Jan 21, 2007

Worth the Rent: Quiz Show

I have decided to start a new feature on the blog. Every so often I will post a "Worth the Rent" column - recommending an older movie that is already out on video. I thought that would be a way to get some other posts up, since I love doing movie reviews and don't get to see as many as I would like. To start off, I am going to address Quiz Show. This 1994 film never really got its due - largely since it was part of what could be argued to be the strongest slate of movies released in one year. The Oscar nominations for Best Picture alone read like a "Must See List." Forrest Gump, Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and the out of place Four Weddings and a Funeral. But here are some other films that came out in 1994: Nobody's Fool (an amazing and underrated movie with a tour de force for Paul Newman), The Lion King, Legends of the Fall, Interview with the Vampire, Bullets over Broadway, Ed Wood, Little Women, The Client, Nell, Speed, True Lies, The Mask, Maverick, and Hoop Dreams. The thing is, in any other year, (especially a weak year like 2005), Quiz Show could have walked away with the Oscar.

The film was directed by Robert Redford, and stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Christopher McDonald, Rob Morrow, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Mira Sorvino, Paul Scoffield, Martin Scorcese, and a ton of "was that just?" cameos. It is based on the quiz show scandals in the 1950s, especially on the show Twenty-One. Fiennes plays contestant Charles Van Doren, the most popular contestant on the show - and the one least likely to get invovled in the whole mess. He was a member of one of the most prominent intellectual families in America. He was a professor at Columbia, as was his father. His mom, dad, and uncle were all authors. After his stint on the show, he went on to work for NBC on several shows. But, he indeed was involved. Contestans were given the answers to questions, told when to take a dive, and had the outcomes scripted. All of this was defended by the producers as "good entertainment" and "good for ratings." The fledgling industry of television nearly lost its life to the scandal, due to its "violation of the public trust."

What Redford crafts is a wonderful examination of class, entertainment, ethics, race, and knowledge. We watched it again last night, and I was stunned about how relevent the movie is now. It may, perhaps, be more worth a view now than it was in 1994. If you remember, there was not the glut of reality television then that there is now. And we have seen the same questions that plagued the quiz shows of the 1950s. Where is the line between entertainment and reality? How do the producers edit the shows to give us a false view of reality, to form heroes and villains, to create drama? Why do shows like American Idol even let the horrible auditions get through to the judge rounds? Are they lying to constestants in early rounds to keep them singing badly? Every reality show and game show posts a disclaimer similar to the following: "Portions of this show not affecting the outcome have been edited." Who determines what "affects the outcome?"

As I watched the movie, I again wondered what could lead to an investigation of modern television - where even the news seems edited and manufactured. Where is the line of ratings, entertainment, and profitability? And what happens when it crosses the line of truth? And in this postmodern society, does the issue of truth and television even matter - or does that no longer bear concern since "everyone's truth is equally valid?" Then you have shows like 24 that faces protests because Muslim-American are afraid that viewers will blur the line between reality and fantasy - when that is exactly what every show on television does. Those are all interesting questions - and you have to love a movie that can raise that many issue 13 years later.

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