In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
When Ben Affleck failed to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar a few months ago, pundits earnestly discussed the injustice of the Academy snubbing him. Now that Argo has become the first movie since Driving Miss Daisy to win Best Picture in spite of that disadvantage, the conventional wisdom says a grave error was made. Plenty of variations on “Did this movie direct itself?” have been voiced, as they have countless times before in similar circumstances. If the movie was that all-fired great, the reasoning goes, surely the dude in charge must have been on fire.
To some extent, that’s true. Directing a feature film involves a gigantic number of responsibilities, many of which are essentially invisible to people who weren’t on the set every day. One could argue that much of the director’s job simply involves hiring the right collaborators: actors (and casting director), editor, cinematographer, production designer, composer, etc. As a critic, though, when I vote for Best Director in year-end polls, what I tend to focus on is the use of the camera. And while there aren’t many visually undistinguished masterpieces, it’s common to find indifferent camerawork hampering otherwise-solid mainstream Hollywood fare—the kind of movie that wins Oscars, in other words.
Rather than beat up on Affleck, whose work in Argo was perfectly fine (though not at the level of his much stronger debut, Gone Baby Gone), I’m gonna use my go-to case of a movie that works in spite of its direction rather than because of it: Quiz Show. Robert Redford actually won his Oscar for Ordinary People, in one of the Academy’s all-time travesties (Martin Scorsese made Raging Bull that year), but Quiz Show has a clearer example of how hackneyed Redford’s instincts tend to be at his films’ most dramatic moments. The movie depicts the scandal involving early televised game shows, most of which were fixed, with contestants coached extensively in advance, and every outcome preordained. In this scene, reigning champ John Turturro, whose awkward working-class manner has been found wanting by the show’s sponsor, has been instructed to take a dive on a simple question, while challenger Ralph Fiennes, who’d initially refused to play ball, gets asked a question that he’d already correctly answered during his interview.
“That wasn’t so awful,” you may be thinking. And no, it isn’t awful at all. That’s not what I’m saying. Quiz Show is a good movie—though not, in my opinion, even close to being one of 1994’s five best—and there’s plenty of talent on display here, especially when it comes to the meticulous re-creation of a ’50s TV studio. (There’s a real sense of how different America was back then just from the nameplates outside each contestant’s soundproof booth, which identify them as “Mr. Van Doren” and “Mr. Stempel.” Today on Jeopardy, they’d be “Chuck” and “Herb.”) At one point, Redford cuts briefly to Martin Scorsese, playing the Geritol honcho who wants Turturro off the show, and there’s a wealth of information just in the silk robe he appears to be wearing over his suit as he eats in front of the TV, and the blurry view of Manhattan skyscrapers visible through the window beyond him. That’s good direction, even if those choices were primarily made by the costume designer and the location manager, respectively.
Hmm. I seem to already be defeating my own argument. And there’s more what that came from, because Redford also gets first-rate performances from his actors here. Christopher McDonald’s unctuous impersonation of Jack Barry never fails to amuse me—I especially love his final, awesomely stilted practice rendition of “Good evening, I’m Jack Barry,” which puts his surname in aural parentheses—and Turturro nicely captures Stempel’s epic discomfort at the prospect of looking like an idiot on national television. But what really makes this scene memorable, in spite of the clumsiness I’m about to address, is the way Fiennes’ expression almost imperceptibly changes halfway through the question about H.W. Halleck, as he recognizes that the producers have broken their word and deliberately fed him a guaranteed victory. (Bear in mind, he doesn’t know at this point that Turturro has agreed to take a dive.) Most actors would be tempted to sell that recognition a little harder, especially because viewers aren’t certain to remember that he’d been asked the question before; Fiennes just lets his facial muscles slacken ever so slightly. We see the betrayal he feels, but it also looks as if he may just be worried that he doesn’t know the answer.
So why didn’t Redford deserve his nomination that year? (Robert Zemeckis won for Forrest Gump, which could be the subject of another, much longer column.) From a visual-engineering standpoint, this scene requires a solution to a fairly simple problem: how best to distinguish two similar-but-different instances of drawn-out suspense, one of which immediately follows the other. First, there’s Turturro agonizing over whether to say On The Waterfront rather than the correct answer, Marty, as he agreed (under duress). Then, Fiennes, who’s been ambushed, has to decide whether to take the illicit gift he’s just been offered. Pretty much the last thing a director should do is work out a series of images for the first instance, then repeat the exact same strategy for the second, so the audience is thinking, “Wait, weren’t we just here?” Yet that’s precisely what Redford does. The scene conveys all the information it needs to, but it lacks imagination, or even a concrete idea of why the camera should be doing one thing rather than another. And that’s entirely consistent with Redford’s approach to filmmaking throughout his career.
“Which motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?” As Turturro fidgets, there’s a dramatic close-up of his eyes; a quick cut to producers Hank Azaria and David Paymer observing from the control booth; a shot of Turturro as seen on a TV set; a slow pivot around his head, showcasing those giant headphones; a shot of the studio audience (focusing on his wife); various repeats of the foregoing; a rack focus from Turturro to the producers, just in case we were still unclear about the source of the pressure; a shot from within the isolation booth showing McDonald through the glass, awaiting an answer; a dramatic boom from above down to Turturro; etc. In and of itself, this sequence of shots isn’t terrible—though I’m not a big fan of the rack focus or the boom, both of which seem a bit trite. But nearly every one of them turns up again when it’s Fiennes’ turn to sweat. We get the pivot and the rack focus in the same shot. The boom does travel up rather than down this time, which I guess is meant to suggest an inversion, and there’s no chorus of onlookers prompting Fiennes with the right answer (since his question is actually difficult, even though Azaria and Paymer already know he can answer it). But it apparently never occurred to Redford that it might be more effective to shoot the two differently—that, just off the top of my head, since Turturro is concerned about his image while Fiennes has an impromptu ethical dilemma, it might serve the story to photograph Turturro as he did, but stay fixed on Fiennes in his tiny booth throughout.
Or something. Point is, this scene works in spite of Redford’s use of the camera, not because of it. So the idea that Quiz Show might have been nominated for Best Picture without Redford being nominated for Best Director doesn’t strike me as sacrilege. (Among other factors, Best Director nominations are made solely by the Academy’s Director’s branch, which tends to have better taste than the Academy at large. They nominated Krzysztof Kieslowski for Three Colors: Red that year, for example, rather than Mike Newell for Four Weddings And A Funeral.) By the same token, even if you think Argo was last year’s finest motion picture, which to me suggests that you didn’t get out much, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Affleck was one of last year’s five best directors. There’s no one-to-one correspondence in those two categories, nor should there be. Movies are a collaborative process, and while the director is the point where the buck ultimately stops, sometimes (s)he’s more or less just along for the ride.