Movie Producer Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins): So what’s your pitch?
Screenwriter (screenwriter and director Alan Rudolph playing a character named Alan Rudolph): Does political scare you?
Mill: Political doesn’t scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.
Screenwriter: This is politely politically radical.
Mill: Is it funny?
Screenwriter: It’s funny.
Mill: It’s a funny political thing.
Screenwriter: It’s funny. It’s a thriller too.
Mill: So what’s the story?
Screenwriter: Well, I want Bruce Willis. I think I can talk to him. It’s a story about a senator, a bad guy senator, at first---
Mill: I see, so it’s sort of a cynical political thriller comedy.
Screenwriter: Yeah, but it’s got a heart. In the right spot. Anyway, he has an accident.
Mill: An accident?
Screenwriter: Yeah. And he becomes clairvoyant. Like a psychic.
Mill: Oh! I see! It’s kind of a psychic political comedy. With a heart.
Screenwriter: With a heart.
Robert Altman: I put Cynthia Stevenson in the hot but with Tim because she’s not the girl Hollywood usually asks to take her shirt off. When he saw the movie, Paul Newman told me, I get it. You don’t get to see the tits you want to see. You see the ones you don’t want to see”…
Paul Newman: There was a more important point in that movie, I thought. Tim Robbins’ character was talking to this young woman on a cell phone and he was watching her while he was talking to her and moving in closer. It was just the most frightening scene in the world, to realize that you could be observed in your most private place. And of course it raises the specter of all those questions of privacy which are now becoming paramount and the technology we have today. Just a little hint. Yeah, it certainly wasn’t about nudity, it was about how accessible everybody is. It’s spooky.
---from the chapter on The Player in Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff.
My father was watching a movie on television late one night. He’d come across it while channel-surfing and had missed the opening credits. It was a weird movie, full of characters talking at cross-purposes and moving around a lot without actually seeming to say or do anything that moved the story along. In fact, there seemed to be no story. My father was baffled for a while, but then there came a shot of a character interacting with the reflection of another character in a window pane. “Oh,” my father said to himself in an ah-ha moment of realization, “It’s a Robert Altman movie.”
It was A Wedding, and by that point in his career when he directed that one, 1978, shooting characters through windows and reflected in windows and in mirrors had become Altman’s signature. He’d made a whole movie about reflections. In a movie a reflection is as real and solid as the actual image the faces and bodies reflected, because the opposite is true, the images are as transient and ephemeral and insubstantial as the reflections. Both are just tricks of light. Which is not a profound observation and not the point anyway.
The point is that what we’re looking at matters because we’re looking at it. What we see is defined by how we see it. Also not a profound observation, but it’s a trenchant lesson for anyone who wants to make movies.
Movies of course are meant to be looked at, but they’re often not made to be looked at closely. What’s put up on the screen is there to distract the eye, not draw it in. We’re not meant to notice that what we’re looking at usually isn’t worth taking the trouble to watch because we’ve watched it a hundred times before in umpteen numbers of movies and TV shows.
The scene in Newman was talking about in The Player is as spooky and foreboding as he says, although I was more frightened on Tim Robbins’ character’s behalf because even though he’s the spy and Greta Scacchi plays the spied upon, the one whose privacy is being violated, Robbins is the one taking the risk of being caught, that is, exposed.
But the scene is constructed from dozens of beautiful images. The room Scacchi’s character, a painter and collage artist, is working in glows with the soft, watery blueness of her paintings and that blue is deepened and warmed where it reflects in the window panes. It’s pretty, but it’s importance isn’t revealed until a few scenes later when the effect is re-created in a movie Robbins and his fellow movie studio types are watching or, really, not watching but sort of looking at as they focus on the business of getting this movie and a bunch of others made. They don’t want to have to watch and it’s a point in the movie’s favor that they don’t have to watch it to know what’s going on.
Neither do we.
It’s a scene from a movie that’s instantly recognizable as yet another version of the kind of hard-boiled detective movie Hollywood cranks out the way McDonald’s does cheeseburgers with the same relation to the art of storytelling as those cheeseburgers have to the art of cooking. We can tell ourselves the whole movie from the three lines of dialog we’re given. The only thing about this scene that distinguishes it from any number of scenes like it in any number of other movies is that the two characters are played by Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin and the prettiness of the lighting doesn’t change the fact that they are delivering performances that are as cliched as the seedy hotel room whose glowing blue window we’re looking at them through.
In this kind of movie thriller movie stars have the same function as pretty or tricky cinematography, to give the audience some reason to think they’re seeing something new and different.
Altman’s whole career was devoted to giving the audience something actually different to see.
And, just to be cheeky, he followed that scene from a “fake” movie with a scene of his own that begins with a shot of Tim Robbins seen from a long way off through the glass doors of a hotel lobby.
And we’re back to Newman’s point about our vulnerability to the gaze of strangers’, as good as any starting place for tonight’s discussion, although feel free to start any place you want.
Extra butter on the popcorn for whoever ties any of this in with my post from this morning about Don DeLillo as a movie maker.
Friday morning: Called it a night around 11:30, but the comment thread’s still open and discussion’s ongoing. Feel free to add your thoughts to this thread or the ones on California Split and Thieves Like Us anytime.
Next week’s feature: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson.
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