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Quiet on the set: Breaking down the opening shot in Altman’s The Player

”Quiet on the set,” are the first words we hear in the opening of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and instantly we know that we’re witnessing something that seems rare, and seldom heard of  by those outside the film industry. We have essentially crossed the line, glimpsing behind the ‘curtain’ and witnessing the ‘great Oz himself’. At first, one wonders whether this is a mistake and that perhaps this footage hasn’t been edited out of the final film, but this is our first indication of the film’s self-awareness and the concept of it being a reflection on the industry. As former Ebert.com editor Jim Emerson discusses “The opening shot establishes the film as a self-reflexive deconstruction of the Hollywood system and those who run it.”

The camera is focused on a painting depicting a silent film set, which is done in a 1920s Art Deco style, immortalizing the past glory years of Hollywood. There is a hierarchy contained in the painting, and this is what we will see unfolding in the rest of the opening sequence, the hierarchy of Hollywood and struggle to stay at the top. By opening with the shot of the clapboard and the call to action, Altman is already making the viewer aware that this is a film about film, and as discussed in an interview with Charlie Rose The Player is “a film about itself.”

The slow steady zoom out from the picture reveals to us of our location, we are in the offices of a film studio. A receptionist answers the phone, telling the caller that the studio head Levison is out of office, only to be immediately told off when she hangs up “Never say that…he is always in.” Hollywood has to make out that they are always ‘in’ and that they are always working, New York is not the only city that never sleeps. We slowly move out of the interior of the office, as the assistant is sent off to find someone, the camera zooms out to reveal the studio backlot.

The camera has retracted so far, that it becomes a high angle shot, with us peering down. At this height we almost feel like God, witnessing the actions of mankind and passing on our judgement. It is a clever way for the audience to feel like they are superior to the characters that are appearing on-screen. As discussed by Jennifer van Sijll in Cinematic Storytelling ”the high-angle shot makes the subject appear small and vulnerable” which is the opposite persona that these characters are trying to present to their peers.

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We see Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) pull into his parking space, and get out of his Range Rover, punched upon immediately an over eager screenwriter who is trying to pitch his latest project. Before we even get a formal introduction to Griffin, we know everything about him. From the way he is dressed in his suit, with his slick back hair and shades he looks like a sleazy ‘yuppie’ type. And from his body language, his hand in his pocket and the other firmly holding his briefcase, he comes across as hostile, egoistic but most of all he appears confident.

As discussed by Susan Krauss Whitbourne (a professor in Psychological and brain sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst) by ”making a confident entrance can influence how you’re perceived in those first moments after you enter your own stage.” Not only is Griffin making his entrance at his place of work, but he is making his entrance to the audience, and therefore must appear in control of his life. First impressions certainly count in the world of show business, and the twenty-second pitch. In fact, a study conducted by Psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz discovered that it only takes a tenth of a second to form a judgment about another person’s character.

The camera continues to follow both Griffin and the screen-writer as the studio executive makes his way towards his office, the camera is placed back at a safety distance so we see a mid-long shot of the two actors. The use of this shot helps show the audience the distance between the two characters. The dialogue exchanged here is highly amusing, as the writer explains his film is a science fiction one set on a planet with two suns, which Griffin replies back with the question ”who is playing the sons?” It’s all about the big names that they can get attached to the project. As Altman revealed in an interview, he decided to use Hollywood as a metaphor for greed, and to show we worship these false idols they simply make a lot of money.

As Griffin dismisses the screen-writer and enters his office, he passes two men who are leaving the office and we follow them briefly as they discuss the opening shots in films. The older man comments on how editing in films is now like MTV ”cut, cut, cut” as he puts it, and mentions how the opening shot to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil was one single take. When asked about this ‘meta conversation’ between these two men, Altman replied with the comment, ”I’m shoving this film in your face, I’m making fun of myself” The use of this metadrama in The Player is effective as it asks us to question the construction of filmmaking and the act of storytelling, without coming across as pretentious or smug.

As the business man explains, “Orson Welles set up the entire picture in one shot.” which is occurring here in this opening. When establishing an opening, it is vital to establish the setting of the film, the main players, the main narrative and the film’s themes/genre. This is what Altman manages to achieve here, just like Welles did with Touch of Evil. As screen-writer Ken Miyamoto states, “the best moments of the film must engage us…and we must feel the need to continue on.” With the camera and action constantly moving on and the narrative developing, we are encouraged to carry on investing our time and attention with this story.

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As the two characters walk out of the shot, the camera zooms in onto the window of Griffin’s office, where we peer in on the pitch that is taking place. Now we are forced into the role of the voyeur listening to pitches from behind Mill’s window, crouched beneath a plant. This is quite a jarring effect, as usually film spectators are being pulled to engage in voyeurism along with the lead character, however the main character of The Player is Griffin and we haven’t had a chance to see his POV. Again, the concept of the film being self-aware is reestablished, and Altman reinforces the idea of the illusion being pulled back to reveal the ugly truth to the filmmaking process.

In the three short pitches we spy on, we discover Hollywood’s fondness for familiarity. The first film pitched is a sequel to the 1967 classic The Graduate, which seems to be bizarre comedy as Ms. Robinson has had a stroke and can’t talk, which Griffin questions about whether strokes can be funny only to be assured strokes can be funny. The writer carries on to say that there’s a new graduate, a daughter…a ‘Julia Roberts’ type of character. Griffin is interested, Julia Roberts is hot property.

Outside Griffin’s office there is an important plot point happening,  the page, Jimmy, is involved in a crash, with a golf cart which sends a box of letter spilling to the ground. Griffin’s girlfriend and Adam Simon rush over to help, and the camera follows. The camera is less interested in the health of the page, but a postcard on the ground. It reads, “Your Hollywood is Dead,” and features images of legends such as Charlie Chaplin, but what does this mean and who is the intended recipient of the postcard? As the page is helped up to is feet, the back lot continues as normal, with a man chatting up a pretty starlet and tour being led through.

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As the camera follows the tour, still walking around, our attention is drawn to a car pulling in. Joel, the studio head, has arrived. He enters the main office, as a group of three people walk out discussing how ‘heads will roll’ and someone is going to be let go from the studio…that person is Griffin. We know the fate of the main character before he does and now we return to being the voyeur spying through his office window again, smug in our knowledge that we have the upper hand here. During this spying session we hear another high concept film pitch (”Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa”) and the plot sounds ridiculous, but Goldie Hawn is attached to the project, and she is hot property.

The camera grows tired of peeking through the window and we follow the screen-writer from the start of the scene as he rides his bike, being stopped by none other than Martin Scorsese who is asking for directions. This combination of fantasy and fact creates a mixed reality, and Altman is asking us to question what is occurring on-screen, again Altman respects his audience and allows us to reach our own conclusions as whether this film is meant to be set in our universe.

The scene ends with Griffin listening to a pitch of a political thriller (”It’s like Manchurian Candidate meets Ghost”) which is cynical but funny with a heart in the right spot. Bruce Willis is attached, and he is hot property. The camera moves upwards, and closer as Griffin is handed his post. There is a further zoom in so we are peering over his shoulder as he examines the postcard he has been handed, the same we saw only a couple of minutes earlier. Griffin flips the postcard over and we see a message, “I hate your guts asshole.” who has sent him such an abusive message? The scene ends as the writer mentions that in a poltical thriller someone always dies at the end, Griffin looks over his shoulder and the camera backs away. He is now aware that he is being watched.

What makes this opening shot work is a combination of different aspects. Firstly, the score by Thomas Newman which creates the noir/mystery vibe to the film and set the atmosphere. There’s a quirkness to the music, which helps to match the pace of the camera movement. The music seems traditional but also contemporary, reflecting the current condition of the industry at that point of time, Hollywood has always been a step behind with the themes and values of society.

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Secondly, the cinematography by Jean Lépine works to great effect in showing us the world and keeping the audience engaged with the drama. The reason why the long take works to great effect here is that it allows the viewer to get comfortable with the scene and absorb every detail they see. It is worth mentioning that every time you watch this opening you notice something new, which of course is a perfect way to ensure repeat viewings.

The script by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it from his novel, also works well to make this opening so noteworthy. A great opening must engage, entertain and inform, without being bogged down by too much exposition. Tolkin cleverly introduces us to the main characters and the main narrative but weaves in side plots and characters without forcing them onto us. The writing flows, to match the camera movement and the action unfolding on-screen. The strength of the opening is the sheer fact that it knows it’s ambitious and doesn’t over-extend to the point where it becomes too unbelievable.

The end result is that Altman manages to create such a strong, impressionable and effective opening that it deserves to be studied, analysed and admired in great depth. There’s more I could discuss but already this is one of the longest pieces that I have written for Filmotomy, however there’s something wonderful about going through a certain scene with a fine tooth comb. Altman cleverly grabs our attention and hold onto it for eight whole minutes, a marvel considering how short our attention spans have become. It is certainly one of the best openings to a film I have ever encountered. When someone decalres, “Quiet on set” you better follow their instruction, especially if it’s Robert Altman giving that command!

 

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One Comment

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