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Deluxe Set of 'The Player' Cheaper Than Film School

April 23, 1993|BARBARA SALTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine watching Robert Altman's "The Player" with the director and having him explain to you in minute detail how and why he conceived the opening eight-minute-and-six-second tracking shot. That is only one of the many delights to be found in laser disc technology's most incredible achievement to date, the Voyager Criterion Collection edition of "The Player" ($100), a model of what the new laser technology can do when it comes to film entertainment and education.

This new blockbuster release has almost everything any film buff could hope for. It's a film course taught by director Altman, screenwriter Michael Tolkin, director of photography Jean Lepine, and 20 other screenwriters. The creative team behind the laser production headed by Michael Kurcfeld has put together the best case yet for laser discs. The package includes:

* A sharp, all-new digital transfer of the film itself from a 35-millimeter low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative shown in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and the original 35mm stereo magnetic soundtrack print master. It is the best way to watch this film at home in its entirety with the complicated Altman audio track in crystal-clear digital sound.

* A scene-by-scene audio commentary by Altman, Tolkin and Lepine, one of the most perceptive and interesting ever done, fills Analog Track 2. Listen to it as you watch the film unreel a second time.

* Five scenes deleted from the final film release, including a fascinating sequence in the Columbia Bar & Grill showing the two main players in slimy action; brief scenes with Jeff Daniels and Patrick Swayze, and an episode called "Al Capone's hide-out," in which the two main characters arrive at their Desert Hot Springs rendezvous. There are also "outtakes" from "Habeas Corpus," the made-up film screened in "The Player" featuring Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin bickering over their parts. The film was cut from 3 1/2 hours to 2.

* Twenty screenwriters, presented on the screen four at a time, each voice on one of the four separate audio tracks, offer their views on "The Player," on screenwriting, on the industry and on their own horror stories about Hollywood. This portion must be viewed four different times to get all the information contained on the soundtrack. It's a lesson in itself.

* A clever look at the 65 cameo roles in the film featuring some of Hollywood's most famous faces. The scene featuring a celebrity is shown and then the specific celebrity is highlighted and identified so that no one can miss the fun of identifying every familiar face hidden somewhere in the film.

* A potpourri of illuminating video interviews with Altman, Tolkin, Lepine, and actors Tim Robbins, Gretta Scacchi and Whoopi Goldberg; theatrical trailers and TV spots, including the Japanese versions; an illustrated Robert Altman filmography; more than 150 production stills with captions, and an annotated and informative photo history about 70 other films dealing with Hollywood.

All of this takes at least 12 hours to go through, but the rewards are many.

And then, there's that opening shot. "It was a conceit," says Altman while the continuous tracking shot unfolds. "It's what people talk about: oh, that wonderful shot that went on for X number of minutes in 'Touch of Evil.' We worked very hard on that shot and it's a rather well-done shot, but all said and done, it's not really storytelling. The shot itself becomes storytelling rather than the elements within the shot."

On Side 4, the opening is reprised in the CAV mode for smooth slow motion and sharp freeze frames, giving Altman a chance to talk specifically about the reason behind every move and action in the opening shot. The viewer learns that:

* The crew had to re-asphalt the pavement to get it smooth enough for the continuous crane shot.

* It took a day and a half to plan the shot at the Hollywood Center Studios, one of the oldest studios in Hollywood, and half a day to shoot it.

* Fifteen takes were made and five printed and that what the viewer sees is the 10th take and the third print.

* Altman would stay on a shot until "I have seen all that I want to see," and then call for the next element and the next move.

* Altman had no idea what his real-life writers were going to say in their "pitch meetings," including Buck Henry, who ended up pitching "The Graduate II," the yet-unmade sequel to his classic "Graduate."

Perhaps screenwriter Tolkin sums up better than anyone else the importance of "The Player" and why this laser production is invaluable: "Any student should study this film closely," he says. "It's deceptively very simple. It's really very complicated." By going through this extraordinary laser disc presentation, the audience can join the immensely talented creators of "The Player" in dissecting every aspect of the incredibly complicated, if deceptively simple, art of making film.

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