NEW YORK — IN the lingo of cinema studies, "reflexivity" means filmmaking that turns back on itself: movies about movies, or about the filmmaking process, or about the relationship between films and their audiences. Some reflexive movies are esoteric, while others are widely appealing - from the classic "Sunset Boulevard" to the recent "Barton Fink."
Not for a long while has Hollywood turned out a picture as radically reflexive as "The Player," directed by Robert Altman from Michael Tolkin's imaginative screenplay.
Some of its reflexivity is just fun-and-games cleverness, as Hollywood performers and filmmakers appear in cameo roles poking fun at their own professions. But other aspects of the film are serious and scathing, as Mr. Altman and Mr. Tolkin use Hollywood's own weapons - the power, mystery, and manipulative quality of cinema - to criticize the film industry as a commercially driven enterprise that cares mainly about profit, power, and ego.
Is this attack on Hollywood justified? In some respects it's fair, while in other ways it seems motivated by ego problems on the part of its own makers. Be this as it may, the picture is important not for its stream of inside jokes and mischievous (or malicious) digs at movie-world personalities, but for its ingenuity in using the illusions of cinema as a metaphor for the illusions - and delusions - of modern life.
The main character is Griffin Mill, a young studio executive who spends his days listening to (and usually rejecting) story ideas dreamed up by would-be filmmakers. It's a powerful position, but Griffin is convinced that another young exec is maneuvering to steal his clout and maybe his job. Even more seriously, one of the many scriptwriters Griffin has spurned is sending him death threats through the mail.
While tracking down this disgruntled author, Griffin commits a felony of his own, and finds his life abruptly filled with a new cast of characters - including an attractive widow, a mysterious stranger, and a detective who's determined to pin a murder rap on him. Also on hand is another aspiring writer, whose bizarre idea for a romantic art film (with a death-row finale!) gives Griffin ammunition for a sneak attack on his studio rival.
Altman's approach to this movie-struck story becomes clear in the very first scene, as the camera roves around a studio lot, eavesdropping and peering in windows. One person we overhear is a studio worker reminiscing about the days when movies weren't edited like MTV, but had long and leisurely shots - like "Touch of Evil," the Orson Welles classic that begins with a several-minute shot behind the credits. While watching and listening to this, you realize that "The Player" is pulling off a Welles-like sh ot of its own, turning good-old-days nostalgia into on-screen virtuosity before your very eyes.
Many other movie references in "The Player" are geared to the Hollywood star system. If there's a party scene, you'll spot Jack Lemmon noodling on the piano; when Griffin goes to a restaurant, he meets Marlee Matlin there; when he's feeling a bit nervous, he runs into Malcolm McDowell, who unloads a heap of pent-up anger onto Griffin's shoulders.
Reflexivity reaches its peak in the movie's last minutes, when life and film become so intertwined that neither has its own existence anymore. It's hilarious. And horrifying. And you have to see it to believe it, so don't let anyone spill the details beforehand.
Altman's success in filming "The Player" is doubly welcome since he was one of Hollywood's most daring and innovative directors during the 1970s, with trailblazing hits like "M.A.S.H." and "Nashville" to his credit. The past dozen years have been rocky for him, paved with minor stage-play adaptations and not-quite-successful comeback attempts like "Vincent & Theo," his last picture. "The Player" finds him near his very best form, and that's great news for everyone who cares about inventiveness and risk-t aking in American film.
Credit also goes to Tolkin, the highly promising talent who made "The Rapture" last year, and to the enterprising cast led by Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, and Whoopi Goldberg.
With all its assets, will "The Player" be a hit? People involved with the movie business are buzzing with interest about it, alternatively praising its in-group jokiness and condemning its irreverence toward all that Hollywood holds dear.
Everyday moviegoers won't catch all the picture's subtle references to real-life people and events, but this doesn't matter, since most people have no reason to care about such references in the first place. "The Player" is valuable not as a roman a clef but as an explosive adventure in moviegoing.
The film should captivate anyone with a taste for bold cinematics, unpredictable storytelling, and pitch-black humor aimed at the worthiest of targets: a self-involved and self-congratulatory industry that often gives lip-service to art while worshipping the bottom line. Reflexivity never had a better advertisement. Rated R for language and some sensuality.