The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

The Player may make large grandiose assumptions about Hollywood life, but who am I to argue against its claims? What I do know is that The Player showcases Robert Altman’s stunning directorial ability and him having fun. Because throughout The Player, there isn’t a grand sense of mystery or suspense – it’s just a really funny film that highlights what Altman can do with a large cast of characters.

The title “The Player” refers to its central character, Griffin Mills (Tim Robbins). He’s a Hollywood executive who, from the onset of the film, listens to movie pitches. The scenarios are truly terrible, running the gamut of sequels to silly science-fiction. Throughout the pitches, you understand the value of sequels, the simplicity of undemanding material, and the need for stars (Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis seem to be Hollywood’s go-to-stars for insured profits). But Mills has a lot on his mind – for one, his profession is a dangerous one. Having a flop will end your career, and with a new hotshot executive named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) covering the area, Mills in on edge. To make matters worse, Mills is receiving threatening postcards from someone who pitched him an idea but never got a call back. When Mills finally discovers who is threatening him, he looks to rectify the situation. But he makes matters worse by accidentally killing the man, therein adding an extra burden to his life.

But that’s where the film takes a most interesting turn. Altman establishes that murder is an inherently evil act, but that it’s not necessarily the greatest vice one can have in the Hollywood system. No, instead, failure to provide the studio with a financially profitable film is one’s greatest offense. But if you’re a proven money maker, then you’ll be kept safe. That sensibility is remarkably effective in giving the film its dark edge. The murder virtually becomes a secondary concern for Mills, who later becomes obsessed with toppling down Larry Levy and attaining the affection of a woman named June (Greta Scacchi).

Sprinkled throughout the film are various cameos from Jack Lemmon, Elliot Gould, Anjelica Huston, Peter Falk, and others. Their appearances are done purely to establish the Hollywood setting. Part of the fun with The Player is seeing how the characters interact with the actual stars – it can be surprisingly funny.  I’ve never been too impressed with Tim Robbins’ acting ability, and found his performance here to be adequate, if unremarkable. So no singular performance stands out, but as a whole, the film exemplifies Altman as a man who knows how to use his setting and characters to astounding affect.

Rating: 8/10

Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)

Well, after a track record of nine excellent films, I was bound to come across a disappointment from Altman. Secret Honor functions primarily as a one-man play (it was, unsurprisingly, adapted from the stage), with the talented Philip Baker Hall assuming the role of Richard M. Nixon. The film takes place in his study, as Nixon recounts his life in recorded memoirs. Portraits of former presidents and his mother occupy his room, as his mental health progressively disintegrates.

My biggest problem with the film is not knowing what to make of Hall’s performance. The scenery is inhaled, thrown up, and chewed over again, as Hall overacts his way throughout the entire picture. He outlandishly vocalizes one idea while beginning a new one, never completing a thought. It’s effective in portraying Nixon as an unstable, border-line insane individual, though I can’t say that had to be the intended effect. The formal elements of Secret Honor – the foggy lens, the abrupt zooms, etc – are typical Altman. But the fact that this is so driven by one character makes me uneasy to accept this as an Altman film at all though – there’s no lingering sense of community here.

Altman does shed light on the paranoia and overriding pressure that overcame Nixon – his commitment to his mother and desire to do right are noble traits that were unfortunately misinterpreted by the public. Nonetheless, the film simply lasts for too long and becomes repetitive. Hall’s performance is an anomaly though, and worth a look.

5/10

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)

While Robert Altman made M*A*S*H as a sort of antidote to two other war films that his production company was making at the time (Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!), I actually see it as the antidote to my recent viewing of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here, rules and ethics are sidelined for common sense and a thirst for living. Whereas Col. Nicholson in Kwai was revered for his conviction to law and faith, his counterpart in chief surgeon Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) is the butt of jokes. The characters understand that Burns’ position is based on tenure, not necessarily skill, and his hard-nosed conviction to ethics comes across as pompous.

The band of hoodlums that rebel against authority figures are led by Trapper John (Elliot Gould) and Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) – the two are skilled surgeons who attempt to deal with the reality of war with humor. Duvall’s character attempts to force a level of solemnity to their surroundings. In a way, Trapper and Hawkeye contend with reality by trying to step away from it – they don’t want to get bogged down by Burns’ ethics and religiosity. What comes out of it are a series of humorous diversions, wherein the two embrace a vicarious lifestyle.

Typical Altman qualities litter the film – overlaying voices, foggy visual elements, frank depictions of gruesome activities (the surgeries here are surprisingly explicit), varied tonal shifts, etc. It’s not quite as refined as some of his other films, what with some odd comic choices here and there (the football sequence runs a bit long), but ultimately, M*A*S*H highlights how a master was beginning to refine his skill. If there’s one disappointment to come out of this film, it’s that Donald Sutherland, who managed to steal a few scenes from the impeccable Elliot Gould, never starred in another Altman film afterward.

8/10

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

I had actually tried to watch Nashville several years ago – I found the opening act to be far too chaotic to embrace, and shelved it for years. My renewed appreciation for Altman has prompted me to give this another go, and while I certainly like the film more than I had initially let on, I have to say it’s still doesn’t work nearly as well as Altman’s other films, and stands so far as his most disappointing (though still good) effort.

The film functions as a commemoration of country music while analyzing southern mentality. It’s fairly effective at this, which prompts the question – why didn’t I love it? The problem may stem from the rather under-written nature of its situations and characters. Screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury has so many characters for us to follow, allowing so few of them to actually resonate. There are a few recognizable faces here and there, but their sense of aimlessness within the narrative framework begins to become aggravate, particularly given the long runtime.

What I appreciate about Nashville, however, are the Altman-esque production qualities. In particular, the sound design is typical Altman – various people speak and step over each other’s words, therein demanding attention. Certain performances were especially noteworthy - Ronee Blakley as a waitress who is misinformed about her singing ability has an achingly sad effect. Keith Carradine’s role is noteworthy, less in the sense that his character is fully dimensional (which it wasn’t) but moreso for the music that Carradine wrote for his character – it serves to summate the emotional tone of the entire film.

My own personal prejudice may hinder my reading for the film –I simply don’t care for country music. But despite that, I’ve done my best to analyze the film objectively – both as a critique of southern mores as well as another film in Altman’s oeuvre.

7/10

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

How many directors have comparative runs like Altman in the 70s? From McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to The Long Goodbye, to Thieves Like Us to California Split, the man produced so many fantastic films in such a limited time. And as I’ve given California Split the chance to soak into my consciousness, I think the film may be my favorite of his. The story told is a simple one: two men wander through their existence with little to their name. It is through gambling that they form a bond. Their relationship carries its share of homoerotic undertones, but in large part, their aim is simple – they seek to make as much money as possible. They have their highs and their lows, and their luck in the game is directly connected to their own ups and downs in their relationship. The film enters “masterpiece” status by its end, largely due to how its ending resonates. The mundanity of the world is impossible to escape, but it’s through a meaningful relationship that one is able to make sense of the world. In one of the darker endings I’ve seen, California Split serves to perpetuate the idea that a meaningful relationship means something different to the parties involved.

The film has subtle differences from other Altman films, largely in its production and sound design. Dialogue, which at times is still layered over other discussions, is much more clear and easier to understand. Los Angeles is framed as a gritty and unforgiving place, and feels like the sort of place that Thomas Pynchon writes about in Inherent Vice. And like Pynchon’s novel, there’s a lingering anxiety about the future in California Split. A future where everything rides on a bet.

10/10