Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Movie Post

Hey, a Monday Movie Post that's not just another Reagan movie! How about that.

Today's movie is Network, from 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky. I hadn't seen it for years, but I've been meaning to rewatch ever since the Glenn Beck fad a couple of years ago, and I finally got around to it.

Eh. As a movie, my sense is that it doesn't really hold up well. It's a weird mixture of two genres -- the paranoid thriller of the early and mid 1970s, and the TV news in decline drama that we've been living with, probably, since the 1940s. Or maybe this is when the TV news in decline drama began; I guess I'm not really aware of one preceding it off the top of my head, but I suspect they were around earlier. Anyway, I guess in 1976 people found the satire of "TV news is really just another form of entertainment" to be a big deal, but from our perspective it seems to me that they were missing the point.

The famous parts of the movie, especially the "Mad as Hell" rant, are justly famous, and work more or less as well now as they probably did then. But as a whole I found it a bit of a mess...some of it is clearly over-the-top satire, some of it is clearly not, and the two don't mesh well. At least as far as I could tell all the personal stuff with William Holden's character -- his marriage, his affair with Faye Dunaway -- didn't appear to me to be over-the-top satire.

As far as the politics of it: the core of the politics is the same sinister, amoral, corporate omnipotence and the hopelessness of ordinary people to defy it that shows up in quite a few movies of the era. Politics is hopelessly outdated in the face of it, with nation-states themselves outmoded; the only question for individuals in these movies is whether they'll go along or not, and it rarely goes well for those who don't. See, for example, The Parallax View -- or, for more fun, Rollerball. Among others.

So what I want to know: why was that particular vision so popular in the early and mid 1970s -- and what killed it off? It may have to do with changes in the movies rather than changes in politics, I suppose, and perhaps I 'm just not aware of later examples, but I can't think of any.

The other bit of interest here is TV, and especially Howard Beale, the mad prophet. He's not nearly as slick as Glenn Beck; Beale is a boring old news anchor who suddenly goes nuts (or whatever), unlike Beck's background in entertainment radio and obvious show biz training. And yet certainly they share quite a bit.

I guess what it comes down to is that I only have a very mild recommendation for it. It's fine; if you like movies from that era it's surely not in the top tier, but it's okay. It's not among my favorite Faye Dunaway performances, although I can always watch her; Robert Duvall is just about wasted, and I thought Holden didn't really do what he needed to. But Peter Finch is truly wonderful.


  1. It's interesting that people on the left and right both use that "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" line. Paddy was prone to satirical extravagance ("The Hospital" with George C. Scott in 71 took on corporate medicine in the same way.) Why the 70s? A long story I'd guess. But the corporatization of medicine and news media was pretty new (as opposed to the Hearst-type papers) and all that rebellious 60s energy finally came of age in the 70s. The early to mid 70s are considered by some to be a golden age of American movies. I haven't seen this one in awhile so I don't know how I think it holds up. But at least they got over all the zoom lens stuff that screams 60s!

  2. It wasn't just TV. This was three years after Gravity's Rainbow came out, it was the heyday of the paranoid conspiracy thriller.

    It's funny, Network was always one of my favourite films, but I went back to it recently too, and like JB was a bit disappointed. My main issue is the monologues... Chayefsky was a great writer but you can tell he cut his teeth in the theatre. With the exception of Jensen's 'coprorate cosmology' speech, those long monologues are just really boring today.

    All that said, I think JB is too harsh. The three central characters are compelling and original (agree about Duvall being wasted though). Some of its conceits, like news networks franchising terrorist groups, are still bizarre enough - but close enough to home - to be satirically strong and even seem prophetic. And the way it all spins out from the premise - What would happen if an anchorman announced he was going to top himself live on air - is still really enjoyable.

    And there are some terrific lines. Mad as hell, obviously, but also "I guess we'll have to kill him", and the moment when the Maoist guerilla leader fires his shotguninto the ceiling and declares, "Just give her the goddamn subsidiary rights", or something like that.

    So yeah... not as great as I remembered it, but well worth watching.

  3. So what I want to know: why was that particular vision so popular in the early and mid 1970s -- and what killed it off?

    Two candidates: the distasteful quid pro quo pardon of Nixon a month after Ford took office, and general distrust in the Warren Commission's findings (which would be institutionalized in 1979 by a House Select Committee officially declaring that the Warren Commission got it wrong).

    History is full of stuff to make Howard Beale mad as hell...surely the Nixon pardon and the runup to (and publication of) the House Select Committee report are in the Top 10, no?

  4. "Politics is hopelessly outdated in the face of it, with nation-states themselves outmoded"

    It's been years since I saw the movie, and this detail peaked my interest, given that a lot of recent historical scholarship on the 1970s looks at the period as a hinge point for 'globalization.' JB, could you briefly elaborate on how the outmoded nation-states things comes up in the movie?

  5. [Same Anonymous as above... I can never get Wordpress or any of the others to work]

    @PF - Pending JB's arrival, the way it happens is that Beale does his rant, it becomes incredibly popular, and soon they have him ranting every night - it becomes a special section of the show. Corporate deals with foreign interest are one of the things he lambasts, including (as I recall) the Saudis buying a stake in his own network.

    Eventually he gets hauled in to a meeting with Arthur Jensen, head of the conglomerate that owns the network. Jensen is a charismatic salesman, and, recognising that Beale has lost his mind, he takes him to 'Valhalla' - the boardroom - dims the lights and puts on a show, dazzling him with his vision of a dynamic, interlinked globalised super-system of money, beyond politics. "There are no nations! There are no people!"...

    Beale is converted, and that night cuts a deflated figure on his show, renouncing Mad As Hell calls to action and instead laying out Jensen's financial cosmology for the punters.

    His ratings tank. But Jensen loves it - whether because he's swallowed his own BS, or because he cares more about suppressing dissent than about the ratings of this one segment, I guess. So he refuses to let Hacker and Diane pull Beale off the air.

  6. In grad school, I TA'd for a professor who showed Network during his intro to American politics class. For reasons of time and, I suspect, propriety, he fast-forwarded through the love scene, but noted as he did so, "They are talking about television the whole time. THE WHOLE TIME."

  7. I happened to see Network again, for the first time since '76, a few months ago (on Bulgarian TV, no less). The brilliant part isn't the transnational corporate-conspiracy stuff, which didn't disappear but just became a standard trope or cliche. (It's figured in a million B-movies since then, and versions of it are present in other genres like the Alien(s) series. Its "classic" big-screen period extends perhaps from The President's Analyst, with James Coburn, to Rollover, with Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson. Wrong is Right, with Sean Connery, tried for it in '82 and was just awful.)(Sorry, too lazy to look up the directors.) What's best and truest in Network is the way the TV-Publicity-Industrial Complex is seen as constantly looking for something fresh and "authentic," and then turning it into something inauthentic and packaged. Best scenes: Howard Beale's mad-prophet show is introduced to a live studio audience with a bunch of additional fluff (a fortune teller, a listening-to-the-people segment lamely called "Vox Populi"), and the Symbionese Liberation Army stand-in group gets completely co-opted when they become TV "talent," with some radical Che-wannabe Maoist revolutionary picking apart a lengthy contract like any Hollywood agent (a scene that Anonymous recalls above). I give the movie points for those segments, and also for the fact that the Jensen speech, whatever you think of it as drama, is basically true.

  8. If you want to see a changed attitude toward government, and also science, take a look at "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and "Starman" (1984). Both concern the way Earth receives a visitor from outer space. In the first one, government barely appears. When it does appear, it is befuddled, helpless, and irrelevant. Scientists are the solution to the visitor's problems (and ultimately to Earth's problems). In the second, government is out-and-out evil. Scientists appear only as the handmaiden of government, with both jumping immediately to thoughts of vivisection as the most appropriate way to deal with an unknown visitor. I always assumed it was a reflection of the antigovernment attitude of the Reagan era, albeit a crude one.

    1. Now that I've started thinking about it, I can't stop. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is an anti-Cold War movie (although the concept of deterrence enters at the end in a fundamental way). For the pro-Cold War counterpart, see "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956). In the first one, the visitor really only wants peace. In the second, the hero initially thinks their conflict is based on misunderstanding but learns that the aliens are evil, unappeaseable, and must be stopped at all costs. Interestingly, the same actor plays the hero in the second one and a heavy in the first one.


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