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The Player: A Postmodern Morality Play
Reinhold Dooley

In a recent press conference Woody Allen defended himself against charges of child molestation, and thus implicitly defended the morality of his affair with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, the child for whom Allen acted as father figure for 12 years. Framed by the TV screen, this event played like an out-take of Manhattan. It had the "real life" texture of Zelig. It also displayed the metaphysical confusion of Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a fictional character steps out from the film into the real world. As in earlier days when Reagan blurred the line between Hollywood and reality, Allen appeared more like a fictional, cinematic character, than a real person.

In this bizarre episode we see a blurring of the lines between the "actual" historical real and the cinematic real and a concomitant blurring of distinctions between the moral and immoral. This blurring is symptomatic of postmodernism, which erases distinctions by undermining all absolutes and foundations.

Specifically, postmodernism rejects the linguistic theology which assumes a referent or "real" existing prior to language. "There is nothing outside the text," states Jacques Derrida, by which he means, among other things, that there is no world or reality which we can talk about which is not itself a text. There is nothing beyond or behind language. Rather than directing us to the real, language is tropic; it only takes us to more language. It keeps us at the surface level of meaning because there are no depths of meaning to plumb; there is nothing below language. Linguistically speaking, this means there is no foundational meaning to language, only the radical plurality and play of unresolvable indeterminacies. In theological terms there is no grounding author or authority who underwrites the real or who gives authenticity to identity and validity to morality.

It is within this context of postmodern theory that Robert Altman's latest film, The Player offers itself up as a morality play for our times. In a variation of Derrida, The Player suggests that "there is nothing outside the film." It suggests (somewhat exaggeratedly, of course) that in American culture of which Hollywood is a microcosm, there is no reality beyond the cinematic, beyond the surface of film. There is no reality which is not interfused with the qualities and values of what I shall call the "cinematic reel." (Note: For the sake of brevity I conflate all media— TV, advertising, movies—under the rubric of the "cinematic reel.")

The Allen incident is a particularly blatant example of how utterly interfused and imbricated American culture is with the cinematic. It is necessarily a more subtle interweaving of spectacle and reality that we find in the general population. But it is not my purpose to document instances of this cultural phenomenon beyond its manifestation in Altman's film. (See the work of Jean Baudrillard who has shown how the media has constructed western cultural reality by replacing it with an imaginary hyperreality.)

Altman's movie is typical of the thriller genre in that it involves murder and suspense. But, significantly, the murdered person in this instance is an author of screenplays and his murderer is a Hollywood executive who suspects the writer of sending anonymous threatening postcards. And atypical of the genre, the executive, Griffin Mill, actually gets away with cold-blooded murder. Furthermore, in a quintessential "happy ending," he gets the dead writer's girl as well.

The movie is set in Hollywood, the epitome of the cinematic reel. As such it crystallizes the theoretical point that "there is nothing outside the film": the Hollywood which the film is supposed to represent is itself already film-like. There is a redundancy in making a film about Hollywood because it is always already all show and showpeople. An expose of the "real Hollywood" would reveal only tinsel behind the tinsel of Tinseltown. At one point Mill pleads, "Can't we talk about something other than Hollywood?" But he immediately breaks into resigned laughter: for these Hollywood insiders there is nothing outside of Hollywood. The ever-conspicuous motto of Mill's studio reads, "Movies, now more than ever."

Even for those outside the business, the Hollywood simulacrum supersedes the real. When Mill is taken in as a murder suspect, a witness notes with amazement that her real-life experience of the police lineup is just like TV. It is only the similarity to the mediated version of reality which makes the event real to her. Her experience of reality has been constructed by the cinematic reel.

The difficulty of establishing what is truly outside the film, is suggested by the desire to use "real" people in the movies. When pitching his script to Mill, a British screenwriter insists on casting "real" people in his film Habeas Corpus. His overzealous agent surreptitiously interjects the name "Brace Willis" for the lead role. The distinction between the real and reel fails here. The screenwriter's "real" people are actors, after all; while Bruce Willis, though an actor, is nonetheless "real."

Even the cameo appearances which seem to point outward toward a grounding reality are problematic. After seeing cameos of at least 60 stars, we are taken aback when we initially encounter Whoopi Goldberg holding an Oscar in her hand. We mistake her for herself when in "actuality" she is a police officer interrogating Mill. The cameo itself as a device leads us to question what it means to act as oneself, to play oneself. When Bruce Willis finally appears in the Hollywood production of "Habeas Corpus," there is some difficulty in "producing the body"; for his appearance is a cameo of himself playing himself as his persona playing a character in a movie. As Altman's title suggests, in the real and the cinematic reel, everyone is a player.

Of course, no one is more of a player in this movie than Griffin Mill. Figuratively, he is a player in the Hollywood game of power and prestige. Throughout the film he plays his social role scrupulously: he dresses the part, drives the proper car, drinks the appropriate designer waters from correct glassware. As the movie progresses he very convincingly acts the part of an innocent man. However, he is also a player in a literal sense in that he is an actor in a film. In the opening shot of The Player, as credits roll, we view a scene marker which states "Scene 1, take 10." The film is actually a movie within a movie. At the conclusion we discover that Mill has produced a movie called The Player, the very movie we have just watched. His life has been grist for his own Hollywood mill. He is a player in both the real and the reel. This is recognized at least twice in the film. Imitating a player from the movie Freaks, one of the police challenges Mill's real status, taunting him with the chant "one of us, one of us." Kahane too identifies Mill as an unreal player, stating, "See you in the next reel."

Postmodern life, The Player reveals, is cinematic. Like the actual strip of film, it is all surface, transparent, depthless, capable of projecting life-like but nonetheless insubstantial images. Rather than being a convenient vehicle for the expression of the real, film, it turns out, is itself the real, and the only real there is. Nothing authentic underlies film or exists beyond film. In the postmodern world real people are actually players; real things are only simulacra, mere representations of an imaginary real.

In postmodern terms, The Player establishes that the universe we live in is emphatically not "logocentric." Derrida describes logocentrism as the Western metaphysics which professes an ultimate referent, a self-certifying absolute foundation beyond the play of language which is able to fix determinate meanings. Historically, God has been acknowledged as the Logos, the fixed center and the guarantor of the validity of language.

The postmodern condition results from a loss of God as the author of the word and the world. In a linguistic echo of Nietzsche, it declares what Roland Barthes calls the "death of the author." Without the author as arbiter of a text's meaning (or the world's), we are left with a never-ending proliferation of discrepant meanings. We are left with radical undecidability as all readings become defensible. It is precisely this postmodern phenomenon, the death of the author and its resulting anarchy, that is enacted in Altman's morality play.

The desire for independence from the author is expressed by Larry Levy, a studio executive vying for Mill's position. He argues that screenwriters are too expensive, he questions their creative ability, and suggests that their originality is undesirable. He denounces them as ultimately superfluous. To his rhetorical question "Who wrote the ending of Fatal Attraction?" he answers "the audience." Using an apt religious trope, he rejects authors, stating "I never saw a writer who could change water to wine."

Mill, of course, has actually enacted this desire for autonomy by murdering the screenwriter, Kahane. Pursuing Levy's unwitting association of the author with THE Author—God, we discover that Mill is a diminutive version of Lucifer. Thus, within the theological and theoretical allegory of this morality play Mill has nullified the diadic economy of origins/originality, author/authority, creator/creativity. He has figuratively initiated the postmodern age.

Furthermore, like the vulturous griffin whose name he bears, he preys on the dead, usurping the murdered writer's lover, June. In an act of Freudian rebellion, he reenacts the oedipal event, killing the authoritarian father and seducing the mother. As a result of these violations he is loosed from the law of the father, from author and authority. Both he and June become their own points of origin, radically free to create their own world, and to interpret their own morality. Mill rightly describes June, and himself by extension, as a "pragmatic anarchist." They rationalize that "If you don't suffer, then it wasn't a crime." And Mill suffers neither remorse (both he and June are described as heartless) nor at the hands of the law, because he gets away with the murder. In the absence of the Author as external, transcendent arbiter of morality, there is no need for moral discernment. In this film, distinctions are made between designer waters rather than crimes and misdemeanors.

The final scene depicts a smiling Mill hugging his pregnant wife amidst a profusion of flowers, in front of their mansion, with an American flag blowing in the breeze. Is it the American dream come true? Is it a happy ending? Or is it meant to be ironic? In the absence of an author it is difficult to tell. But this is a morality play I have asserted. And in fact The Player resurrects both the author and moral authority. The author actually never died. As it turns out, Mill murdered the wrong writer. The actual writer of poison pen letters ultimately returns to blackmail Mill. The demand is that he produce the movie which the blackmailer calls The Player.

But this is not the true return of the author, for the blackmailer's power is tentative and does not dismay Mill in the least, and rather than condemn the "happy" ending, it ensures it. Rather, the authentic author has been with us the entire film. It is Altman himself. He is the grounding author, the moral authority, who announces himself in the opening shot of the film and is an abiding and critical presence throughout. Altman, who is literally introduced in the credits, preserves the leader footage with the scene marker in it and thus blatantly asserts his very real authorial and authoritative presence behind the camera and throughout the film. It is thus his movie which frames Mill's and serves as a stinging comment and rebuke of Mill, Hollywood, and postmodernism. And it is Altman, not Mill, who gets the last laugh. Dubbed over the picture-perfect ending and undercutting its "happiness," we hear the ironic and scornful jeer: na-nee na-nee nah-nah.

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