Hollywood, however, is too used to looking down at television to face up to the crisis. This month, two films on the subject of television, both touted for Oscars, open in America. Robert Redford's Quiz Show and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers are anguished, accusatory studies of the influence of television on our culture. They will be competing with each other at the box office - Redford's cool period recreation versus Stone's hectic hyperbole. But most of all they will be competing with television itself, in the form of the O J Simpson trial. Judging by the pre-trial proceedings, the poignancy and complexity of what we see on television may make the films' strictures look glib and complacent.
Quiz Show closes with a Bobby Darin recording of 'Mack the Knife' ('see the sleek white teeth like razors'). Television is seen as something dazzling but predatory. 'I thought we were going to get television,' says the young lawyer who has been trying to nail the network bosses who fixed a Fifties quiz show to increase their audience. 'But the truth is television is going to get us.' In the true story of Charles van Doren, a Columbia academic who became a national hero through winning on the quiz show 21 and was then discovered to have been supplied with the answers by the producers, the film has a powerful image for television's triviality, its fragmentation of knowledge and the way it reduces learning to a game of pontoon. The film suggests all television is a saleable fiction. But it should admit that myth-making is just as rampant in the movies - in Quiz Show itself. And need it be so starkly simplistic in its opposition of commercialism and intelligence, as if greenbacks could never mix with grey cells?
Natural Born Killers is a cruder, more vitriolic condemnation of television. The murderous exploits of a serial-killing couple are presented in a blatantly promiscuous style that shifts between colour and black-and- white, film and video, home movies and wild parodies of television genres. A flashback of the girl's abused childhood is shot as a garish sitcom with canned laughter. When her boyfriend hits her father with an iron bar, the blow chimes with a bell at a wrestling match. Reality, Stone believes, has been scrambled and debased beyond repair by television - though some may wonder if he's not himself guilty of what he condemns. He closes with a montage of recent television news images - the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, Waco and, finally, O J Simpson. The sequence comes over as a reproach to the sensationalism of television.
But that doesn't square with the fact that the most subtly affecting moving pictures this year have come not from Stone or any other director, but from the Simpson coverage. It has become a cliche to point out that no film director would have dared film the chase that way, but it is true. The excruciating slowness, and the way it looked more like a procession than a pursuit, defied the cramped formulae of the movies. And the camera never even glimpsed Simpson's face. How smartly that exposed Hollywood's obsession with seeing everything.
Ninety-five million Americans watched that chase - a figure that Hollywood moguls are finding hard to forget. It creeps up on them like temptation, a vision of a potential audience, even larger than that of Jurassic Park. But many studio heads used to play golf with Simpson. He is family to them, and as one executive explained, in a stunningly inapt phrase: 'You don't kill your own.' And yet Hollywood has already come close to the O J plot. Last year's The Fugitive started from the same nightmare: a distinguished man flees custody after being accused of the brutal murder of his wife. When the LA District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, described O J Simpson as 'a fugitive from justice', he was echoing Tommy Lee Jones's federal marshal in The Fugitive.
Echoing - or outdoing? Jones gave us an enthrallingly cynical idealist, a maverick team man, whose professionalism was masked by an affectation of apathy. But even he pales beside the chameleonic Garcetti, who must decide whether to seek the death penalty for his near neighbour. In a film, you might cast Bruce Dern as Garcetti, for his gaunt, boney face, but you'd need
to be careful it didn't tip his
ambivalence into outright roguery. For with Garcetti you never know. He spoke movingly about the need to protect battered wives. But was that just a bid for public sympathy in a case he must win after a series of high-profile failures? Every time we watch him, we see how much more inscrutable the performances are in life than in the cinema.
Gore Vidal makes a similar point about the Gulf war in his book Screening History (1992): 'The screening by CNN of our latest war was carefully directed by those who were producing the war. What this particular film was all about is still not clear to us, nor are we ever apt to show what really happened until someone makes a backstage movie like The Bad and the Beautiful or, perhaps, a Platoon in the Desert, a bitter, powerful film, quite as unrealistic, in its way, as the CNN-Pentagon release . . . In February 1991 we were merely viewers, while the actors on screen were also, in an eerie way, passive: part of a process no one seemed to be in control of.'
Surely this is an argument for films. Television can give us swathes of reality, but we need films to find a pattern, impose a meaning. That calls for directors who are aware of their medium, its limitations and its possibilities, instead of the complacency of Stone and Redford. Is there a film-maker alive who could do justice to the Simpson story?
Martin Scorsese is the obvious choice. His films are a chronicle of American death-in-success, and he has already studied the celebrity of slaughter (Taxi Driver) and the agony of athletic ruin (Raging Bull). But could so complete a cinephile scratch through the shiny layers of celluloid to the dull pain of the real world? Scorsese has an interesting acting cameo in Quiz Show as a sponsor whose only care is for his investment. Having himself bought heavily into Hollywood Inc years ago, Scorsese may not be willing to sell out of the myth. You could imagine a cinematically brilliant O J Simpson biopic from him which failed to realise that cinema itself was part of the Simpson problem. For, villain or not, as an actor Simpson was a victim - of a film tradition that strait-jacketed him into a racist stereotype of a black man. If he wasn't a musclebound hero (The Towering Inferno), he was fleeing (The Cassandra Crossing), menacing (The Klansman), or fooling (Naked Gun). Just another actor sacrificing his humanity to celluloid.
I believe that in the history of film-making there is only one director who might do cinematic justice to Simpson. That man is Fritz Lang. Like Simpson, he was an outsider who assimilated with great success. He had a bleak but humane understanding of vengeance, making it the theme of many of his films, most famously The Big Heat (1953) - and if O J Simpson killed Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, it must have been out of a perverted sense of vengeance. Lang understood the
pathology of the individual - his German film M (1931) was the first film to show a murderer as human, albeit self-pitying in his paranoia
and compulsiveness - and of society. He saw America with a foreigner's clarity and a seer's prescience.
In Fury (1936) a lynch-mob was
convicted on evidence shot by a newsreel crew - a denouement unheard of in the legal practice of the time but commonplace in the age of Rodney King.
Above all, Lang understood the limitations of film. In his Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), two men resolve to prove how easy it is for a man to be wrongfully executed. They plant circumstantial evidence linking one of them to a murder reported in the paper. They take photographs of themselves planning it, to be produced once they have proved their point. Everything goes to plan. The man is sentenced to death. (We see his girlfriend watching the trial highlights on television - more prophecy?) But as the second man drives to the court with the exonerating evidence, he crashes, killing himself and burning the alibis. I will not reveal the final two twists, since the point is made. Lang has exposed the melodrama to a blast of reality, a sense of human frailty and the caprice of fate.
Too few film-makers these days are able to step outside their medium in such a way. By despising television, today's directors show a contempt for the world. Television's fault is not in trivialising, but in dealing in a truth too naked for us to bear. That's why the O J Simpson trial will be the greatest courtroom film ever made, but one we may not want to watch.
'Quiz Show' opens in Britain next March. A release date has yet to be set for 'Natural Born Killers'.Reuse content