By 1992, Robert Altman was persona non grata, a once-heralded director whose career was so far off the Hollywood map that he hadn’t had a proper theatrical release since 1980’s admittedly odd live-action version of Popeye (which, for the record, was a modest hit despite its reputation as a bomb).
Altman had always been an unlikely fit in a studio system that had little patience for those willing to push the creative envelope. Besides M*A*S*H — the surprise 1970 smash that kick-started his career and spawned an iconic TV show he didn’t appreciate — Altman’s ’70s movies didn’t make much money. His idiosyncratic visions set him apart as an artist but eventually alienated him from a business that favors the bottom line above all else. The fact that several of those were among the best and most fascinating movies of the decade (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville and 3 Women) was besides the point.
Who better, then, to take on The Player, the 1992 movie adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s satirical novel about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a slick Hollywood studio executive, Griffin Mill (played by a never-better Tim Robbins), who’s constantly looking over his shoulder? (The Criterion Collection in May released a new 4K digital restoration on a Blu-ray edition.)
Sure enough, Altman brought his signature style to a production that was “a movie about movies, and we did it the way they do movies,” the late director said in a 1993 interview that is among the many special features included in the Criterion release. The Player’s eight-minute uninterrupted opening shot was exhibit A — overlapping dialogue from multiple characters (including famous actors playing themselves) delivered in a seemingly offhand, lifelike manner and visuals marked by zooms, pans and intuitive camera movements.
The opening at once called attention to itself and came off like a matter-of-fact documentary, as if the camera was capturing real people engaged in real conversations.
It’s a multilayered approach Altman used to incisive and often amusing effect throughout The Player, which simultaneously riffed on classic Hollywood noirs and commented on the way studios decide what movies get made and why.
The Player, which was a critical favorite and ironically made a significant profit, put Altman back on the map, ushering in the third and final chapter of his singular career.
“You know, the film of mine that had the least audience was McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Altman told me when I interviewed him for CityBeat for his final film, 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion. “Thanks to DVD replays and tape and all that, people can see my older films now, and most of them have endured, which pleases me to no end.”
Add The Player to the many that have endured.
A spiritual cousin of sorts to The Player, Terrence Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups (Broad Green), might be the mysterious director’s most abstract effort yet. Released in theaters back in March to little fanfare and mixed (at best) reviews, Knight of Cups is nonetheless one of Malick’s most cohesive and emotionally involved efforts in a beguiling career that seems as if it’s entering a new phase.
The narrative is almost nonexistent in a conventional sense.
It follows a wayward Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (played by Christian Bale), through a series of interludes with the various people in his life — from distraught family members to women in different states of disrobement to famous actors seemingly playing themselves (Antonio Banderas).
Dialogue is sparse and/or muted. When people do speak, it’s in poetic terms, snatches that give viewers an idea but never overtly tell them what to make of the events unspooling before their eyes.
Knight of Cups is not for everyone, but for those willing to let its gauzy pleasures wash over them, it’s a sensory-altering experience unlike just about anything Hollywood has produced. ©