Frank Pittman

QUIZ SHOW IS ROBERT REDFORD’S RICHLY ENTERTAINING, but sadly unpopular examination of the TV quiz show scandals of 1956. According to Redford, that is the point at which we lost another layer of innocence by learning to our horror that the new medium of television did not always tell us the truth.

The story, so familiar and painful to anyone the age of me or Redford, and so quaint to anyone much younger, takes place in a long-ago time when the Russians were beating us in the space race and we felt dumb. For a few months in 1956, Charles Van Doren, a young college instructor who was the scion of America’s premier intellectual family, the son of poet Mark, the nephew of biographer Carl, became the most celebrated symbol of American intelligence. The Van Dorens were famous not just for what they knew, but for deciding what cultured people were supposed to know. They had seemed safely above and beyond popular culture until young Charlie appeared on our black-and-white television screens as a contestant on a quiz show called “Twenty One” in which, between Geritol commercials, trivia experts in soundproof booths got asked questions nobody in the audience could come close to answering. The nonchalantly elegant Charlie astounded the country by sweating and grimacing and pulling forth from his giant brain such items as the character who sang “Sempre libera,” the explorer who discovered Madagascar, and the name of Paul Revere’s horse.

Charles Van Doren made Americans feel smart again. In his 10-week turn in the spotlight, this highly polished golden boy made the cover of Time, got innumerable proposals of marriage, and became a national sex symbol that era’s equivalent of Marky Mark. He was to brains what Van Cliburn is to piano playing: he did it well, but what’s more, he made it the stylish thing to do. For a little while, Charlie’s success persuaded people that memorizing academic trivia was the road to fame and popularity.

Then the fantasy was shattered. The former champion, a nebbish named Herbie Stempel, who knew plenty of trivia but had bad teeth, baggy suits and no sex appeal, blew the whistle and told the world and the Congress that the game was rigged, that the contestants not only got the answers ahead of time, but rehearsed every drop of sweat and every stammer. Our hero Charlie confessed, apologized and disappeared. And people who wanted to be popular forgot about memorizing classical trivia.

Paul Attanasio’s literate and witty screenplay and Robert Redford’s impeccable sense of style keep us a respectable distance from the Van Dorens, played by distinguished British actors lean, natural aristocrats with great posture. Paul (A Man for All Seasons) Scofleld is Van Dorenpere and Ralph (Schindler’s List) Fiennes is Van Doren fils. In an idyllic scene of the Van Dorens picnicking on the lawn of their comfortable country house, familial warmth is displayed by swapping quotes from Shakespeare. Playful literariness was to the Van Dorens what football was to the Kennedys.

Mark Van Doren had never seen a TV set and could not fathom the degree of celebrity it could bestow on his son or the desirability of such fame. Having devoted his life to refining his intellect and developing his character, Mark is undaunted by changes in technology. This great anthologizer believed if people read the great books and understood the great ideas, they could live outside the fashions of the moment. He could not conceive that anyone would equate education with the trick of remembering trivial details.

Far more humiliated by his dishonor before his father than by his dishonor before the world, Charlie decides he must escape the TV devil to which he has sold his soul. He is asked to identify the king of Belgium, a subject that had previously led to some banter between father and son, since King Leopold had abdicated in favor of his son, Baudouin. Charlie knowingly names the father, not the son, as king.

Redford, always a subtle actor behind his gleaming good looks, is a subtle director of actors. He lets us watch them think especially the ever-alert Sco-fleld who displays the timeless virtues of the pre-TV-educated person appalled by the cheapening effect of the tube. As Charlie, Fiennes is controlled and graceful, but treated by the film with deference. I doubt if anyone short of Prince Charles knows what it would be like to be Charles Van Doren a man of such rare entitlement, such rare glory, such unique ignomy.

We certainly know what it would be like to be the nerdy Herbie Stempel, played by the uncontainable John {Barton Fink) Torturro. Stempel may know more trivia than Van Doren, but he lacks the social grace and self-awareness that could make knowledge marketable for him. Stempel believes his knack for memorizing facts should bring him love and money. He even convinces himself that his own celebrity as a winner on the rigged show was deserved while Charlie’s adulation was not, and that his rejection in favor of Van Doren is an anti-semitic plot. He is particularly outraged because he is instructed to miss a question about his favorite film, Marty, about a self-styled, “fat, ugly man’s” search for love. Tortur-ro’s resentment of the elite and anger over not being universally loved is embarrassingly familiar.

Rob Morrow is an earnest, Van Doren-loving investigator interviewing an array of villains: the smarmily toothsome emcee (Christopher McDonald), the fussily Mephistophelean producer (David Paymer), and the uncomprehending inventor of Geritol (Martin Scorscese). Such characters contrast with the Van Dorens, who learn facts to understand life and think thoughts, who learn for the same reason that they breathe and converse, as opposed to those who see learning as a way of showing off or pushing ahead.

QUIZ SHOW IS A CIVILIZED FILM ABOUT the dismantling of civilization, but I fear the pre-“Beavis and Butthead” generations that even remember civilization, much less respect it, are too old to go to the mall to the movies. They’re at home watching “The Price Is Right,” while the tubular minds molded by TV are busy trying not to think. In our post-Van Doren world, ignorance is king and our quintessential cultural icon for the ’90s may be Quentin Tarantino, a high-school dropout, former video store clerk and devotee of classic film noir. Tarantino tells us he has an I.Q. of 160 and little learning except that gleaned from old movies and modern movie renters. All of it shows up in his films.

Two of his screenplays about serial killers in love have been filmed by others True Romance and the execrable Natural Born Killers. (He has disavowed Oliver Stone’s preachily assaultive film of Killers.) The natural elements that go into a Tarantino screenplay are so vulgar, violent and grungy that they seem only bearable when their unreality is acknowledged and choreographed with sympathy, humor, style and irony by director Tarantino himself. He directed Reservoir Dogs, about a gang of thieves so distrustful after a failed diamond heist that they gather in a warehouse in cheap black suits and assumed names, shout obscenities and kill each other. Amazingly, Tarantino made them sympathetic.

He has a sharp ear for violently vulgar dialogue, deep sympathy for the soft, lost little boys and girls that parade as tough guys, and a head full of film-noir-fed fantasies about life outside the video store. His latest film, Pulp Fiction, is a surreal masterpiece, an amalgam of Martin (Goodfellas) Scorscese’s preoccupation with brutality and Robert (Short Cuts) Altaian’s kaleidoscopic style. Unlike Scorscese, however, Tarantino does not disapprove of violence, nor does he embrace it a la David Lynch. Instead, he unblinkingly looks right past its consequences for its victims to zero in on its meaninglessness for its perpetrators.

Pulp Fiction tracks the lives of two gunmen employed by druglord Ving Rhames. One is played by lean, curly haired Samuel L. (Jurrasic Park) Jackson, a tightly wired, mean-tongued, bible-spouting black killer who likes to rant and rave at his victims, scaring them witless, before he finally blows them away. His partner, a fat, limp John Travolta in his umpteenth comeback, is soft, careless and distracted. He would rather shoot heroin or read pulp novels than do his messy job. Occasionally, he comes to life, just long enough to take offense at whoever tries to wake him or get his attention.

The two gunmen, dressed in black suits, white shirts and skinny black ties, chatter dispassionately about unspeakable acts of brainless violence and then argue endlessly about matters of the utmost banality. Travolta has spent a few years in Amsterdam and knows a little about junk culture outside Los Angeles. As he and Jackson endlessly deliver their passionately ignorant opinions about the relative merits of Coke and Pepsi, of Whoppers and Big Macs, Travolta explains to his partner that, because of the metric system, a quarter pounder in Europe is called Le Royale with Cheese. Knowing this makes Jackson feel smart, and he parades his newfound knowledge before various people he meets, even killing someone for knowing it already.

The two gunmen are given a few jobs. They must recover the boss’s briefcase, stolen by a quartet of scared preppies, and dispose of the preppies with any help necessary from disposal expert Harvey Keitel; and teach a lesson to a boxer (Bruce Willis) who was supposed to throw a fight, but who killed his opponent instead. Travolta gets the additional assignment of escorting the boss’s lethal (the boss kills anyone who gets close to her) girlfriend Uma Thurman for a night on the town. The gunmen are from the cultural wasteland of modern-day grunge, but the three plots and their characters are lifted straight from the film noir of the ’40s, the cinema of distrust, when the underworld was still beneath us instead of around us.

Tuxedo-clad garbageman Keitel, who makes a business of disposing of unwanted bodies and body parts, and the highly lacquered Thurman, who lures men to their deaths, are appropriately unreal and metaphoric figures. Heming-wayish boxer Willis is patiently loving to his simple-minded girlfriend, gratuitously heroic at a nasty moment in the film, but too stupid to be a hero. In Tarantinoland, there are no heroes or villains, merely banality and ignorance of human life and civilization. His ubiquitous serial-killers-in-love even show up as inept gunpersons Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, who call one another Honey Bunny and Pumpkin as they seal their love by robbing a diner together.

Despite the unceasingly vulgar language and the blood and guts (much of the film involves the process of cleaning up a car in which someone’s head has been inadvertently blown up), Pulp Fiction is comedy sick, black comedy commenting on the human condition at this low point (I hope) of western civilization. Nevertheless, the banality of the fatuous gunmen and their vapid lives offers some unforgettably funny moments. Travolta and Thurman go to a ’50s retro burger joint in which the booths are old convertibles and the waitrons are Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Mamie Van Doren and Ed Sullivan lookalikes. Travolta, awed by a milkshake that costs five dollars, is even cajoled into dancing a lazy twist.

In one of the funniest scenes, Christopher Walken, in full military uniform and momentous solemnity, formally presents the 8-year-old Bruce-Willis-to-be with a watch he and the boy’s late father saved through seven years of torture and dysentery in captivity in Viet Nam, keeping it safe for the boy, he explains, by hiding it in their asses. The humor is in his unflinching reverence for the soiled treasure.

Comedy is even found in a macabre scene in which Thurman accidentally snorts Travolta’s industrial-strength heroin and goes into cardiac arrest. She has to be revived (by dealer Eric Stoltz and his hardware-faced girlfriend Patricia Arquette) with a harpoon-sized needle to the heart and a bloodcurdling gasp. Can anyone’s life be this crazy?

Why in the world is any of this funny? (And, believe it or not, it is.) Not just because Tarantino has such dead-on command of the vulgar, banal way dumb people talk (Jackson’s bravura strings of obscene insults are every bit as impressive as Van Doren’s string of trivialities), but because of his sympathy with the pathetic vulnerability of losers so stupid and so unaware of anything outside the mean sewer world they inhabit. If the film noir of the ’40s revealed the rottenness under the surface, the film noir of Tarantino reveals the stupidity beneath the rottenness. Having seen the world from behind the video counter and in front of the video screen, Tarantino decides the people we fear are not horribly evil, just a little dumber than we are.

In a world suffering from a severe case of galloping stupidity, we still mourn the loss of the Mark Van Dorens, who once offered hope that knowledge could improve the condition of humankind. Sadly, the popular opinion of intelligence has nosedived since it ceased to be possible to win $100,000 on TV for knowing the name of Paul Revere’s horse. Even so, something as old-fashioned as remembering the names of dead horses may be no worse a use of intelligence than stringing together long lines of obscenities. And certainly brains are better applied to even the most simple-minded of humanizing tasks than to the ceilings of cars.

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker and is in private practice. Address: 960 Johnson Ferry Road, N.E., Suite 543, Atlanta, GA 30342.

Copyright Psychotherapy Networker, Inc. Jan/Feb 1995

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