Sunday, July 19, 2015
(April 1992, U.S.)
Robert Altman's THE PLAYER was interestingly timed in my life as it was released in 1992 at a time when my college education for architecture was starting to come to an end and I was also just starting to come into my own in terms of my screenwriting abilities. With these abilities, I was also slowly learning about what it took to pitch and sell a screenplay in Hollywood, at least in terms of how books, classes and even the movies were explaining it to me. Like anything else in life, everyone has their own opinion and theory about how certain things should be done and sold in the movie business. Different authors of different "how to" books will tell you different things and different professors and instructors of different classes will also tell you different things. So what's the end result? The end result is it's all bullshit and it's almost completely about who you know and how much luck you achieve. This is why, I suppose, more than twenty years later I did, in fact, end up a miserable architect and not a professional screenwriter, as I'd always dreamed. Hey, but at least I tried, dammit, and I continue to try to this day!
(Sorry, I'm digressing into my own pissed-off attitudes about life)!
And so, as part of my education into Hollywood through the movies, THE PLAYER showed me a character in the form of Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins), a Hollywood studio executive whose job it is to listen to pitches of stories from screenwriters and decide whether or not they have the potential to make good movies and get green-lit into production. Frankly, before this film, I had no idea that such a position existed in the movie business and I couldn't help but wonder if it was a rather useless justification of ones paycheck. At the same time, I couldn't help but consider just how easy the concept seemed in theory - pitch a story, pitch it well and the executive listening to you will (hopefully) like it and you'll get your movie made. Sure, that's what the ignorant New York architect-to-be thinks because he really doesn't have a fucking clue just how cold, cruel and even corrupt things can be out there in "La-La" movie land! As a film viewer, however, it's easy to recognize the parody of cynicism that Altman brings to his story based on his own career in dealing with the Hollywood system and working outside of it for many years. However, rather than over-preach the injustices of the Hollywood community, Altman clearly chooses to invoke satire with not only the cameo appearance of many popular movie stars and celebrities of the time, but also in the rather naughty cat-and-mouse fun involved with murder and getting away with murder. Griffin is a seemingly all-around nice guy in his business, but the business has also unavoidably turned him into an asshole at times and he has managed to make enemies along the way by repeatedly telling screenwriters that he will "get back to them" and then never does. Those in the business likely know that such a line is crap and is simply a polite disguise for "forget it" and "no chance in Hell". One writer, however, chooses to retaliate against such industry lies and repeatedly sends Griffin death threats on post cards. Fearing for his life and trying to resolve the situation, Griffin tracks down the writer in Pasadena, California at an art house movie theater showing Vittorio De Sica's THE BICYCLE THIEF, which I believe is thrown into the story as such to perhaps combat the onslaught of mainstream Hollywood crap that the public is constantly exposed to and to also remind us of the art house film essentials we should never forget exist. As expected, he encounters David Kahane (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) at the theater, a screenwriter who's also pissed off at Griffin for the reasons I explained above and is also, by strange chance, NOT the one who's been sending Griffin the post cards (coincidence is a bitch, though, ain't it!). Heated words leads to a physical confrontation that inevitably leads to Kahane's (accidental) murder. Accident or not, however, Griffin flees the scene after making it look like a common robbery. He's guilty and we know he's guilty, but the question is now, will he get caught? Perhaps because of his occasional (and more frequent) asshole nature, we want him to get caught. But we also know that this is Hollywood, where corruption and cover-ups can be just as common as that in big corporate business and the Mafia! Like Hitchcock and many of the crime classics of the age (look for the symbolic black and white film noir movie posters that occupy Griffin's office), our protagonist goes to great lengths to cover up his crime and as we watch matters progress, we can't help but feel that same desire for acquittal and freedom from suspicion. You see, Altman, while having a great heap of fun with this story, is clearly implying just how ugly Hollywood is in this story and in reality, as well, and from that ugliness, we know and even accept that Griffin Mill will not only get away with murder, but also gladly step on any toes and graves to achieve and keep what he wants in this business of movies. While he may preach the good work of producing meaningful films by the new John Hustons, Orson Welles' and Frank Capras of the 1990s, in the end, he knows all too well how to sell his soul for the typical upbeat, happy Hollywood ending of his latest project in order to achieve the much-needed weekend Hollywood bucks and keep things running peaceful and smooth within the studio community that he has long embraced and survived.
And so, returning to my own life's hopes as a screenwriter, I can only say that as as East Coast outsider, I have seen and experienced my own small share of inside industry crap that had made Hollywood so infamous. I've pitched stories, I've written countless letters to movie agents according to the exact rules that all these bullshit books tell you to follow and I even attended a weekend Hollywood Pitch Festival back in 2000 in which I was also repeatedly told, "I'll get back to you." Not that I ever believed that line for a minute, but for one weekend of my life, I had a great deal of fun and made some new friends. Still, looking at things the way they are today, in which only those who seem capable of writing and directing stories of comic book heroes capable of generating endless franchises are the ones who are ever going to get their movies made...well, perhaps the unavoidable conclusion is that someone like me, someone who's tried to write simpler and more meaningful stories, will never find a place in the movie place. But I'll keep trying, dammit...at least I can say I'll keep on trying!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Writer (on the car phone): "Hi, Griff. Remember me? I'm the asshole who used to be in the postcard business!"
Griffin Mill: "You?"
Writer: "Yeah, that's right. The king of suspense himself. You remember me?"
Griffin: "I haven't heard from you in a while."
Writer: "Well, I've been busy. I've been writing a script. I got inspired."
Larry Levy (on the car phone): "Give him the pitch. You'll love this, Griffin! It's great!"
Writer: "All right, it's a Hollywood story, Griff. A real thriller! It's about a shit-bag producer studio exec who murders a writer he thinks is harassing him. Problem is, he kills the wrong writer! Now he's got to deal with blackmail as well as the cops. But here's the switch. The son of a bitch, he gets away with it!"
Griffin: "Larry, get off the speaker. I wanna talk privately."
Larry: "Sure thing. This is a winner, Griffin! It's a winner!"
Griffin (to the writer): "He gets away with it?"
Writer: "Absolutely! It's a Hollywood ending, Griff. He marries the dead writer's girl and they live happily ever after."
Griffin: "Can you guarantee that ending?"
Writer: "If the price is right, you got it!"
griffin: "If you can guarantee me that ending, you got a deal."
Writer: "I guarantee it, Griff!"
Griffin: "What do you call this thing anyway?"
Writer: "The Player."
Griffin: "The Player. I like that."