it was the unseen politician. In both cases they served the roll of linking seemingly obscure events and pulling the film forward unobtrusively. They are  familiar touchstones which the audience might return to after a strange or disquieting interlude. (A friendly stranger in the crowd - the man you see at the bus stop every morning whom you don't know but would dearly miss if he failed to appear.) The postcard writer attempts to serve this purpose in The Player. Since Altman abandoned his refreshing cinema verite approach to plot (and with it his nonsensical but masterful juxtapositions of the real and unreal) the post card writer becomes as gimmicky as Wayne's World's refrain of "NOT!". Every time a fax started clicking it was: here we go again, ha ha ha. Altman's insane artistic self-involved woman is another case in point. Geraldine Chaplin vs. Greta Saatchi. One is a multi faceted egomaniac whose eccentricities are charming. The other is a shallow bore whose expository merits are worthy of an episode of Kojak. Surely a person of Altman's talent can see the difference. He can and like the protagonist in his film he knows the only real sin is sitting on the bench.

    If Altman really tackled Hollywood would everyone be tripping over themselves for cameos? Not! Would Premiere magazine write a story giving that desperate media obsessed public tips on Hollywood lingo so they can better understand the film? Not! Would Altman have to return to the desert if he gave it his best effort? Yes. That is the real tragedy. Like the English writer who yells at the ex-girlfriend after she reprimands him for selling out: "No one at the test screening in Peroria liked the other ending! That's reality baby!". Well whether it is or is not reality Altman is guilty of the same crime. Fear of an alienating type of failure. Fear of losing the respect of the power brokers and audiences in the know. It would not have to be another Welcome to L.A.. With Altman's sensibility it would be entertaining. Unfortunately it would also be damning.

    Mr. Altman is only human. Why incur the wrath of everyone and everything and spend the rest if your days cranking out the film version of The Substance of Fire on a shoestring in upstate New York or Canada. Why not become the grand old man of integrity in the land of no integrity. Even at half speed the film will be better than most and probably the best Hollywood movie in years. Who will know? The long trip is finally coming to an end in a very comfortable place. Despite what Altman's comic book says, being a player doesn't mean you can't be good. It is, however, nearly impossible to be a Saint. That requires three miracles and so far he only has two.            

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