Friday, January 18, 2013

Unsocial Network

Yes, that Network, the 1976 film directed by the late Sidney Lumet. Still widely remembered, mainly for the scene when the crackpot/Jesus figure, newscaster Howard Beale, goes into on-air meltdown:

"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!' [Usually misquoted as, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"]

Your blogger actually reviewed the movie for a weekly arts paper on its theatrical release. I must have been among the 1 or 2 percent of reviewers who panned Network. The only part of the review I can summon to mind was a line to the effect that the movie represented a new genre: a cartoon with live actors.

Since the picture has had such a long shelf life, I thought to give it another chance. So I borrowed the DVD from Netflix; not a Blu-ray disc, but an excellent digital transfer that was probably sharper than what I'd seen in the boxy little theater in '76.

Since then I've had more experience, seen many more movies, and like to believe I've acquired better judgment and a better grasp of what constitutes cinematic quality. 

After this recent viewing, Network seems to me the first, or one of the first, examples of a once-new genre: a cartoon with live actors. There have of course been many more since -- in fact, it's arguably the default style of modern film making.

By cartoon, I mean it doesn't even try to resemble real life. Dialogue, acting, themes -- everything italicized.

The social and literary critic Paul Fussell wrote a book titled BAD, in which he made the distinction between plain old bad (having no merit, worthless, etc.) and BAD (which might be defined as actively negative or tasteless). Network was, is, and always shall be BAD.

For example, the character Howard Beale's obsession is screamingly ambiguous. Other than a trite  rant against worldwide corporations, he has no apparent motive except to whip up resentment -- what David Denby called (in reviewing a different movie) rebellion without content.

It's breathtakingly cynical on the part of the writer, Paddy Chayefsky. Who isn't mad about something? So anybody on any side of our political, social, religious, or cultural divisions can imagine that Beale is speaking for them, for their poor shriveled souls destroyed by an uncongenial world. Right on, baby!

When everyone in a New York apartment building actually does lean out the window to bellow, "I'm mad ... etc." in the movie, what if the next door neighbor is mad for totally opposite reasons? Is that supposed to be the cure for our collective ills?

Or maybe Network is about how television corrupts the audience with its ratings game. Hardly a new idea, even in 1976. But it's especially distasteful when dished out by a movie -- a movie, for heaven's sake, driven as much by box office and distribution revenue as TV is by ratings and advertising. The movie industry's flaming sword is directed at TV, its chief competitor (at the time) for capturing dulled eyeballs.

Sidney Lumet has a deservedly high reputation for directing actors, but it doesn't rest on this thing. Given the script's ludicrously overheated plot points and dialogue, maybe he figured there was nothing for it but to go along with its spirit.

Chayefsky's screenplay orders the leading players to make fools of themselves, and they obey. The talented Faye Dunaway, as producer or manager or whatever Diana Christensen, wallows in caricature, as does Peter Finch as Beale. I have a grudge against him anyway for seducing Vivien Leigh when she was having a mental breakdown and was still married to a far greater man of the theater and screen than Finch, namely Laurence Olivier.

William Holden (news director or whatever Max Schumacher) -- not much of an actor but what camera presence! -- retains a tenuous hold on dignity. The only acting worthy of the name is by Cindy Grover in a tiny role as Schumacher's wife upstaged by her husband's affair with Diana.

In 1976, at least you could still lampoon blacks and whites equally. Through plot manipulation  (don't ask me what -- I gave up trying to make sense of the twists), Diana recruits a black radical with an Afro hairdo and an African-patterned dress, obviously modeled on the '60s Commie celebrity Angela Davis, to induce her and the male leader of the Something-or-Other Liberation Army to cooperate in creating a network series that was, apparently, an early version of a "reality" show.

We then see the black radicals eagerly corrupted, in a meeting with lawyers working out their percentage of the profits from the program.

Can you credit the idea of any producer today agreeing to such a portrayal? If Paddy Chayefsky were around and bone-headed enough to write it, he'd hear:

"Paddy, Paddy ... what are you doing? Twenty-eight point seven percent of our projected audience is African American. You're tearing the heart out of my body! You want to call the Cossacks down on us? You want the NAA PC declaring a pogrom? And that Southern Political Law Center adding us to page 4,000 of their list of racists? Paddy, you've got to listen! Send that part of the script to the floor. I know I can count on you."

It's odd watching a film for the first time in, what, 36 years? I recognized about 15 minutes from the two hours. The rest might as well have been seen for the first time. At least the bits I recalled more or less coincided with my impressions from way back, not always the case in watching an old movie after a long interval. Supposedly everything we have ever experienced is preserved in mental formaldehyde, capable of being exactly recalled with the proper electrical stimulation; or it is archived in what occultists call the Akashic Records. Whatever. Most of my life is gone to someplace where the telegraph lines are down. Strange thing, this memory business.


YIH said...

Personally I liked the movie, it won many awards and IMHO rightly so.
But opinions are like...
That said, I see your point, it was 'over the top' and it was supposed to be.
Over the past 30 years I've seen and heard much to suggest that this film is prophetic.
And even more accurately...

YIH said...

I too have noticed the disappearance of Gates of Vienna and it has left me utterly baffled.
Google does have legitimate reasons for taking down blogs such as excessive porn, excessive advertising not Google ads, questionable legality, or troops blogging 'in theater' (the DOD pushed Blogger to nix that in 2005 due to blog posts that ran contrary to the 'everything is getting better every day and every way' nonsense they were pushing) but GoV didn't fall under any of those sensible restrictions. There was controversy over Brevik but quite a few blogs were mentioned by him (such as Auster) but that blew over.
That GoV would be shut down is downright creepy, it didn't even allow foul language (or of course any threats of violence) and had no ads other than the 'tin cup' for donations.
If Blogger has changed the TOS due to political pressure (FOX news has knuckled under due to the Saudis) they had better make it known.
BTW, yes, still down as of this writing.

Stogie said...

The part I liked most in that film is when the Ned Beatty character explains to Beale why Beale is wrong, and how economics really work, how the tide goes out but then comes back in. It struck me as a fair defense of the free market.

As for the Akashic Record, there's an interesting concept for future discussion. Even before I ever heard of it, I envisioned it as a kind of cosmic card catalogue, with every scene in history, including the most mundane, to somehow be preserved in overlaying layers, perhaps retrievable by as yet unknown means. With it, you could possibly reverse wind all events for every physical location, seeing what transpired there at any point in time, back to time's beginning. Ah, a fascinating concept. I was surprised to learn that my concept was already well established with the name "Akashic Record."

YIH said...

Update: As inexplicably as Blogger 'killed' GoV they have restored it. Apparently without any explanation as to why. Baron and Dymphna suspect it was a major outage but I'm not so sure (other blogs on Blogger such as Vox Populi and SBPDL have not been affected nor have noted any problems).
Nevertheless they took it as a warning sign and have moved leaving the 'old blog' as an archive.
Like them I have no clue as to what to make of this nor have I seen any mention other than Mangan's and GoV itself of any problem.

M. said...

It might seem like a cartoon today, but the iconic speech by Ned Beatty explaining how the "global economy" could be a detailed blueprint for the New World Order.

"There are no Russians, no Arabs, no Americans, there is only Exxon, AT&T. . "

(Quoted from memory so it might be a little bit off. But you get the idea.)