Four Sublime Weeks in 1994

No, I’m not about to describe some long-ago fling so get your mind out of the gutter. Rather, I’m going to wax nostalgic about the incredibly fecund 28-day period in the fall of 1994 that saw the release of three terrific films, all personal favorites of The Conflicted Film Snob and, in his humble opinion, all still as vibrant, entertaining and relevant as they were–good Lord, could it really be?–22 years ago.

And it wasn’t just me who was so taken. Not that it should really matter but all three were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. And two were nominated for Best Director. And two for Best Actor. And two for Best Supporting Actor. And one for Best Supporting Actress. And one for Best Original Screenplay. And two for Best Adapted Screenplay. And one for Best Score. And one for Best Cinematography. And two for Best Film Editing.

In other words, each movie had a solid pedigree.

The first of the three, released on September 16, 1994, was directed by an old Hollywood player, an actor of note who, since 1980, had developed a taste for directing with hit-or-miss results; the second, released one week later, on September 23, 1994, marked the surprisingly refined directorial debut of a little-known writer of horror schlock; and, finally, the third, released on October 14, 1994, confirmed the unique genius of a young writer-director who’s freshman outing, a neo-noir crime thriller, had caused quite the stir a couple years earlier. Although all three filmmakers continue to work steadily to this day, it’s the The Conflicted Film Snob’s opinion (no doubt controversial) that none of them have surpassed the sublimity of their 1994 creations.

So what flicks am I talking about? Let’s begin:

Quiz Show (dir. Robert Redford)

Ralph Fiennes, fresh from his cold-blooded portrayal of the monstrous Amon Göth in 1993’s Schindler’s List, takes on a decidedly more sympathetic character in Charles Van Doren, the scion QuizShowPosterof a famously intellectual family (his father, Mark Van Doren, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic and teacher; his mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist; his uncle, Carl Van Doren, was a critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer) and eventual co-conspirator in a cheating scandal involving one of the more famous television quiz shows of the day (the late 1950s), Twenty One

The film co-stars John Turturro as Herb Stempel, the reigning Twenty-One champ who’s asked by the producers of the show, Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (played terrifically by David Paymer and Hank Azaria, respectively) to tank so that Van Doren, the much more handsome and empathetic contestant (and one with serious pedigree to boot), can ascend the throne, thus boosting ratings and, consequently, NBC’s revenue. Stempel agrees, but only because the producers have him over a barrel: it turns out Stempel’s fabulous winning streak has lasted so long because he receives in advance the answers to questions to be asked by the show’s host, Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald, another fine performance).

With Stempel out of the picture, the producers nudge Van Doren to follow in Stempel’s dishonest footsteps, anything to keep their cash cow on air. Van Doren eventually succumbs, the nationwide adoration of being the champ of a hugely popular TV show proving too powerful a drug to kick, not to mention the cash and perks.  Meanwhile, Stempel, irate with the show’s producers for reneging on a promised TV gig, spills the beans to New York’s DA, a spiteful decision as damaging to himself as anyone else involved in the scandal. Although the confession doesn’t really lead anywhere (the judge seals the grand jury’s findings), it piques the interest of a Congressional lawyer Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow, affecting an ivy-league accent that bothered many), who, digging further into the matter, begins to uncover the extent of the misconduct, which leads to a Congressional hearing on the matter, a bittersweet triumph considering Goodwin’s genuine like of Charles Van Doren and the accomplished Van Doren clan.

As mentioned earlier, the performances are uniformly fine. However, it’s those of Fiennes as Charles and the great Paul Scofield as his father, Mark, that really stand out. Charles, of course, is trying to escape the long shadow of his famous (and beloved) father by staking his own claim to (literal) fame. As played by Fiennes (all boyish, aw-shucks charm and blonde-haired decency, a million miles from his chilly Göth portrayal), we don’t dislike him (as we dislike the abrasive Stempel) for taking the quick, easy route. So when his comeuppance approaches, we can’t help but cringe–that could easily have been us, we think, seduced by the siren call of fame and fortune. We also cringe for Scofield’s paterfamilias who’s both mildly amused at, and dumbfounded by, his son’s newfound fame (it’s a million miles from his academically rigorous rise to the top). We know that when everything finally falls apart Mark and his legacy will be sucked into the dirty vortex, too. With these sympathies fixed in our mind, every scene between father and son after Charles learns from Goodwin that exposure may be looming is almost unbearably poignant, especially the one set in the family kitchen as Charles and Mark, both unable to sleep, share a piece of cake. Charles, overwhelmed by guilt, internally struggle with the idea of coming clean; Mark, clueless as to his son’s nefarious activities, displays nothing but amazement at Charles’ achievements and unconditional love; and we, as the audience, want to cover our eyes and roll up into a ball so we don’t have to see these two generally decent men get hurt:

As mentioned earlier, I can’t think of a stronger Redford directorial outing (yes, even stronger than his Oscar-winning Ordinary People). The script, by Paul Attanasio, is sharp and literate, featuring much more subtext (the muscle of large consumer advertisers; the American dream; ethnic prejudice–the nerdy Stempel is Jewish, the dashing Van Dorn is a WASP–etc.) than I have time to cover in this post. Furthermore, for a generally talkie film, Quiz Show boasts plenty of visual interest, its late 50s setting brought off terrifically via sharp production design, costuming and, most especially, the crisp and selectively kinetic framing of ace cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.  

Although probably the least seen by the masses of the three movies covered in this post, Quiz Show is a thoroughly enjoyable, if sometime painful, film that’s definitely worth a look.

The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont)

I’ll go easy on the synopsis because a) I’m guessing that most have seen the movie (it’s probably playing on TNT even as I type and b) if you haven’t seen it, then it would be
unconscionable for me to rob you of the surprises in the last half hour.

Suffice to say that the film opens with cold-fish Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) being wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and the tennis pro she was cheating with. Sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary (the arrival of which is shown via a terrific, if a bit showy, piece of cinematography)…

…he quickly finds himself the object of affection of a group of homosexual inmates whose strong-arm advances he fends off to varying degrees of success for the next couple of years. On a more positive note, he befriends Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a convict who’s known prison-wide for being able to get anything for anyone, and a couple other friendly inmates, including Heywood (William Sadler) and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore). Andy asks Red to procure, among other things, a tiny hammer to fashion chess figures out of rocks and a poster of Rita Hayward.

Being more educated than the average murderer (he was an accountant in his previous life), ShawshankRedemptionMoviePosterAndy eventually is tapped by the prison’s corrupt warden, Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), to spearhead a very lucrative money laundering operation. Although Andy’s not particularly comfortable doing the warden’s dirty work, it ensures that he and his friends get fair treatment by the prison’s brutal chief of the guards, Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown).

As characters come and go over the years, Andy and his friends slowly find themselves becoming “institutional men” in Red’s words, meaning they’ve become so socialized to prison life that they literally can’t function in the real world even if they were to be paroled (as was Brooks, to a disastrous end). Andy, always one to maintain a sense of hope in order to survive his prison ordeal, begins to find himself losing faith, especially in the wake of the murder of a young inmate who may have had information absolving Andy from his wife’s murder. Pushed to the edge, Andy finally makes a fateful decision some 20 years in the making.

I was lucky enough to go into this film knowing nothing more than it had received sparkling reviews, so the surprises of the last half hour really knocked me on my ass. Adding to the overall effect was the fact that I saw the movie at the now-defunct 3 Penny Cinema on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, its rundown condition (one could watch cockroaches crawl up the walls) not unlike Shawshank State Penitentiary’s hopelessly oppressive atmosphere. All the acting was top-notch, of course, especially Morgan Freeman, a man whose stentorian voice could make make a 24-hour filibuster on yeast infections the viewing event of the decade.

Little in writer-director Darabont’s earlier work (he wrote Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and a remake of The Blob) indicated that he’d bring such a deft, assured touch to his feature debut. He never rushes and he never overplays the emotion, not necessarily the modus operandi for a first-time filmmaker. In scenes where he seems to be headed toward treacle–Andy gifting Red with a harmonica, for example–he simply fades out. For all the film’s brutality and mayhem, it is, in many respects, a hushed movie. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he enlisted some A-level technical talent, including the great Roger Deakins directing the photography and Thomas Newman, who wrote the doleful, understated score.

You find 10 people on the street who’ve seen the movie and I’ll bet nine tell you they first saw The Shawshank Redemption on TV. Upon its initial release it didn’t do particularly big business, although it enjoyed a little bump when it was unexpectedly nominated for seven Academy Award a few months later. No, this is a film whose popularity (it’s #1 in the Top-250 films as ranked by IMDb users) is due to ad nauseum television rotation. Normally that would make me sad–a movie should be seen on the big-screen, especially in those pre-hi-def bad old days. However, Shawshank is an intimate enough film that it plays OK on the little screen and, heck, it achieved cult status so that can’t be all that bad, right? How many great, unseen movies would kill for a similar fate?

Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I’m not even going to bother with a synopsis because, frankly, if you’re not familiar with Pulp Fiction then why are you wasting your precious time reading a blog such as this? Anyway, Pulp_Fiction_coverwhat’s there to say that hasn’t been already? It’s a landmark film, one that literally changed independent cinema forever.

You may recall that the hype machine began for this film months before its U.S. release thanks to its Cannes festival triumph (it won the 1994 Palme d’Or). I’d seen Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, back in 1992 and enjoyed it (as much as one can enjoy a movie featuring the severing of a policeman’s ear to the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” by the band Stealers Wheel) but it certainly hadn’t prepared me for his sophomore effort. I, like most everyone else, was blindsided by its hilariously inappropriate dialogue, its nonlinear storyline, its cheeky violence, its vibrant cinematography (as opposed to Reservoir Dogs muted palette), its pop-culture and classic movie references, its reclamation of John Travolta from Hollywood’s trash heap and it’s star-making turn by Sam Jackson, among about 50 other things. 

When all is said and done, and Mr. Tarantino has completed his run as one of the more exciting filmmakers of the last however many years, Pulp Fiction will always lead the discussion of his legacy.

So, again, three wonderful films released in late 1994. All three eventually nominated for Best Picture. And the Oscar goes to…

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