Cinema : Redford 1, Stone 0 (a.e.t.)

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 26 February 1995 00:02 GMT

THE AGE of innocence ended with the box, according to Robert Redford's Quiz Show (15). Not Pandora's Box, but television. The movie dusts off a scandal of the late 1950s, when contestants on the show Twenty-One, including the reigning champion Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), were found to have been fed the answers. But its broader purpose is a dressing- down of America.

It opens with an image of the American Dream - a gleaming Chrysler 300D, lusted after by Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the congressional investigator who exposed the corruption. Goodwin, like everybody in the movie, and like a United States whose superiority was being threatened by the Sputnik, is over-eager for status and advancement. The American way used to be simple. Herb Stempel (John Turturro), the man who blew the whistle, reveals that his father's motto was: "Work hard, and you'll get ahead." Then television began to toy with aspirations, and to mock them with bald-faced deceit.

Put like that, it sounds more like an inquisition than a quiz. The accusation that television stole America's virginity has a whiff of the hypocrisy that Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (see below) reeks of. Hadn't the movies, long before, seduced America into unreality? But you don't have to buy the thesis to enjoy the film. It is an urbane, witty, smartly acted, sometimes meandering picture. Like its central character, Van Doren, it is happiest strolling about in a silk dressing-gown.

The film's fascination lies in the relationship between this elegant Wasp, scion of an intellectual dynasty, and the two Jews he stings into action against him. John Turturro's Herb, a gauche extrovert from Queens, squeals out of pique at being dumped to make way for Van Doren, railing at him with wise-cracking bitterness. Morrow's character, a high-flying Harvard Law School boy, wants to escape his common heritage with the vulgar Stempel, and tread the groves of academe with Van Doren. He can't decide whether he wants to nail his quarry, or be him.

Ralph Fiennes's Van Doren falters vocally: it retains traces of his Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, which wrapped a few weeks before the Quiz Show shoot began. But it is a marvel of physical and facial acting, showing both the character's charisma and his diffidence. When he is let in on the swindle, his face does a quadruple take - embarrassment, shocked amusement, temptation, and, finally, conscience. Accounting, later, for his actions, Van Doren reckons he "was like a child who refuses to accept a fact in the hope that it will go away". Fiennes's broad smile brings a wrenching innocence to Van Doren's misdemeanours. But so far, he remains an actor of dazzling moments rather than sustained stardom.

Paul Scofield gives an outstanding performance as his father, the poet Mark Van Doren. In a few short scenes he develops a portrait of mellow wisdom and wit, with just a hint of reactionism, which becomes the film's idea of the cultured America that was lost to television. Amid the swarming media executives, Scofield is a last, lonely outpost of humanity. His lined face glows with perky intellect. His fierce pride makes his son's ultimate exposure more moving. Fatherhood is a powerful theme of the film. When Charlie recalls a childhood feast, and says he can't imagine feeling so happy again, Dad replies: "Not till you have a son." But Charlie comes to feel that his father's all-endowing love deprived him of a sense of self. It let him "fly high on borrowed wings".

Quiz Show is full of sharp cameos (best of all David Paymer as the show's shameless, purse-lipped producer), literate dialogue, and meticulous recreations of Fifties America, glued to its Bakelite set. And yet the film itself has not united the States. It's overlong, with a last half- hour, taken up with hearings in Washington, that repeats too much; and some scenes lack shape. But this is an uncommonly thoughtful movie, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it is out of place in a cinema dominated by TV spin-offs (top of the US box office this week: The Brady Bunch). Quiz Show is another victim of America's love affair with TV trash. The Twenty-One scam was just the first seduction.

"You make every day feel like kindergarten," Juliette Lewis coos to her lover Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (18). The same can be said of Stone, whose recent movies haven't got out of short pants. Stone invokes Swift as a model. But there is nothing Swiftian, or even swift, about NBK. It's an interminable farrago of slogans and pyrotechnics. It has the scathing exaggeration of satire, without the point and bite which make us recognise the real world. It flies off into its own realm of sadistic fantasy.

The movie is best viewed as an overblown rock video. The early scenes chronicling the lovers' serial-killing spree are well-knit. Stone gets as close to providing characterisation - a sense of adolescent passion turning savage, puppy love with claws - as his pell-mell kaleidoscopic style will allow. Lewis and Harrelson, who both bring kamikaze commitment to their roles, motor through a night that is lit like a disco, while at one point a black stallion gallops behind them.

There is a tripped-out pleasure in this sort of thing. But any attempt to take the film seriously is stymied by its nagging illogicality. The first sequence shows the lovers raiding a garage. Like the whole movie, it is shot in a variety of formats - colour, black- and-white, film, video - and from a number of angles. We watch part of a hold-up through a security camera. That might have made a telling point about the camera's unfeeling monitoring of human life. Except that this security camera is clearly hand-held, whirling and tracking in a way that tells only of Stone's manic indiscipline.

The movie turns unwatchable when Stone parodies a true-crime television show (American Maniacs), for which Robert Downey Jr is interviewing Harrelson in jail. Stone makes his points about the media with his usual sledgehammer finesse. "We really raped and pillaged the first show in order to do this," Downey rants to an assistant. Downey's presenter is such a brutal, cardboard creep that the film-makers end up debasing themselves more than the media.

Somewhere in NBK, the dark comedy that Quentin Tarantino originally wrote is trying to get out. I have read Tarantino's script, which Faber was hoping to publish before Stone's lawyers intervened. It's no masterpiece (well below the standard of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), but it does have Tarantino's sharp ear and comic lan. Most of the laughs in NBK are survivors from that script. In Stone's movie only Tommy Lee Jones's hilariously hyper jail warden is an authentic Tarantino turn. Stone's confusion and stupidity make his film more dangerous than Tarantino's would have been. I don't think it should be banned, or that simple links between violence on screen and in society can be made. But by muffing his point about the dehumanising force of television, Stone actually invites his audience to glory in his glamorous killers.

The River Wild (12) is Curtis Hanson's suspenseful follow-up to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Meryl Streep leads her family on a canoeing vacation, only to fall foul of a pair of bank robbers on the lam. Streep catches the exhilaration of a housewife high on a little danger - and of an upmarket actress in her first action movie. David Strathairn is both funny and affecting as the husband whose city neurosis can only be shrugged off by sheer terror. Only Kevin Bacon's psychopathic villain occasionally slips on to automatic pilot.

Louis Malle's 1957 feature Lift to the Scaffold (PG), now re- released, was a significant dbut. It set the pattern for a new film hero, the disgruntled ex-soldier; turned Miles Davis, who improvised the score, in a new musical direction; and presaged the smooth, slightly empty style of Malle's career.

Cinema details: Review, page 82.

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