Sunday, May 31, 2015

Blue Velvet

(I’d like to thank Marc Lapadula since I borrowed from his lecture on this film. SPOILER ALERT, and viewer discretion is advised)

If director David Lynch had sent out invitations to view his Blue Velvet, they would probably have read “Welcome to my nightmare.” In this film he shows us an upside down world where the dream state is more alive and vivid, and thus more “real,” than the waking, mundane state of the every day.

The opening scene shows us white picket fences, red roses, and a man on a truck giving us a friendly wave and smile. But the lighting is too bright, the wave is in slow motion. It seems fake, not genuine. We see the father of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), Mr. Beaumont, watering his lawn. Think of the actor Hugh Beaumont who played the prototype of the suburban patriarch in the TV show Leave it to Beaver. In the context of this film, “beaver” takes on a sexual subtext contrasting it with the G rated surface world. This film deals with many themes, but human sexuality is at the center. The father’s garden hose, which takes on a phallic symbolism, becomes twisted, and he suffers a stroke, falls down, the hose between his legs, squirting out of control. We see him later, confined in a hospital bed, practically bound down, unable to move or speak. The father figure has become impotent. The town’s industry is producing lumber, and there are references to time passing as trees falling. We see trucks full of chopped tree trunks. Perhaps these are more references to male impotence, the men no longer getting “wood.”

Jeffrey is a youth caught between the innocence of childhood and adult manhood. He starts his initiation into the dangerous underbelly of life when he discovers a severed ant- covered ear (or in the context of this film, “castrated” ear) in an industrial wasteland area of town. He is drawn to the mystery behind this grotesque object, one may say seduced. He brings it to Detective Williams of the police. He visits him in his home at one point, and encounters his daughter, Sandy, and there is an attraction between her and Jeffrey. There is a Freudian undertone to Williams as he gives a warning look to Jeffrey, which basically reads as “Stay away from my daughter.” When we first see the detective at home, he is carrying his handgun. It is disturbing to see him toting it around his house. Is it because his job makes him stay on guard? Or, is it fear of losing his manhood, a sort of penis replacement symbol? If nothing else, it adds a sense of menace to what otherwise would be a normal, safe American home.

Sandy overheard her father mentioning a woman, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub singer, who may be involved with the criminal element and can be tied to the man who was mutilated. Jeffrey now wants to dive right into this underworld by invading (penetrating?) this woman’s apartment to investigate after he sees her erotically singing at the club. She sings “Blue Velvet” whose wholesome lyrics are undermined, like everything else in this film, by the forces of the id underneath the surface. On the one hand he has the virginal Sandy, urging him not to leave the “safe” world, but his lust has been inflamed by Dorothy (who definitely is not in Kansas anymore. Don’t forget how nightmarish, but exciting, Oz is, with witches and flying monkeys). 

Jeffrey gains access to Dorothy’s apartment, but is surprised by her return and hides in her closet. This is where the voyeurism of a Hitchcock film is evoked. Jeffrey sees Dorothy undressing. He makes a noise in the closet. She confronts him with a knife, another penis substitute, reminiscent of the one in Psycho. She then becomes sexual with him, enticing him, and alternately is rough and threatening. We see where she gets this combining sex with violence when Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) arrives. Jeffrey again hides in the closet. Hopper is great at being bizarre. During his assault of Dorothy, he alternately sees himself as a baby, with Dorothy as the mother. Then the son becomes the “daddy,” the lover. He places a piece of blue velvet in his mouth and hers. It becomes a lurid safety blanket, combining innocence with lust. He is the Oedipus child who sleeps with the mother, after having kidnapped Dorothy’s son and husband, removing them from the equation, but using them as leverage against Dorothy. He keeps telling her not to look at him, maybe out of shame and confusion given the symbolic incestuous situation.

Jeffrey is drawn to Dorothy, and revisits her. He is also the child who is aroused by this mother figure. (In a later scene, Sandy’s jealous boyfriend, after chasing the pair, sees a naked and dazed Dorothy on Jeffrey’s porch and asks Jeffrey “Is that your mother?”) Jeffrey handles the hat with the propeller on top that belongs to the kidnapped son, thus appearing as a substitute for the child. Then, Jeffrey has sex with Dorothy, who asks him to hit her, which he does. She later says she has “his disease in me,” implying that the reproductive cycle is a vicious one. Frank shows up, jealous of “neighbor” Jeffrey, and takes him for “a joy ride” to “Pussy Heaven.” What follows is an initiation into “manhood” for Jeffrey. But at this establishment, run by Ben (A pasty, almost clown make-up wearing Dean Stockwell), no sex occurs, except the implied homosexual connection between Frank and Ben. Frank is the demonic father now who shows Jeffrey what beer to drink. Ben, and later Frank after they leave Ben’s establishment, show the adopted “son” how to take a punch like a man. Before he beats Jeffrey as his minions hold the youth, Frank puts on lipstick and kisses him. Again, violence is associated with sex. In this case, Frank wants Jeffrey to look at him. It’s almost as if the homosexual experience is less intimidating than the heterosexual one. When Jeffrey is back home and wakes up with his mother and aunt, he feels that he has been asked too many questions about his bruises. He says with surface affection but with underlying menace that if the questions persist, someone’s “going to get it.” The brutal entrance into grown up masculinity is taking effect.

And what about Jeffrey’s mother? She figuratively abandons Jeffrey, watching disturbing movies with men creeping up stairs (to bedrooms?) and carrying guns (more phallic symbols). In the subtext of this movie, her husband is rendered impotent, possibly to be replaced by the son, but Jeffrey feels abandoned subconsciously, and is out seeking mother and father replacements in all the wrong places.

Jeffrey hides and takes pictures and implicates Frank and “the yellow man” (who turns out to be a corrupt cop) in drug trafficking. Jeffrey goes back to Dorothy’s apartment (he can’t seem to stop going through the looking glass to the dark side) and sees a lobotomized “yellow man” and Dorothy’s dead husband, who is bound and gagged,  reminding us of how Jeffrey’s father appeared in the hospital. He knows that Frank is on his tail and he hides out in the closet again. This time he has the “yellow man’s” gun. He shoots Frank Booth in the head, sort of the opposite of Booth shooting Lincoln (a Lincoln Street sign is shown in the film).

The end of the film has the camera showing a close up of Jeffrey’s attached, non-vermin infested ear, and then panning out, revisiting the fence, roses and waving man, as if all is well. Jeffrey is with Sandy, and her parents are there at Jeffrey’s house, with his parents, his father recovered from his illness. But, an obviously fake robin shows up at the window with a writhing insect in its mouth. We saw legions of ravenous ants at the beginning underneath the Beaumont lawn. The corrupt police officer, who is supposed to be a symbol of law and order, wears a “yellow jacket,” which is a stinging insect. It appears here that the waking world is just a deceptively safe veneer covering the dark infestation beneath.

Some people admire this film, others hate it. Where do you stand?

Next week’s film is All About Eve.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Touch of Evil

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Charleton Heston as a Mexican? Well, if you can see past that bit of obscure casting, you will be able to look into the noire of this film as it explores the darkness inside individuals on both sides of the law and on either side of the border between two countries.

The story takes place near the Mexican border town of Los Robles, which reminds one of Tijuana. Mexican narcotics law officer Mike Vargas (Heston) tells his newly married American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh) that “All border towns bring out the worst in a country.” Why do you think that is the case? Maybe because it is the area that physically and thus symbolically is the farthest from the moral center of a country’s ethical code.

The film is shot in black and white, but it’s more like black and shades of gray. The sleazy nature of the Mexican town is emphasized by the cinematography. We see the dirty decadence of the setting in the long nonstop opening which uses crane shots to show us right away that we will be immersed in unpleasantness. Ironically, one of the clubs shown is called the “Paradise,” and the welcoming sign for the town calls it “The Paris of the Border.” The first image shown is that of a bomb. It is placed in a convertible which we find belongs to a wealthy American businessman who exploits the Mexican workers and indulges his lust by picking up a blonde stripper. The camera reveals trash, neon lights, dark alleys and street vendors to accentuate the low-life nature of the town. We then see Vargas and his wife in a happy mood since they are newlyweds. But then their walking path ironically parallels the motion of the doomed convertible as they head toward the American side. As the married couple kisses, we hear and see the explosion which takes place on American soil. It’s as if the evil spreads like a virus from one country to another, and to the two individuals trying to bridge the cultural divide.

We are introduced to Captain Hank Quinlan (writer-director Orson Welles). Now here is a complicated character. First off, he looks disgusting. He is unshaven and bloated, munching on candy bars, looking like a diseased animal ready to explode from the inside from toxins. His hugeness is accentuated by low camera shots looking up at his looming body. (Actually, there are a number of low shots in the movie from the point of view of victims looking up at those in control. There is a shot from the point of view of the dead victims of the car bombing and also from where Susan is being victimized in a hotel bed.) Quinlan squints and slurs his speech even though he has been on the wagon for a dozen years. He uses a cane because of a limp. We learn that his leg problem stems from taking a bullet for his partner, Pete Menzies. He’s a well-respected policeman because he has hunches about criminals that have paid off, which he attributes to his “game leg.” When he forgets his cane in the course of the narrative, it’s as if he loses his inner moral support which allowed him to perform a heroic act in the line of duty.

Quinlan heads up the American investigation into the bombing. Quinlan uses this assignment to visit an old flame, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who is a gypsy fortune teller. She doesn’t even recognize him at first because of his altered appearance. There is a sad  hankering for the past on the part of Quinlan. But, Tanya shoots him down, saying he should “lay off those candy bars.” He says he would like to “come around some night and sample your chili.” She implies that he might now be impotent by saying, “Better be careful. Maybe too hot for you.” Later we find out the source of Quinlan’s anti-Mexican bigotry. His wife was killed by “a half-breed.” She was strangled, which Quinlan says leaves no fingerprints on the string used as a weapon. He is haunted by the fact that the killer was not caught.

As Vargas joins the investigation, he tells his wife to go back to the hotel. She makes a statement that implies that it’s safer on the American side. Quinlan also talks about going to the American side to get back to civilization. But, this story shows that there is plenty of danger to spread around on both sides of the border. Susan is confronted by tough-looking young Mexicans who bring her to the American side where she is confronted by the sleazy drug boss, “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). Vargas is well known for clamping down on the drug trade and put Uncle Joe’s brother in jail. The new Grandi kingpin tries to intimidate Susan so as to thwart her husband’s drug trafficking investigation. To her credit, Susan is not cowered. There is a great deal of phallic cigar poking and tongue licking of lips in the scene. Uncle Joe is bug-eyed and wears a bad wig, emphasizing his unattractive nature. Here, you can read a book by its cover.

The suspect in the bombing is a man named Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan). He turns out to be having an affair with the dead man’s daughter, with whom he struck up a romance after her father fired him. Quinlan has a hunch that Sanchez is guilty. Brutal interrogation of the Mexican ensues. Vargas pushes for evidence from Quinlan, not trusting the latter’s “hunch.” Vargas knocks over an empty shoebox while washing his hands. When he is told later that dynamite was found in the shoebox, he confronts Quinlan and accuses him of framing Sanchez. Grandi wants Vargas out of the way and realizes that he can have an ally in Quinlan. They plot to frame Vargas and his wife. When Quinlan falls off the wagon while drinking with Uncle Joe, it is evidence of how his corruption has become complete.

Quinlan confronts Vargas because the Mexican lawman has investigated Quinlan’s dynamite purchases and past arrests to show how others were framed. There is an exchange between the two which presents the main theme of the film. Quinlan says that Vargas’ “by-the-book” methods show that he “seems to think it doesn’t matter whether killers hang or not, so long as we obey the fine print.” He adds that a policeman’s job is tough enough. Vargas says “It has to be tough. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state … who’s the boss, the cop or the law?” For Quinlan the cop and the law are the same.

Susan is visually violated by a Peeping Tom at the honeymoon hotel which allows Quinlan to recommend her staying at another motel. But, the new place is owned by the Grandi family. There, Susan is terrorized by Grandi’s gang. She is drugged, brought to Grandi’s Ritz Hotel, and left half-naked in a room with drugs and clothes strewn about. Earlier a photograph was taken of Susan with the young handsome Grandi nephew. All of this is to show her as a drug and sex addicted woman. Quinlan starts to set the frame-up by telling his partner that Vargas and his wife are “a couple of junkies. Course he’s using the job as a cover-up.” But Quinlan doesn’t like Uncle Joe nor does he trust him. He goes to the room where Susan is drugged and strangles Grandi with one of Susan’s stockings. He symbolically is getting revenge for the escaped murderer of his wife. But, he is actually becoming like that killer as he commits homicide and uses the same technique of strangulation with a weapon that will not be traced to him. Also, he is making it appear that Susan is the culprit.

Before he finds Susan, Vargas goes on a rampage, busting heads while looking for his wife. He is like Quinlan at this point, ignoring what is legal, because “I’m no cop now. I’m a husband.” Once he discovers what has happened to Susan, he says he can’t leave until his wife’s name is “clean.” Trying to be clean of the metaphorically dirty world of the film is his goal. Vargas presents evidence to Pete, Quinlan’s partner, which shows how the police captain has been framing suspects for a long time. The partner is easily convinced because he found Quinlan’s cane at the scene of Grandi’s murder. Pete wears a wire as he gets his partner to confess. But, Quinlan hears an echo created by the recording device while Vargas follows the two under a bridge. Quinlan shoots Pete with Vargas’ gun which he stole earlier, and almost kills Vargas, who he can then frame for Pete’s death. But, he is killed by Pete just before he dies. Quinlan, appropriately, drops dead into the town’s filthy water. A final irony is that Quinlan’s hunch was right – Sanchez was the bomber. His strengths and failings are summed up when he is called a “great detective” but “a lousy cop.”

The movie’s title can be taken a couple of ways. When someone is touched by evil, when there is contamination by this darkness, a destroying madness ensues – touched in the head means being crazy. A “touch” can also mean just a small amount of something. But, when it comes to evil, just a “touch” can be devastating.

Next week’s film is Blue Velvet.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Girl with a Pearl Earring

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I admire a good painting, but I go to the movie theater to see motion pictures. So, I was skeptical about a film whose focus was an unmoving image. But, this story is about the people that created the famous painting. If you are a fan of sexual tension, this film throbs with it as it suggests the possible back story behind the portrait with the above title by Johannes Vermeer. The director, Peter Webber, absolutely makes you feel as if you are inhabiting the damp (should I say fertile?) canal streets of 17th century Delft. I had the urge to buy wooden shoes after seeing this movie. Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as Griet, an alabaster beauty cowled in a white head cover, her mouth always parted as if unconsciously and sensually waiting for her sexual hunger to be fed. She is the maid who has come to work in the Vermeer household containing Vermeer's wife, mother-in-law, his children and other servants.

Colin Firth does not speak many words as Vermeer. But, he tells us what he is feeling with his brooding looks that show how he can barely contain his seething passion for Griet, who he quickly realizes understands the power of color and light. They are kindred souls in this sense, but their non-sexual sexual affair can only be realized in displaced ways. He teaches her how to make paint in a very sensual, tactile scene filled with the colorful mashing of ingredients and mixing of fluids. He puts his robe over the two of them, as if under bed covers, as they look into a camera obscura. When she eventually sits as the subject of the painting, he must pierce her ear so that she can wear the pearl earring. This scene suggests sexual penetration as he plunges the needle through her earlobe, spilling the virginal blood. He knows that their connection is illicit, as is seen when he tells her to buy materials for his paint, but says that his wife need not know about her errand for him.

The film is filled with sexual displacement and frustration. Vermeer cannot have Griet, or women like her of a lower order, so he keeps getting his wife pregnant. But, continues to feel unfulfilled. His wife has Vermeer as her husband, but she is unable to understand his art, and thus, is unable to satisfy him. So, she is jealous of Griet. The mother, wanting the family to financially prosper, basically acts as a madam, urging Griet to get her son-in-law's creative juices flowing. She procures her daughter's testicular-shaped pearls for the artistic climax. Tom Wilkinson plays the lascivious patron, who lusts after the objects of Vermeer's portraits, and almost rapes Grief, but can in the end only possess the two dimensional female depictions. Right after the ear piercing scene, Griet runs off to a bawdy bar, seeks the butcher boy who wants her, and indulges her lust for Vermeer by having sex with the boy. Vermeer's daughter, filled with Freudian jealousy toward Griet, tries to frame the maid for stealing. She also smears with mud the white (sexually unsullied?) hanging sheets that Griet has cleaned, painting her own canvas almost in rebellion against her father's art.

At one point, Vermeer wants to know why she has moved the chair next to the female subject that he is painting. Griet says, "She looked trapped." Giet is trying to be free herself, but it is difficult given the time in which she is living, and her station in life. Vermeer has the power as employer, and orders her to make time to make the paint and sit for him. He uses her despite the fact that he puts her in jeopardy by inciting his wife's jealousy. As the mother-in-law says to Griet, "You are a fly in his web. We all are." 

Griet may not be able to be Vermeer's lover, but she has enough influence to get him to clear her name of theft and she can refuse to uncover her head despite Vermeer's demands that she do so. When she sees the painting, she says to him, "You looked inside me." So, there is a spiritual penetration, if not a physical one. In the end, he sends her the pearl earrings, a tribute to how important she was to his art.

Next week’s movie is Touch of Evil.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A History of Violence

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

What are those sayings about history? There’s “Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” And then there’s “You can’t escape the past.” Let’s not forget, “His past caught up with him.” I guess all of the above could be used in connection with David Croenenberg’s A History of Violence. But, the title is ironic, since the violence here is not a thing of the past, but takes place in the present.

As the film opens we see two men, looking bored and tired, getting ready to check out of a motel. The younger one, Billy (Greg Bryk) straightens out the chair sitting outside the room. It is an ironic act, since these two create nothing but chaos. The older man, Leland (Stephen McHattie) goes into the motel office and later exits it. He tells Billie to go back in to fill up their water bottle. It is then we see that these two are sociopathic killers. It is not the men who have checked out – Leland has permanently “checked out” the motel clerk and housekeeper, who lie dead in their own blood on the floor. Then, the motel clerk’s young daughter appears from behind a door, and Billy, with a smile reaches for the gun tucked in the waist of his pants. The death of the child shows that in the world of this film, innocence does not survive.

Right after the killing of the child, there is a cut to the Stalls’ daughter screaming in her bedroom because she is afraid of monsters. She is told there are no monsters. This scene is a foreshadowing, because there are monsters, and they are headed their way. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a loving father and husband, living in a Middle America town in Indiana. He looks content as he heads for work at the small diner he owns. It has a sign that reads “friendly service,” but that’s not what we’ll find on this day. One of the workers there says he used to date a woman who had a dream about being attacked by a demented killer. She stuck a fork in his shoulder during one of these dreams. He says he then married her, and the marriage lasted for six years. This scene shows the fear of violence, but also the attraction to the excitement that it creates. The boredom of the killers (when they are not committing crimes), is echoed by Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), a high school student, as he sits with girlfriend. They break the tedium of this peaceful town by smoking pot, an illegal act. He lays out their unpromising future, where they will grow up, get jobs, and become alcoholics. 

Leland and Billy, the demented killer times two from the aforementioned woman’s dream, arrive in the town, showing how nightmares don’t only exist in a dream state. The peaceful order is overturned when the two killers walk in and try to rob the restaurant. Tom tries to be diplomatic. But when the waitress tries to leave, Billy manhandles her. Leland tells Billy to kill her to show they mean business. Tom then transforms into a  killing machine, slamming a pot of coffee into the side of Leland’s face, grabbing his gun, and then shooting Billy in the chest and Leland in the head. 

The publicity created by Tom’s heroics draws demons from Tom’s past. Strangers in a black car are seen outside the Stalls’ home. These new scary men now also appear at the diner. They are lead by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). He starts to call Tom by another name, Joey Cusack. The Stalls tell the sheriff, who stops the strangers in their car, and finds out their names. He discovers that they are connected to organized crime back east. He can’t get information about Joey, but learns of a Richie Cusack, who is a leader of an Irish-American crime family in Philadelphia. Later at the local mall, Fogarty shows up and tells Edie Stall (Maria Bello) that her husband is not who he says he is. He is Joey Cusack and she should ask him about his brother, the criminal, Richie. He then says she should ask her husband “How come he’s so good at killing people.”

Jack Stall was earlier taunted by a school bully. The young Stall defused that confrontation with his words. When the bully starts in on him again, Jack severely beats him. When he argues with his father about the incident, Tom says that “in this house we don’t solve problems by hitting people.” Jack’s response is, “No, in this house we kill people.” Tom, undermining what he just said, slaps Jack, showing his propensity for violence. Jack’s actions show that he may have inherited his father’s ways.

Fogarty and his men show up at Tom’s house. They have Jack and demand that Tom return to Philadelphia with them. Fogarty has a scarred face and a visionless eye on his left side. We later learn that “Joey” did this to him, and now seeks revenge against Cusack, wanting an eye for an eye. Tom at this point drops any pretension of being the mild-mannered Tom. He has a cold, cocky look about him. He beats one man to death and shoots the other. Fogarty shoots Tom in the shoulder, but then Jack shoots Fogarty to death.

Edie confronts Tom in the hospital, and he admits to his past. He says that he thought Joey was dead, and that he had killed him. But obviously he still survives as was shown how Joey’s lethal instincts easily kick in when aroused. He is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edie is literally sick when she hears the truth and she and their son are angry because of the lies. Edie, however, defends her husband when the sheriff shows up to question the couple about what transpired. What follows is a revealing sex scene. Edie is angry, curses Tom, and slaps him. He grabs her by the throat and they struggle. She then pulls him close and forcefully kisses him. They have aggressive intercourse on the stairway. After they are done, Edie looks disgusted, not only with Tom, but also with herself. Here again, attraction and revulsion for violence seem to coexist. This scene contrasts with an earlier lovemaking scene, where Tom must clear their younger daughter’s playthings off of the bed to have sex. Edie comes out of the bathroom dressed in a cheerleader’s uniform. She flashes her panties, which he later removes, and she says, “There are no wives here tonight.” Tom initially seems embarrassed. The images suggest that below the playful innocence there lurk primal drives.

Tom receives a call from his brother, Richie (William Hurt, in an Oscar-nominated, funny/scary short performance), who threatens to visit his brother. To protect his family, Tom drives to Philadelphia and meets one of his brother’s men at a bar. They travel to Richie’s extravagant home in the suburbs. Richie asks his brother, “When you dream, are you Joey?” Again, the dream image is invoked, with the suggestion that there is a monster lurking below the waking surface. Because Joey tried to kill a made mob man (Fogarty), Richie got into trouble with the crime bosses. He says Joey has to die to make things right. But, Joey kills Richie’s men, and then kills his brother. He then goes to the lake behind the house to wash off the blood. He may be able to rinse off the external gore, but he can’t make his soul clean.

He returns home, supposedly as Tom again. His daughter sets him a plate at the dinner table. The couple’s faces look grim, shattered. Tears roll down Edie’s face and it appears as if she is praying. They eat in silence. Can Eden be restored after the fall? Was there an Eden to start with? Will they recover? What do you think?

Croenenberg seems to be saying that we should all remember that under our so-called civilized society, as a race, we all have a history of violence.

Next week’s film is The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Quiz Show

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

At the end of Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) says, for him, "everything came too easily."  For film fans, that line should sound familiar. Robert Redford (the director here) played a writer in The Way We Were who wrote the same thing about one of his characters, and used it as a metaphor for America. Redford knows about how acceptance and fame are closely tied to a pleasing appearance. Many times, the audience will not look beyond the outside to see whether there is true worth (which is earned), and honesty underneath that exterior. 

In Quiz Show, the director explores this theme extensively. Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) lives on the outskirts of the American Anglo-Christian mainstream. He is a very bright, less than handsome New York Jew who becomes a winner on the 1950's quiz show, 21.  However, he is disgruntled when, after losing his TV crown, he is not given his own talk show, which he thought the network executives, Dan Enright (David Palmer), and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) promised him. He tells the U. S. attorney, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who is investigating TV, that he, Stempel, was given the answers to the quiz show's questions, and was told to take a dive. Stempel says that Van Doren was also given the answers. Enright and Freedman attempt to discredit Stempel, doctoring a tape that makes it look like he was trying to extort the TV execs. Herbert says that it was unbelievable that he would not know the answer about who won the 1955 Oscar for best picture. Stempel has a point – why would such an outsider not know the honor Marty received, the film about the unattractive Bronx butcher?

Van Doren, attractive, an Ivy League professor, with an impeccable pedigree, is Stempel's successor. His father, the revered intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), is an intimidating dad. He and his son play brainy parlor games, as Charles tries to show pops that he is worth parental approval. That desire for fatherly acceptance drives him to become a contestant on 21. The audiences love him, and Enright and Freedman want to insure that he stays a winner. They eventually convince Charles to accept the answers.  The long sought after fame and recognition are too tempting for the younger Van Doren.  His father is not initially impressed, and doesn't even own a TV until his son gives him one as a birthday present. When Charles tells his dad how much money he is making, the father finally is stopped in his tracks. Charles is on the verge of telling his dad the truth about his deception.  But, he can't do it after his father says that Charles will never feel truly happy until he has a son. This statement emphasizes how betrayed Scofield's character feels when his son's deception is revealed. When he starts to feel guilty Charles tells Enright and Freedman that he can’t continue the deception. They say it is only show biz. He replies by saying it’s different for him because he is a professor. At that point an assistant enters and says, “The Professor is wanted in make-up.” In those few words we see that he has sold his intellectual integrity for unearned idolatry to a sham TV show that sells a modern version of snake oil.

It is fitting that the lawyer who brings down the TV show is himself an outsider – a Jew who attended Harvard. But, Goodwin, too, is seduced by the Van Doren charm, and does  not want Charles to be punished. He is after the network, and TV in general. Van Doren wants out, and blows a question that Goodwin realizes Charles knows. But, the network wants to continue to cash in on his celebrity. Charles accepts a well-paying job on the Today show. He can't let go of the fame, even though it was obtained through lies.

Stempel drops Van Doren's name at the Congressional inquest, and so the latter must testify. When Stempel confesses to his complicity in the quiz show, he is perceived as a buffoon, and is ridiculed. However, when Van Doren confesses, he gives an eloquent speech, and all the members on the Congressional panel, except the one from New York, commend him for his last minute honesty. These Federal representatives are also seduced into jumping onto the popularity bandwagon. This scene shows how believing the lie can spread even to high government officials. 

The power to manipulate the media comes from those who have the money. In this case, NBC and its sponsor, Geritol. The drug company advertised its medicine as the cure for "tired blood." This phony elixir was a lie, and the falsehoods flowed downward to a gullible populace, living fame vicariously through its false idols. Have things really changed?

Next week’s film is A History of Violence.