Return of the Player

I must admit that I hadn’t noticed that Michael Tolkin had published a sequel to The Player, the 1988 novel that ended up being overshadowed by Robert Altman’s celeb-saturated film adaptation. So, I was surprised to find it during a random, time-killing browse in a secondhand book shop. The character of Griffin Mill always felt to me like a writer’s punchbag, a morally flaccid suit with neither talent for nor interest in the art of cinema, who had somehow managed to become head of production at a major Hollywood studio. There was a sense of puppeteering in the way Mill mouthed the platitudinous business-speak bullshit that Tolkin was no doubt sick of hearing, but in the sequel, Tolkin has really twisted the knife – how much do you have to hate your main character to afflict him with both impotence and a Viagra allergy? Here, Mill seems to be on his last legs, tormented by family problems, fears of impending financial ruin, doubts about his own talent (even though he is referred to as if he possesses a preternatural understanding of audience, marketing and high concepts), and a tingling sense that the apocalypse is nigh, both for a Hollywood changed irrevocably by new media platforms and dwindling audience :

“The planet is dying. That’s why the world expressed Hollywood out of itself a hundred years ago. It needed to hypnotise itself at twenty-four frames a second. Physics cracked the atom, biology cracked the genome, and Hollywood cracked the story. It’s all the same thing.”

The joke is, once again, that Mill’s neat line in soulless ideasmanship eventually reaps the lavish rewards usually reserved for the most heroic of fictional characters. It’s as if Mill himself saw Tolkin’s first draft, lacking in classic structure and stock characters from the Joseph Campbell template, and re-wrote the ending to suit himself.
For those familiar with the Altman film, there’s obviously no equivalent pleasure to that of spotting actual movie stars in their element, barely realising the vicious parody into which their images are being inserted, but there is one enormous cameo at the end, a deus ex machina to tie everything together very suddenly – Mill’s grand idea for a money-spinning enterprise to revitalise his fortunes is not movie-related, but implies that if the Mill-types get their hands on the vast information wells of the internet, they will crack the codes for narrativising our very lives, sifting through all of our personal information to glean all of the data necessary for inscribing each of us with a formulaic romantic sub-plot. It’s a nuttily dystopic vision, and one which may or may not serve as Tolkin’s own personal voodoo doll for every producer who ever knocked him back.

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