Saturday, September 12, 2015

Still Crazy After All These Years: Revisiting Network (1976)

Peter Finch's Howard Beale is "mad as hell" in Network.

The last few months I've been noticing, especially in the news feed of Facebook, this continued reverence for Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network, his loud and abrasive adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's broad satire about the shift in television journalism from hard news to glib entertainment. The picture seems to be getting acclaimed all over again for its sheer prescience in revealing how the corporate control of television news has turned the sacred screeds of Edward R. Murrow into the boorish rantings of Bill O'Reilly. Whether talking about Donald Trump's candidacy for President, the shout-fests that litter the prime time broadcasts on Fox News, or more recently, the tragic shooting deaths of TV reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward live on morning television in Virginia (simply because the news anchor in Network is murdered on air due to poor ratings) folks online are revisiting the picture for clues to see how it all went wrong. You'd think that Lumet and Chayefsky were sages who saw it all coming. I've often made the case that Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), or Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant (1969), had their ear to the ground in anticipating the political and cultural changes taking place in the culture. But those films were pensive and elliptical works that called upon the audience to contemplate what some of those shifting dramatic themes were all about. Network doesn't allow you to think; it tells you emphatically (and with a tin ear) what to think. Network is a noisy collection of broadside rants that – seen today – are no more perceptive than one of Bill O'Reilly's nightly belches. Instead of being an outrageous and equal opportunity satire that spares nobody, Network is full of homilies that reveals more of Paddy Chayefsky's fortune cookie idea of humanism than it does leveling with the dumbing down of the glass teat.

During a drunken night carousing with his old friend news director Max Schumacher (William Holden), veteran UBS anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) discovers that he's been fired due to low ratings. So Beale announces in his next newscast that he's tired of all the bullshit and is going to shoot himself live on-air in his next broadcast. But rather than causing panic and alarm, his angry tirade and suicide threat creates a huge boost in the ratings (coming just as the news department is about to be the victim of corporate meddling at the hands of Robert Duvall's company man, Frank Hackett). The popularity of Beale's nightly diatribes opens the door for Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an ambitious careerist who'll do anything for power and success. That includes cutting a deal with a group of radicals, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, who are a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army that kidnapped heiress, Patty Hearst, for an upcoming fall docudrama called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Not content at showing the bald opportunism at work in network news, though, Chayefsky (as he had earlier in the decade in his script to Arthur Hiller's 1971 The Hospital) also delves into the menopausal misery of middle-aged men (Holden in this picture and George C. Scott as a Chief of Medicine in The Hospital) who get seduced by threatening younger women. When Beale discovers that the CCA (Communications Corporation of America), the conglomerate that owns UBS, is about to be bought out by a larger Saudi conglomerate, Beale goes on the offensive against it. Those who put Beale on the air quickly send in their chairman, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), to talk Beale into accepting the corporate line and changing his tune on the air. When Beale starts telling people in his tirades that he believes democracy is hopeless, his ratings collapse and he's assassinated.   

Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky on the set of Network.

It's curious that a full-out lampoon of a visual medium happens to be so full of words. Yet that's the key to Network's appeal and success – the fear and distrust of images. From the early emergence of the visual arts, audiences resisted their pagan pull. When movies first arrived, it was theatre people who grew suspicious of a visual art form that called on you to give in to its power and surrender your control. As television appeared on the cultural horizon, movie audiences then argued against – and dreaded – a medium that invaded the sanctity of the home. When Network came out, I was studying film in college and none of us there found cause to discuss it seriously while being caught up in more challenging work from Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 to Carrie. (Even visually, cinematographer Owen Roizman's work looked totally washed out as if he were afraid to demonstrate the dynamic boldness he showed in his previous The Return of a Man Called Horse.) It was writers who seemed to view the film as some urgent manifesto against everything they feared. One Canadian poet I knew was so alarmed by the message of Network that he was inspired to type a whole novel on toilet paper (using both single and two-ply) called Shit. His work was actually more entertaining and imaginative than Network. (As people continued to use one of these ass- wipers, those new to the commode would be missing essential pieces of the narrative. Even so, I'm still not convinced as to how Network leads to Shit.) Many viewers of Network failed then and now to see the fashionable fundamentalism at its core. Like a modern day Moses throwing daggers into the Golden Calf, Paddy Chayefsky wasn't interested in looking at how corporate culture took over network news and why. Network instead drew its power by exploiting the hangover following Watergate, along with the collapse of the counter-culture and the rise of homegrown terrorist networks, to tell us that television had taken away our souls. But how can you prove spiritual larceny, when most of the characters have no souls to steal? 

Peter Finch's Beale is believably seasoned as a veteran anchor, but we're never sure if he's truly mad or whether he's simply playing a holy fool. His key moment of madness, which has now become iconic, only adds to the confusion. Beale goes on the air and marshals the public rage over the state of the nation into a call to action. He asks everyone to stick their head out the window and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," and the whole country follows suit. But their passive acquiescence to Beale's request doesn't come across as an act of protest, rather it makes him out to be merely a mad prophet of conformity – the very thing the picture is supposed to be railing against. Terry Jones's Life of Brian (1979), an absurdist satire of the Christ story, did this gag much better. In the scene where Brian publicly tells his followers that they are all individuals, they cry back in unison, "We are all individuals!" (except for one malcontent who cries, "No, I'm not!"). By the time, Ned Beatty's Babbit figure converts Beale to the corporate line, Network further betrays its rebellion against compliance. When Beale tells his audience that they might as well give in to the corporate agenda, the picture unwittingly swallows the popular despair of those who have already cynically given up on the validity of the political process.  

Faye Dunaway and William Holden

William Holden's Max holds the screen with the authority of a leading man, but his affair with Diane Christensen, the blonde ice queen who is described as "television incarnate," makes her the stock villain used to disguise the priggishness of his character. Despite the thankless role, though, Dunaway is almost as sexy here as she would be a few years later as the fashion photographer in The Eyes of Laura Mars. The carnal heat she generates in Network could be the thrill of the game if Chayefsky hadn't rigged the rules to make her both the victim and progenitor of TV's soul-snatching. What's surprising, in retrospect, was the absence of any feminist reaction to the creation of a female character whose desire for power seems to be tied to her sexual neurosis. (Max's menopause, by contrast, is supposed to add to his integrity even when he admits his feelings for Diane to his endearingly faithful wife played by Beatrice Straight.) Robert Duvall is such a caricature of boardroom malevolence that he resorts to showboating to prove he's the corporate meany. (He has one plaintive moment, though, after Beale helps nix the Saudi deal when he laments mournfully, "I'm now a man without a corporation.")

For all the talk of this being one of Sidney Lumet's great New York movies, Network doesn't come close to striking the nerve that his previous Dog Day Afternoon did. Unlike the heavy moralizing in Network, Dog Day Afternoon bristles with the raw excitement of a city fighting to be recognized. The role of television media here is also far more dramatically convincing. When Al Pacino's bank robber taunts the police with shouts of "Attica! Attica!," and the gathering crowd screams their approval, he's not making a statement like Beale's "mad as hell" moment. Pacino is invoking the complicit violence of the authorities at Attica Prison in 1971 when an uprising of prisoners lead to 43 deaths. He's identifying with those we saw victimized on television and his shouts magnetize the crowd while terrifying the police. The scene is both comic and stirring and the mounting volume of screaming becomes funny because no one thinks they're being heard even when they're yelling at the top of their lungs. Lumet often worked best when he could catch the rising temperature in a room, as he did in Dog Day Afternoon, but when he had a thing or two to say about social justice in plodding pictures like Prince of the City (1981), Daniel (1983) and Q &A (1990), the movies suffered badly from tired poor blood. Network is also pretty tired, too, but it's so frenetic that it only gives off the sense that it's getting at something.  

Why Network is still being revered today is perhaps no mystery given the way television news has been more and more abandoning its in-depth political stories for personality pieces that connect to the average viewer. But Network never respects how the medium is different from that of magazines, newspapers and even radio to give us a sense of the changing dynamics. Chayefsky and Lumet are content in Network playing the role of old-time preachers on the stump trying to tell us how the sanctity of the word is being threatened by the secular image. Their protest is not only still profoundly sentimental and antiquated. It's also old news.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment