One of the best and most brilliant films of the 1990’s seems to be slipping from its rightful spot atop the heap of the decade. I’m talking about 1992’s The Player. Starring Tim Robbins amid a cast of thousands of players both in character and as themselves, it revitalized the career of master filmmaker Robert Altman, and it’s arguably his best.
The Player itself is sort of the Finnegan’s Wake of film. I won’t bother with a detailed synopsis – it’s a masterpiece that is unspoilable because it’s a film about film itself. In the most broad sense, it’s about a studio executive who receives death threats from a disgruntled writer. As he tries to figure out who’s behind the intrigue, he gets embroiled in an accidental death, a femme fatale, Kafkaesque paranoia, and riffs every cliché in the noir cannon.
But the film is far more than generic fare as time and again the characters point to the fact that they themselves are in a story, wrapped inside a narrative. The audience is told again and again that we are not to believe what we are seeing and hearing, that the narrative itself, its narrative logic, is a construction of typical Hollywood tropes. Despite all this, it still holds up as a mystery. But The Player isn’t a whodunit, and guarantees no easy answers by the end. It toys with audience expectation expertly, showing that the true Player is the film itself. It is we who are being played.
What The Player is able to do is hold up the formal structure of a story without actual content. It anticipates the audience holds that form together in their minds. Whether innate and archetypal, or structurally etched into our minds by years of Aristotelian plotting and three-act structure, the form of story itself is most of the battle creating story.
Something about this semi-deconstructive understanding of the story form was brewing in the postmodernist turns of the 1990s. The most popular shows were functionally either about nothing, like Seinfeld, or a paranoid nothing, like The X-Files – which teased us that the truth was out there all the while undermining any assertion of truth, or the attainability of truth.
The 1990s also brought us Blues Traveler, whose 1994-recorded song “The Hook” is about its own poetic structure and nothing besides. But it’s the structure of the song itself that is catchy, not the meaningless lyrics. It’s not a totally strange revelation, as we enjoy songs in foreign languages all the time. “The Hook” understands this, and exposes our longing with our own language, while deepening it with a catchy tune and a three-act song structure. It’s brilliant.
It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel I’ll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection
But I’ve said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
And it don’t matter who you are
If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks
Because the hook brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely
– “The Hook” by Blues Traveler, 1994
The expectation of formal structure is so strong that the we are pulled in two directions. On the one had, we claim to want something new and innovative. We want surprises. Paradoxically, we also want something familiar. The popularity of reboots, remakes, sequels and spin-offs is not only studio laziness and shortcutting. We like the old familiar tropes and want to listen to the old songs. We crave the old flavors. It fills us with nostalgic longing, revisitimg old shows like a family reunion.
I claim that the final season of Game of Thrones is dividing audiences along these lines. The series features a mixture of familiar tropes from mythology and history, yet with blurred lines of morality, likability, and shocking twists. Yet despite all the deaths and the glaring warnings throughout its run that no life is safe and no alliance untested, some of the audience still expects the familiar. They still want who they think the good guys are to win, they still want justice and retribution for the meek. They’ll fall for certain lies just like some of the characters did. It’s human to expect certain results even if they weren’t guaranteed. The multiple lines of prophesy in the story can be contradictory, showing the contradicting desires of the characters, and the audience’s expectations. People still want that messianic, heroic ending despite all the heads that have rolled before that betrayed audience expectations.
It’s also true of the ending of The Player itself as well as the movie within The Player where the audience demands to see Bruce Willis break into the prison to rescue the wrongfully convicted Julia Roberts from the gas chamber. The desire to be surprised is tempered by the desire for the familiar. But as Melisandre, the red sorceress says herself, sometimes signs can be misinterpreted. This statement goes a ways to implicating us as voyeurs of the adventure. What are we interpreting?
We’d rather absorb the structure unconsciously, like Stranger Things, like Mission: Impossible Movies, like J.J Abrams films or any number of pop indulgences. They might not have much to say, but they say it with inflection. It’s the hook that brings us back.