Saturday, July 19, 2014
(November 1976, U.S.)
For this blog post of the late Sidney Lumet's film of NETWORK, I'm going to sidetrack myself into two rather different writing approaches that I almost never take. The first is to immediately acknowledge the writer of this material and his creative motives at the time of writing rather than focus solely on the film maker and filming techniques in general. NETWORK was written by Paddy Chayefsky in the mid 1970s as a satirical farce toward the world of television with a specific target toward the news division. It's important to note that I use the words "satirical" and "farce" because I cannot, for the life of me, imagine that when Chayefsky was writing fantastic concepts of reality-based television and tabloid news broadcasting, that he ever imagined that any of that crap would actually come true. Had he lived to see the 21st Century (he died in 1981), he would have seen his broadcasting fantasies come true in the form of "real housewives", dance moms, weight loss contestants, the newest rising singing idol and news broadcasts that would rather fill our pathetic minds with the latest celebrity dirt rather than real, hard news. The Cable News Network (CNN) was still several years away from being launched, so it was the three primary television networks of ABC, CBS and NBC that ruled the news airwaves. For NETWORK, we're introduced to the fictional network of UBS, its ongoing struggle with poor television ratings and their desperate attempts to come up with programming that will save them. This programming need not necessarily be of decent quality; it only need get people to watch it!
The second approach I'm going to take is to truly let the miraculous dialogue of this film speak for itself and the messages it was attempting to send out at the time and their (possible) relevance to today's media culture. There are moments of such powerful monologues and speeches that literally take your breath away! When they're concluded, you can't help but search your mind and consider their true meanings and how their content hardly seem dated, despite a difference of several decades. The first comes from the character of cold-as-ice, hard-hearted programming director Diana Christensen (played by Faye Dunaway in what is undeniably her greatest film role!) in which she truthfully acknowledges the quality of UBS's programming...
"I watched your 6 o'clock news today; it's straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park. On the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So, I don't think I'll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you're right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us. Look, all I'm saying is if you're going to hustle, at least do it right."
Even back in 1976, Chayefsky was directing our attention to the fact that most broadcast news was tabloid crap that sought to only hook our time and our mind into wanting more of that same tabloid crap. Today, think about the news that you watch on TV if it isn't CNN (and hey, even they're not perfect!). For myself, on a regular basis, I watch NBC news. It seems that unless there's some terrible tragedy in the form of war or a plane crash, they're likely to show their top story of the day in the form of the latest local crime to be caught on video or a threatening thunderstorm that's on its way to our neighborhood. The real tragedy is that I, like many others, sit there disgusted by what we have to watch and listen to that's being passed off as real news and yet we never bother to turn the TV off. We sit there and continuously take it all in, only to return to the same place, same channel twenty-four hours later to indulge in more, all for the sake of "staying informed". And for those of us who really love our TV (NOT ME, thank goodness!), we go beyond the news and watch what we actually believe to be real life in the form of reality TV. Why do we do it? That I cannot answer because I simply don't understand people anymore! However, that though in mind leads me into the next piece of dialogue that clearly raises the same complaint that I've just outlined. It comes from the film's main character of burned-out, slightly mad news anchorman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), who hosts his own show called "The Howard Beale Show" and plays a rather mad preacher and prophet of the TV airwaves. Today, his outrageous character may be found in men like Howard Stern or Jerry Springer. It goes like this...
"But, man, you're never going to get any truth from us! We'll tell you anything you want to hear! We lie like hell! We'll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he's going to win! We'll tell you any shit you want to hear! We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds...we're all you know! You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here! You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal! You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets! Turn them off now! Turn them off right now! Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I'm speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF!"
You starting to see the point I'm making here, people? Good! Then let's continue, shall we?
The next piece of dialogue comes from the character of Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty) in which he lays out, in no uncertain terms, the conditions of our world to Howard Beale...
"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! Is that clear? You think you've merely stopped a business deal! That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples! There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians! There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels! It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU... WILL... ATONE! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy! There is no America! There is no democracy! There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon! Those are the nations of the world today! What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do! We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale! The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business! The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime! And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that...perfect world...in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality! One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock! All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused!"
Pretty heavy insights, are they not? Do they apply to the general opinions of today's 21st Century common folk? Who knows. I suppose that's left up to individual opinion. But just think back a few years ago to the year 2008 when the last recession hit this country hard. Who were we blaming? We looked to the great banks and giant corporations of America as those responsible for our financial woes. When people took to the streets of Manhattan in great masses during the "Take Back Wall Street" marches, they blamed the banks and the corporations for running the country into the ground and ultimately screwing the common person who just didn't seem to matter anymore. And through it all, we had television news to continuously provoke our worst fears about what was to come and the consequences we would all have to endure. The great concept of America, it seemed, did not exist anymore. All that was left was the richest 1% and the common rubble that was left surrounding it. My point being, that even though the two decades differ greatly, it's basic idea that we're all being controlled by the so-called corporate "powers-that-be" that also include foreign powers and dollars, remains unaltered.
So now let me take a break from this format for a moment and go back to my traditional writing and speak of NETWORK as a film that is intelligent, brilliant, superbly well acted, outrageous and cruelly funny. It's a topical comedy that confirms Chayefsky's position as a major satirist of his time and a piece of work whose wickedly distorted views of the way American television looks, sounds, was (and still is!), are the writer's cardiogram of the hidden human heart; not just of television itself but also of the common society that supports it and is, in turn, supported by it. It's also one of Sidney Lumet's best films alongside SERPICO (1973) and DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). As for my thoughts on television in general - in a nutshell, I don't watch it; not anymore, and this comes from a man who was a serious TV addict as a kid! I'm of the strong opinion that all of today's TV is nothing but recycled crap, in one form or another. One's memories of what they would consider the "golden age" or "great days" of television would depend greatly on one's age, I suppose. For my generation (forty and up!), our parents and grandparents would place their fondest memories with the days of Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar and Edward R. Murrow. Those who shared my childhood of the 1970s would remember an era of ALL IN THE FAMILY, HAPPY DAYS, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and Walter Cronkite. Sad as it seems, our children today will fondly remember an era of all the previously-mentioned tragedies of television today that also include too many damn spin-offs of CSI and LAW & ORDER! In the end, though, perhaps only the technology has changed the face of television and not so much the content as I'm lead to believe. In the end, it's all up to our own perception...and also the amount of time we spend watching the damn tube (no, sorry, I meant SCREEN!)
Finally, with regard to film performance, I feel the need to vent a frustration that I'm sure has been spoken by others before. As good as Beatrice Straight's performance is in this film, how in the name of all that makes sense in the world could she possible win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 1976 based on what amounts to no more than six minutes of screen time (yes, I timed it!)??? Somebody please explain that one to me!!!
And so, having said all that, let me conclude with the big one; the ranting, raving speech that says it all and is totally infamous with those who know this great film so well. Here, too, is the appropriate picture to go with it...
Howard Beale: "I don't have to tell you things are bad! Everybody knows things are bad! It's a depression! Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job! The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter! Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it! We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad, worse than bad! They're crazy! It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore! We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms! Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything! Just leave us alone!' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest! I don't want you to riot! I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write! I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street! All I know is that first you've got to get mad! You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now! I want all of you to get up out of your chairs! I want you to get up right now and go to the window! Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE'!