Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Quiz Show

I recently watched Quiz Show, the 1994 movie directed by Robert Redford and starring John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes and Rob Morrow. The story is about how this quiz show in the 50s was rigged -- contestants, including the famous Herb Stemple (Turturro) were given the answers ahead of time so that the network could control the drama: a winning streak, a fall on an easy question, a new player with a winning streak to take over when the ratings on the previous winner plateaued. Rob Marrow plays this government guy who is investigating the show. Morrow tries to push forward without ruining the lives of the contestants but Ralph Fiennes eventually has to testify, leaving his reputation as a Columbia literature professor and nephew of a powerful literary family in ruins. NBC bigwigs makes one of their guys the scapegoat for the scandal, disowning knowledge that they knew the game was rigged, even though we know they did know. In the end Rob Morrow says "I thought we were going to get TV. TV got us." We learn at the end that even the scapegoated employee came back to NBC when the scandal was forgotten about and became a millionaire. There is a voiceover at the end that contrasts that employee saying that it was a victim-less crime, that no one got hurt, that it was all just good tv drama with Fiennes, his life ruined. Herb Stemple was in a similar situation but on a smaller scale: his wife found out the game was rigged and lost all respect for him.

My sense of the end is that Redford wants to attack TV for morally compromising these men, ruining them, and then dumping them to move on to other targets -- all for our entertainment. There is a larger moral indictment here, because as a culture we do love these things, and the drama, and so we as viewers are all morally responsible to a certain extent.

But I could not help siding with the evil NBC stooges on this one. No one made these guys lie to their families, which is really all the bad things that happened to them. It is not hard for me to imagine someone's family being perfectly happy to have that money from a rigged game show. One of the NBC stooges says that this is television and everyone knows that it is fixed, and it is all about the ratings and so on and I could not help but agree that it was really naive to think it was something else. This is, of course, completely unfair as my attitude is the PRODUCT of Morrow's realization that "TV got us" -- TV got me so thoroughly from the moment I was born that I looked at Morrow's crusade to investigate cheating on quiz shows as a ridiculous thing, along the lines of some self important Aaron Sorkin-esque government do-gooder sent to "clean up" the WWF. It is an open secret -- maybe "open secret" is not even going far enough -- that the WWF matches are rigged for ratings, and it is not a real sport, anymore than a quiz show is ever going to be some measure of intelligence. Is this just the result of the fact that I am a product of a more cynical time, totally corrupted by the power of television? Or is it the result of Redford creating a naive 1950s America that took the morality of quiz shows really seriously, when in fact people in the 50s are never as dumb as movies imagine they are? Am I just totally insensitive to the moral corruption the film depicted? Or did I somehow miss the point of this movie entirely?

This is one of those moments when I have no perspective on myself so I turn to the INTERNET to clear it up for me. This is the road to madness.


scott91777 said...

The closest paralell I can think of here for our generation is reality TV (weren't game shows after all the first 'reality TV)... guys our age clearly remember the first real world and how 'real' we thought it was. Only to discover, later, that things were edited to give us certain perceptions that weren't really there. Fast foward to now, where celebreality shows no longer even pretend to not generate their own drama.

Granted, nobody has ever made a federal case out of it, but I'm sure, at the time, it was a big deal... not because people were that stupid or naive... but just because TV was so new that no one had any reason to mistrust it; everyone just assumed that what they were being presented with was being presented to them honestly. It's not that they were too naive to see... it's just that they had no reason to suspect.

Jill Duffy said...

The quote you mentioned, and my favorite line in the movie, is incorrect. It is: "I thought we were going to get television. The truth is, television is going to get us."

Dick Goodwin does not go after this case for the moral cause. He's a young go-getter attorney who hasn't had a chance yet to make his name. He wants to use the system to advance himself in the same way that all the other culpable people are.

Geoff Klock said...

Jill -- that's a good point about Morrow and you are right; but don't you think Redford is making a moral indictment? Or is he, as a filmmaker, just playing the same game the quiz show guys played.

Christian said...

But... Isn't making a hollywood movie about the occurence just another way of profiteering of the misfortunes of these people; the exact "crime" Redford is accusing them of?

Geoff Klock said...

JILL DUFFY says THIS (some problem with comments earlier, so I am putting this in myself to see if it works)

I think talking about moral indictments in the film is a thread that does not have an end. And that's what I like about Quiz Show. It's not possible to answer the question, "Is this a victimless crime?" There are cases arguing in favor of and against everything and everyone in the film.

I really like gray areas where there is no firm answer one way or another -- a loop. To me, that's how "television is going to get us." Television is going to catch us in its loop. And hasn't it? Culturally, we revere television and at the same time condemn it for ruining us (the idiot box).

Did you read "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's so-called autobiography? There is another great case of the same thing. The book is very entertaining, and as a piece of entertainment, who cares if everything really happened the way Frey says it happened? And yet, people were outraged at being duped by him, at being made to feel sympathetic or at the very least a little more understanding of him and addicts in general.

So we have someone like Van Doren who is upholding the value of being smart and coming from an educated family. The viewer buys into him and his integrity, only to find out he was duping everyone. The scene in which Van Doren reads his statement to the court, and the judges at first praise him for his honesty and bravery at coming forward is another great example of this. Viewers want to buy into the person, not the "show" (both "programming" and "acting" here).

The only moment when we break out of the loop in the film is when the one judge just flat out condemns Van Doren and the whole courtroom applauds. I feel like in that moment, we are not caught in that loop of both loving the entertainment and hating ourselves for loving it. (As soon as everyone exits the courtroom and is attacked by the media, we're back in the loop.)

Geoff Klock said...

In case I was not clear, up above is JILL DUFFY's comment, which I put into the comments manually, because google was being dumb today.

James said...

"Did you read "A Million Little Pieces," James Frey's so-called autobiography?"

I did! Finished it last night. I remember reading the "Teeth" excerpt somewhere years ago, but missed the whole controversy about the book.

That Smoking Gun article... I couldn't read the whole thing, it's so fucking seedy. On top of the "who cares" there's a "what, so the stuff he 'lied' about wasn't even related to the meat of the book - his addiction?" His publisher claims that Oprah turned on him because of the negative reaction she received, rather than an actual moral position.

Hey, I'm in a loop of my own right here! My first reaction to this stuff was "who cares if it's true", but then I get outraged at their outrage. Because the stuff that matters (i.e. his internal states) couldn't be fabricated.