Thursday, May 17, 2007

190. A Game Show
(and Ratings Game Redux 8)

While Quiz Show (1994) is satisfying, like all Robert Redford directorial efforts it seems a bit too tidy, almost flat, in its careful, quiet succession of scenes. The physical details of this period piece are engaging and the script crackles with hard-boiled wit, while the scope of the narrative allows the audience to understand the quiz show scandals of the late '50s as both personal and social ethical dilemmas, squeezed into duplicity by an unfazed corporate climate that, once the dust settles, simply "makes the questions easier." As usual, Redford gives us a solid picture, and one that marks an on-again, off-again examination/interrogation of the American psyche he has conducted elsewhere, from Ordinary People's deconstruction of "suburbia" to The Milagro Beanfield War's land-and-labor tussle, all underlined with personal relationships that may seem a bit movie-perfect, but which strive to shine a light on the individuals who are swept along by and/or direct various social forces.

And while this "personalizing" may threaten to trivialize the Big-Picture theses of his movies, Redford, like Eastwood, knows how to find the right actors and draw from them performances that for me transcend the limitations of his quasi-invisible approach to directing. Because--perhaps obviously enough--it is not in the editing where Quiz Show comes together, but in the performances, especially John Turturro as the desperately kvetching Herbie Stempel, the onetime kid who had always been chosen last on the ball field, but finally gets the chance to show 'em all what's what--and is punished for it. I'm not dismissing Rob Morrow's and Ralph Fiennes' performances, but I've always found John Turturro fascinating to watch. It isn't that he's a "great actor"--whatever that means (I know, I know: De Niro in Raging Bull, Brando in On the Waterfront, Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Cary Grant in North by Northwest; OK?)--in fact, the best thing about Turturro is that you get to watch him "acting." I always feel like he's allowing us to watch a work-in-progress, a combination role-reflection and risk-taking rehearsal, the final version forming during the performance itself. Even in his comic turns, such as Jesus Quintana, the jumpsuited fetishistic child-molester Latino bowler(!) in The Big Lebowski, Turturro gives us a Sneak Preview: He licks his bowling ball, and we wonder if that's something he's comfortable with, or will he take out the gesture once the cameras roll?--but too late! There it is.

Am I hinting at the notion of a "natural performance"? I don't know enough about acting to remove those quotation marks. But there is that quality, that sense he has just been asked to essay the role, and brings whatever is happening in his life at the time to the performance, but deeply disguised, with just the slightest hesitation on his part--enough to keep our attention. Herbie Stempel breaks my heart--just as that phony, Bernie Bernbaum, in Miller's Crossing, suckers me in as he asks me to "look in my hot"--but, like Barton Fink and Pino in Do the Right Thing, Herbie's hypocrisy informs the performance, lets us "see" Turturro "acting," and I find myself unable to hate Stempel; Turturro's performance settles the ethical dilemma by engendering recognition and thus pity.

I just watched The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (2005), an Oscar-winning animated autobiographical film by John Canemaker, in which Turturro stands in for the filmmaker, interrogating his dead father (voiced by Eli Wallach--and don't get me started; he will be one tough old bear to replace) about his father's shady past and damaging rages. Turturro again captures that feeling I get--and I want to assert this is not a problem, although it sounds like one--that he is still working on his character, finding the cadences and notes, almost asking us to workshop the role with him. He produces an intimacy that I find rude to resist; the least I can do is watch and listen, and afterwards finish it for him myself, as he asks me to consider the tilt of his head and the set of his eyes. When Herbie Stempel drowns in his hapless dissembling, there's Turturro peeking out, looking at me, as though he expects me to feel a bit short of breath myself over my own hypocrisies, and to give back to the performance my own line reading. It is a kind of acting that is at once generous to and hard work for the audience. Turturro keeps us on our toes, since, like him, we have not been given the answers beforehand.

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As long as we're on the subject of game shows, I thought I'd share my Ratings Game list of Three Best TV Game Shows. I've left out some worthy entries--I've Got a Secret, Password, The Hollywood Squares, Jeopardy--but, as usual, I decided to play gadfly. So hit your buzzers--ha, ha: "gadfly," "buzz"--oh, never mind--and Name Those Shows:

Name That Tune
Where else could one thrill to the sight of a junior-high math teacher from Tepid, Ohio actually Naming That Tune in two notes? Jeez, Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” have the same first two notes!

Queen for a Day
Hapless housewives vied for wringerless washers by telling sad personal histories. The winner was draped in velvet and crowned. Who says TV demeans the human spirit?

Bowling for Dollars
All the excitement of televised bowling, plus actual dollars. The honest, arrhythmic heartbeat of the game show.

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