Turturro Week: Part Two

It continues. As Barton Fink would say, “I’m Barton Fink, and it continues.” But this instalment of Turturro Week is not about Barton Fink, as that movie A. Contains little poetry and B. Is actually about a screenwriter. Today we settle into the late fifties of Washington and New York, into the gap-tooth bewilderment of Turturro’s greatest screen character, the memorably obnoxious Herbert Stempel. Today we do Quiz Show, which happens to be Vox Pop’s single favourite movie.

The Movie: Quiz Show
Year: 1994
The Plot in 50 Words: Big ol’ American morality play set during the 1957-59 rush of quiz show scandals. This film focuses on the marquee case of the U.S. Congress vs. the producers of the rigged gameshow “Twenty-One”. A socially awkward whistleblower (Turturro as Herbert Stempel) develops a fixation on the popular current champion (Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren) and his accusations raise the interest of an ambitious investigator (Rob Morrow as a young Richard N. Goodwin).
The Turturro Factor: Front and centre, Johnny. Turturro’s Stempel is a self-righteous id machine of relentless bitterness. While his two co-leads spend the story slowly arriving or departing from the truth, Stempel’s deviations are predictably scheduled and entirely the product of defence mechanisms. He’s the only person in the story not doing any plotting, any dancing around the stark truth of the film’s moral quagmire.
The Poetry: Like The Good Shepherd, Quiz Show contains a single poet, though said poet possesses a spectre long enough to shadow all the other characters and their various extra-poetic ministrations. He comes in the personage of Mark Van Doren, patriarch of one of the great American intellectual families and, in a more direct way, patriarch of the story’s would-be antagonist, a Mr. Charles Van Doren. Mr Van Doren won a Pulitzer for his poetry but is perhaps best remembered as a scholar and a mentor. Over forty years of teaching at Columbia, he worked with the likes of Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, he was instrumental in keeping the last two out of jail after an unfortunate round of pre-Beat Movement childsh frivolity. He was a key thinker on the subject of the “Great Books” education, and is the namesake of Columbia’s student-picked “Teacher of the Year Award”. Not for nothing, his poem “Our Lady Peace” also inspired the naming of the Canadian rock band. Thanks, Wikipedia.
The Message: What can we do with a thing we love this much except try and answer questions?

Q: For $64,000, I’d hope they ask you the meaning of life.

–Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield)

Movies move fairly quickly. The same can not be said of “films” necessarily (and here I’m employing a dreadful little shorthand, where movies = pop entertainments and films = cultural depictions) but Quiz Show is a fine example of a movie. For a movie, there is precious little time to set-up the sort of semiotic role being played by any of the 5-50 supporting characters that stop by to help or hinder your heroic (let’s face it, usually male) lead.

Quiz Show, having essentially three such leads, has even less space. Shortcuts are taken with some of these supporting players (Hank Azaria and David Paymer save their roles from the moustache-twirling villainry that was intended by performing them better than needed) but for the most part, far more clowns fit in this particular VW than you’d think. Such is the work of a competent screenwriter.

We first see supporting character-cum-actual midcentury human Mark Van Doren at an opulent and well-attended book signing. He makes some jokes, flirts with a young woman, and gravely tells a patron that the president has died (he hasn’t). Here is our shortcut to reading the poet as gentleman-loafer: wise as all fuck but prone to a certain flippancy. This doesn’t carry a lot of credibility as we get to know Van Doren better later in the movie, but it works as a point of departure. Quiz Show is a movie about the intelligentsia as a sort of optical illusion for the socially conscious class climber, something surprisingly unattainable despite the books you may read (or write) or the brain you may possess and exercise. Poetry is the ur-material of that aspiration, and the only person fully comfortable within it is this older Van Doren.

Poetry (and, by extension, intellect) is the family business of the Van Dorens. Mark is a poet, Dorothy (his wife) is a novelist, there are critics and scholars and poets at the dinner table. They refer to Edmund Wilson as “Bunny” and they call each other on the phone to chat. The three younger men at the centre of Quiz Show yearn for a similar comfort with this rarified intellectual air. Mark Van Doren’s son, Charie, is oppressed by the unearned quality of it as it applies to his father’s son, while the other two (Dick Goodwin and Johnny T’s Herbert Stempel) are various degrees of outsider. They can quote all the Emerson and Shakespeare they want, but at best Goodwin straddles the line and Stempel is locked out completely.

It seems like a somewhat alien idea that poetry is a class signifier. Surely, there are a lot of upper-middle class poets (thank you, academia!) but most of the history of American poetry, from literarily right after Quiz Show closes to maybe the 1990s, has been dominated by outsider figures from the Beats to Hip Hop and beyond.

And likewise, poetry has lost something of its cultural cache. Stempel and especially Goowin refer to it in the same way that a person would make a historical allusion, as an act of reaching back to the shared material of contemporary life. That this is a dying art (how many NY Transit employees, like Stempel, or Congressional investigators, like Goodwin, have Dickinson at their fingertips today?) is sad, maybe, but it’s also secondary to the presentment of poetry (and, by extension, intellectual life) in the film. It’s not about what is shared, it’s about what’s reserved for the few, and how arduous and dangerous it is to try and move in uninvited.

Q: I feel we speak the same language.

-Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) to Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow)

Quiz Show is a rare drama in that it gives you the full educational history of each of its characters. These three CVs are clichés of class, surely, but we can’t fault them for that, as they’re also true. Charles Van Doren took a M.S. in Astrophysics before realizing, as he said in the film, that “all the great physicists were great before they were 25. It just wasn’t in the cards.” He then returned to the family business and got his PhD in Literature and wrote a book about a patricide, of all things. Goodwin, meanwhile, despite the Cambridge accent, is from Boston and carries a sort of working-my-way up demeanour when he says (in every introduction) that he finished first in his class at Harvard Law. Stempel, meanwhile, followed the American Dream as it was dictated to him from the army to the GI Bill to City College of New York. They’ve all done the expected.

A word that keeps popping up throughout Quiz Show is “erudition”, which is not quite the same word as “intellect” (and of course, not the same word as “poetry” at all). Erudition is the difference between the working class polymath of Herbert Stempel and the purebred academic of Charles Van Doren. Again, our investigator, Mr. Goodwin (easily the most subtly written of the three leads) keeps dropping us hints that he aspires to be the latter but may be more of the former.

Goodwin wants to be Charles Van Doren so bad he can’t prosecute him, and chooses instead to prosecute an idea. “I want to put television on trial. Television” he says, like he’s Marshall McLuhan and not a civil servant with a chip on his shoulder. When the Van Dorens make the slightest move towards incorporating them into their “we”, his eyes light up like the cute girl across the classroom just blew him a kiss. When Fiennes asks “remember what it was like for guys like us growing up?” he just smiles. Maybe he remembers. Maybe he doesn’t.

I find myself thinking of this broad intellectual classism in terms of poetry. Ours is an era of self-directed knowledge and, by extension, an incredible variety of the knowledge bases on display by the curious-minded (some of whom will, by their natures, decide to be poets). I would suggest, though, that the bias towards the academic that seems so obvious and unchallengeable in Quiz Show lives through to today. In the movie, some random dude in the audience of Twenty-One expresses his happiness at Van Doren’s victory over Stempel by saying “now we have a clean-cut intellectual, instead of a freak with a sponge memory.” This is harsh to freaks, surely (and sponges), but encapsulates the view of Stempel’s intelligence as a sort of loose assortment of parlour tricks. He’s not a smart guy, he’s “the guy who knows everything”.

I know some poets with PhDs, and I know some poets who dropped out of college. I don’t want to sow the seeds of class divisions where none exist (some of those drop-outs have national reputations, while some of those professors can’t get their poems arrested) but I will say that there remains a tendency to see the academics as authors of books concerned with systems: of thought, of language, or of interrelated poetic histories, while the non-academic poets maybe get written up as lone wolves, doing their thing as they see fit, separated from any theory or community. Feel free to disagree with this generalization (it’s a big, sloppy one, full of holes and weak patches) but understand that there’s no quality distinction being made, and there’s as much to be said for belonging, as for not belonging.

Q: Geritol cures “tired blood”, and I’M supposed to be ashamed of myself?

–Howard Stempel (John Turturro)

If Quiz Show wanted to divide its characters up into two groups (and it doesn’t, it’s too good for that, but I do, as I’ve been writing far too long and need a shortcut) it could do so the following way: Team A is for the men and women willing or able to speak in terms of individual choices and mistakes, without attaching them to greater cultural failures that might apply to more than one individual at a time. Team A, in that case, would contain most of the film’s “villains”: the producers, the network boss, and Martin Scorsese’s cameo appearance as the pharmaceutical mogul who sponsors the show. Team B would be home to the moral absolutists, the people who refuse to segregate the scandal at the center of the movie into anything less than a societal phenomenon. The captain of Team B would definitely be Dick Goodwin, though we are free to doubt his motives. Mark Van Doren coaches Team B. There are a scattering of bit players riding the benches (chief among them would likely be the two wives: Stempel and Goodwin’s).

Harder to classify would be Stempel and the younger Van Doren. Surely, our friend Herbert is able to spread wide the blame, from the contestants to the network to the sponsor to the “schmucks who watch it”. However, he can’t blame himself. Van Doren, on the other hand, plays for Team A for most of the movie before belatedly (and, somewhat weakly) trading themselves to their rivals in the climactic scene.

I’m not interested in talking about morality. Rarely has a person ever done that well while also talking about poetry. But, I’d like to suggest that the north-south thinkers of Team B have something of a stronger sense of metaphor than those in Team A. The ability to construct a metaphor is tied very closely to what education psychologists have coined for us, “lateral thinking”. A person with a gift for metaphor arrives at the link between the fraud of the sponsoring product (the “Geritol” itonic n Stempel’s above quotation) and the fraud of the show itself. Stempel gets to metaphor well. One could assume, then, that he knows he did wrong.

Of course, because Quiz Show is a work of art and not a historical transcription, many more of these beautiful metaphors and analogues are sewn into the work. Characters are shown watching professional wrestling, which was presented as athletic contest in the 1950s. They smoke, oblivious to the health impacts that were even then being attacked and underplayed by the corporations responsible.

Don McKay said, “There is at the heart of metaphor a delicious amoral joy.” Quiz Show is populated by people imaginative, intelligent, and well-read enough to be able to employ metaphor in their quest for sense and self-awareness. Many of these people live amorally (which is not the same thing, of course, as immorally, though it’s easy to make the jump between the two if your goal is passing judgement). To those of us romanced by the idea of the noble artist, as naive and anachronistic as it might be, this is perhaps not the coincidence we’d prefer to end on. So let’s end on it, shall we?


I’m finishing this and running out the door, folks. I’ll go over it again tomorrow and try to iron out the problems. I hope to see many of you at Pivot in a few hours! Should be a good one: Couture/Apostolides/Vermeersch.

In the interim, the folks at Youtube appear to have the whole Stempel v. Van Doren episode of Twenty-One on file. Here it is in three parts, speaking of good actors:

Explore posts in the same categories: Film, Poems in the Wider World

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