Following on the heel of the lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel, here is another fascinating moment where the choice “to not drink” can be observed; this is Robert Altman’s pioneering look behind the “perfect” picket fences of Hollywood in The Player.
In one scene, struggling movie producer, Griffin Mill played by Tim Robbins arrives at a restaurant to meet with executive Joel Levison. Their meeting revolves around Griffin’s uncertain future and the idea of new blood coming in the form of Larry Levy, a young hotshot producer — or the shark in a suit with a bright white smile and big ideas.
The waiter arrives at the table and Griffin asks for a bottle of Vittel Water. He also asks, impolitely, that the waiter must clear “all this” away — meaning the clutter on the table, we would assume. Now, the table itself at the moment of sitting is peppered with white wine glasses with what looks to be water. The table also has a yellow floral arrangement at its center which is ignored, but only because at the center of their lives, they are there to make beautiful things.
From this angle the table indeed looks cluttered. Griffin himself at this moment of the film feels he has a lot on his plate. He is afraid of lightening the load because that will leave him vulnerable to Larry Levy muscling in on his place in the studio. On top of this, Griffin is receiving threatening postcards from a potentially dangerous person he may have pissed off in the past.
So much clutter. If only he could wave over for a waiter to come clear up “all this” mess happening in his own life.
So after discussing whether he has to report to Larry Levy, Griffin threatens to quit, the waiter arrives with a bottle of Vittel water and a red wine glass. Griffin willfully fills the red wine glass with water from the Vittel bottle as he discusses this matter with the rival producer.
Joel is busy explaining that Griffin and Larry are a part of the same team: That Larry is good on production detail and Griffin is more a people person. A lie?
It doesn’t matter; Griffin doesn’t seem to be listening. He fixates on the water in the red wine glass. He beckons the waiter over again and he tells him, “this is a red wine glass, I want my water in a water glass.” Even though Griffin could have figured this out before he poured the water into the wine glass, but that’s not his problem to fix.
Still, when you boil it down; why is it important that his water be in a different glass?
Distractions! Griffin is ignoring the big problems by making little ones that can be solved. Perhaps Griffin prides himself on resolving problems and right now, he needs this little theater for his own therapy.
Also, this is about grappling for this power, authority and control; even though he’s clearly making the wrong choices and then demanding others around him manage and fit it to his exact specifications.
Firstly, he’s not happy with the clutter. Too much going on can be linked to his trouble with Larry Levy as well as the postcard threats. Too many moving pieces. He’s a man who likes to be in control. So when he asks for Vittel Water, he’s still able to exert his control in a familiar zone of specificity. No other water will do. The control is in the pouring of the water into the red wine glass, but then he’s not happy with the result. It is only when Joel explains that he and Larry are on the same team, he requests the change of glass. No matter what choice he makes, he wants something else. He’s not satisfied with Joel’s answer and maybe he wants him to know it. Also, he utilized the red wine glass as if it had purpose and then discards it without good reason.
Griffin is making a profound statement by changing the water glass. Larry Levy represents the red wine glass — a fresh faced, aesthetically pleasing Hollywood executive who is full of promise. Griffin is the water glass — purpose made for the job of holding water. Water is life, and at the core, water has been keeping things going long before red wine came along and got everybody drunk on the promise of bigger things.
But then after all this: the waiter having to get his water, and then another glass, Griffin feels that the meeting is over and he leaves without even so much of a sip of the water that he fussed out with in the first place. None of it was important. None of it mattered.
But it mattered to Griffin. It served as a distraction that kept Griffin focused. After all, he has other things on his mind beyond his job security. The water glass charade enabled him to keep his mind somewhere in the middle, where the flowers are safe and beautiful.
So sometimes, it is not about the event of having a drink with a colleague. The pieces on the table move as if on a chess board of symbolism. It’s not always about what is said, but what is done.
Here, actions do speak louder than words.
- Stephen Radford
The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)