Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ecological Balance

As autumn begins, so does the new TV season, one which I have a somewhat greater interest in than I usually do, but let’s leave that aside for the time being. Recently I was told that someone I know slightly saw NETWORK for the first time and hated it. I really don’t know what to say about this. If I knew the person in question better I could take some guesses but…really? NETWORK? Were they expecting a broad comedy? Were they not approaching it in the context of the time it was made? Do they just not understand anything about anything? Has NETWORK really become obsolete for some people out there? And in asking these questions have I in some way become like William Holden’s Max Schumacher, wondering what the hell has happened to the world?

Earlier this year, even before the April death of legendary director Sidney Lumet, there was a period where for whatever reason I found myself watching NETWORK quite a lot. I’m still not sure why. Maybe because as I get older, becoming more attuned to everything going on, it’s like the movie crystallizes more and more for me. When I was younger I think I had found myself looking at it as a sort of past version of the future to come—of course, that doesn’t make very much sense since NETWORK (and please don’t think this is meant to be any sort of definitive look at the film. It may not even be my own definitive look at it) is very much set during the time it was made in, with not only numerous topical references (has any other movie ever mentioned PHYLLIS?) but specifically dated through ’75-’76 so we can track the months of the storyline. We’re now more than a few years past the point where much of NETWORK can be taken as any sort of satire anymore, not in a world someone on a reality show commits suicide which is followed by a special where the other people on the program talk about it. Not where CNN chooses to devote most of its coverage on a single day to the death of someone like Anna Nicole Smith. It made slightly more sense for the so-called entertainment-related news show I worked for at the time to devote as much attention to it as they did but not that much more. And now, several years after her death, Anna Nicole Smith already seems to be totally forgotten probably because she was someone who, after all, never actually did anything.

It also might be my favorite Sidney Lumet film, the one I find myself drawn to watching the most, more than 12 ANGRY MEN, more than DOG DAY AFTERNOON—I’m not necessarily saying it’s his best and, admittedly, there are still a few titles I have to get around to but there may be some irony in how it’s not only more associated with the man who wrote it, Paddy Chayefsky, but it’s one of a handful of films which has an authorial “by” credit attributing that writer immediately following the film’s title. But maybe to say that would be to ignore just how much Sidney Lumet really did when he directed NETWORK. It might be an interesting assignment for anyone to compare it to, say, the Arthur Hiller-directed THE HOSPITAL which was also written by Chayefsky and, for that matter, features a similar possessive credit. It’s not even all that hard to imagine that Lumet might have been a possibility for that film at one point and certainly Hiller has never been anyone’s idea of a grand visual stylist—there’s a considerable lack of discipline in that film’s direction but he clearly knew enough to keep out of the way of the text as well as hold his camera on George C. Scott during his biggest scene (“WE KNOW NOTHING! WE HEAL NOTHING!!”) so it clearly wasn’t just a case of a hack shooting coverage and following the script. Still, NETWORK not only seems to me to be a better script than THE HOSPITAL (all the murder mystery stuff in that film is never really my favorite), there’s also so much visual confidence in the film displayed in how Lumet is willing to do nothing but just hold on the faces framed within those offices they make their hatchet-job decisions in amidst the jungles of Manhattan. Aside from what might be an extraneous twenty seconds as the camera pans across Elaine’s during Max and Diana’s first date (which I’m glad is there anyway for the brief piece of 70s singles bar vibe it offers) there’s practically not a wasted frame in the film and his dry yet humane style which is deceptively complex in its framing means that NETWORK has aged fascinatingly well, moving from the send-up it once may have been into the mirror it acts as now where real life simply can’t be ridiculed anymore.

I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained from breaking down the plot and I certainly don’t want to spend time comparing certain characters to some possibly deranged individuals actually out there in the world. But since it seems there are people out there who still haven’t seen it yet here goes. Admittedly, this is partly for my own amusement. When legendary UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is informed that his tenure is coming to an end due to declining ratings he promptly goes drinking with network news chief and old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) where he jokingly, drunkenly muses about how high the ratings would be if he killed himself on the air. The next night he goes on and announces that he is going to do exactly that the following Tuesday. (“Howard just said he was going to blow his brains out next Tuesday,” one of the few people in the control booth actually listening to him calmly reiterates). He is relieved of his duties immediately but convinces Max to give him one final night to sign off. So he goes on and claims that he made the threat simply because he “ran out of bullshit” after which he is yanked off once again but not before Max, enraged over what is about to be done to his news division by the conglomerate CCA which has recently purchased IBS, lets him remain on the air to say whatever he wants. Nevertheless, Beale’s outbursts get the attention of network programming head Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who convinces corporate manager Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who is in the middle of consolidating all activity in the network to conform to corporate standards to maximize profits, that there might be something in keeping him on the air. Schumacher and Christensen spend the night together but the situation escalates, resulting in Beale going on the air in a total frenzy, going on and yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” By this point Beale is a national sensation who people everywhere are drawn to and his show is no longer The Nightly News but “The Howard Beale Show” a part of the entertainment division with Schumacher fired and Christensen firmly in charge although soon enough the two have begun a full-fledged affair. Christensen takes advantage of this success by launching new shows that continue her hot ratings streak including “The Mao-se Tung Hour” a chronicle of a terrorist group known as the Ecumenical Liberation Group and their criminal activities. But soon things begin to go wrong when Beale goes on the air to protest a deal which will allow CCA to be taken over by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, leading to the CCA chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) to be brought in from on high. But he has his own agenda and launches Beale on a new and even more surprising crusade.

I think just spending a few minutes writing that out has increased my appreciation even more for how dense the storytelling of NETWORK is, for how expertly every beat and character are laid out by Chayefsky, not to mention how much dialogue within its ultra-lengthy monologues that could very easily be referencing right now, down to a mention of hiring writers for what is essentially a reality program decades before there even was such a phrase--a recent article in the New York Times (you know, the Holy Goddamn New York Times!) which discusses some of his detailed notes made as he was writing the script couldn’t be more valuable to read now. It’s been pointed out by others before me how the basic setups of both NETWORK and THE HOSPITAL (as well as Chayefsky’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, also directed by Arthur Hiller) similarly revolve around men who are operating under a delusion but NETWORK cuts a little deeper, probably because of its own maker’s closeness to the subject. It strikes me that both Lumet and Chayefsky were of a similar age, both old enough to consciously remember a world without TV and both there at the point of its inception into mass media, each working in the format’s early days to great success and no doubt they witnessed what had happened to the form as it moved past the days of serious drama in live TV down through insipid sitcoms and where it was by the time this film was made. The two male leads of NETWORK are not quite mirror images of each other but they do of course have a generational commonality and by a certain point the narrative seems to shelter them from each other, almost as if it would be a violation to keep them in the same frame. As a matter of fact, Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is never even in the same scene as Howard Beale which has long intrigued me, although dialogue indicates they interact (there’s even a still of the two together but beats me if this is a cut scene) and as she gets closer to Max Schumacher the narrative pulls away from Beale as any sort of human figure. He’s totally mad and there’s no point in observing him at any other time so all that matters is when he’s on television, dummy.

Coming from Chayefsky’s words NETWORK was and is about not only what television is becoming but also society is becoming, which is almost the same thing anyway. Beale has gone insane but in the madness is something that people are clearly responding to since it’s someone to articulate their rage as Diana’s analysis tells her—it’s really hard not to bring certain current events into this. From the vantage point of the film, television drives somebody crazy and that madness drives the society viewing him back to television all the more. I may be wrong but I sense slightly more anger coming from those words he wrote than from Lumet’s interpretation of them, essentially making the director the Max Schumacher to the author’s Howard Beale. Diana Christensen doesn’t seem to understand a single word he’s saying to her during their final scene, looking at him as if he’s saying he’s about to get on a rocket to Pluto. She doesn’t get it and the movie doesn’t even want to offer the glimmer of a possibility that she ever might. But it feels like Lumet wishes that she would. I look around the way the world is right now and I don’t even know if I have it in me to be mad as hell anymore. I’m just really fucking sad about it all. I suspect, even as far back as 1976, Sidney Lumet was as well but maybe, just maybe, he had the glimmer of hope that when Max Schumacher exits the frame, never to be seen again, he was possibly able to find some glimmer of hope in his winter years as he turned his back entirely on this universe he had spent all of his professional life in. As for Chayefsky, we of course lost him in 1981, far too soon. Just over a year after CNN launched, just over a month before Entertainment Tonight began, at the dawn of Reagan, before the internet, before all the real life Howard Beales and Mao Tse-Tung Hours came to the forefront of it all. He was needed. He still is.

Every single performance stay with me right down to the tiniest of phrasings from the way Finch says “Shrill, shrieking fraud,” Duvall screaming “IT’S A BIG TITTED HIT!!” or the way the phrase “since man crawled out of the slime,” oozes it’s way out of Ned Beatty’s mouth as if he really has been around long enough to have first hand knowledge. Faye Dunaway, in a role that uses every ounce of her physicality like no other ever did, fully embraces the skin and dark soul of Diana Christensen and won her Oscar, Peter Finch who embraced utter madness like few others ever have onscreen received his posthumously (I doubt the average person knows Finch from anything else now. I wrote about THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE once if anyone’s interested) while Beatrice Straight with her “winter romance” howl probably still has the least amount of screen time for any winner but she is unforgettable.

Robert Duvall oozes true, genuine icy viciousness through every deliberate phrasing he has (“Intractable and adamantine”) and it may very well be one of his most underappreciated performances. But for me it’s William Holden, who lost the Oscar to Finch, that is the streak of greatness in the film over all the others, delivering a searing portrait with every inch of his booze-lined face revealing a phenomenally humane portrait of this flawed, desperate man who is trying to come to grips with what his place in the world has become with the end of everything he’s ever known. Ned Beatty also received an Oscar nomination for his CCA Chairman/Face of God in what is essentially one scene, Wesley Addy of KISS ME DEADLY is the network president who has essentially allowed his balls to be cut off and Marlene Warfield is activist Laureen Hobbs whose fiery rage gets channeled into where her ratings are headed. Lance Henriksen, also in DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY for Lumet, is uncredited as one of the lawyers negotiating with the Great Ahmed Kahn and though some sources have Tim Robbins as one of the assassins at the very end I’m going to go ahead and say that isn’t right.

When you think about it, NETWORK ends where it ends way back in ’76 and thirty-five years later we still have to deal with that as more and more of the ‘simple human decency’ in society gets drained away. There’s a circular nature to Chayefsky’s story in how things ultimately play out—it’s a movie that begins with someone about to be taken off the air due to lousy ratings and ends with them finally taken off the air for lousy ratings. But I suppose when it comes to television, there never is very much in the way of progress and I remember the time when I worked at the entertainment news program which I will not name, a period of several years during which things seemed to shift things towards a nastier, much more toxic direction and the death of Michael Jackson was certainly one of the catalysts of that happening. The following weeks after that were one of the more intense periods I can remember while working there and the day before the funeral I was called into the office of the executive producer, a Diana Christensen in real life if there ever was one, after a minor error which I had been involved with had made it on the show for one of the feeds. Getting screamed at by her was an almost unspeakably terrifying experience, sweat dripping down my face like Robert Hays trying to make the landing at the end of AIRPLANE! as I wiped my brow with cheap napkins until she barked at me to stop that and said I wasn’t getting fired but that I had to do….better. I was dismissed at some point but to this day I actually have no recollection whatsoever of leaving her office, after which I went off to be alone and, well, collect myself. Later that day the Executive Producer’s number two who had also been in that meeting, less of a Christensen type who I sometimes saw a glimmer of humanity in, told me since she thought I had handled myself well. I never asked her exactly what she meant by that since I couldn’t possibly imagine how. And since I was laid off about six months after that, it really doesn’t matter anyway. I suspect NETWORK will continue to tell me things as I get older facing my own dreams of youth lost (“Was I ever that young?”) and the world continues to change. It may not be something that I’m looking forward to but I guess I have no choice but to just wait and see what’s going to happen. Along with waiting for what the reaction is going to be the next time someone I know sees it for the first time and what that may really mean in the end.


Darren said...

Brilliant piece. Just terrific. Well done, P.

Fred said...

You really captured the essence of this film. I remember seeing it when I was 12 during its initial release, and finding it to be the first time I understood the adult parts of a drama. Viewed now, the relationship between Holden and Straight is the truest one in the whole film, with Straight really showing the anger and hurt of a woman watching her marriage collapse because of her husband's mid-life crisis. And I agree that Holden really deserved the Oscar, but how can you beat someone playing a lunatic chewing the scenery, especially when said actor has the good sense to die before all the votes are in?

Regarding Chayefsky, I remember his Oscar acceptance speech and the thinly veiled anger. He was in many ways a combination of the Beatrice Straight and William Holden characters, who had married early television, given birth to its success, only to be scorned and fired, thrown over for the hacks who wrote silly sitcoms and t&a shows that then dominated the airwaves. It is truly amazing that television morphed from serious drama written by talents like Chayefsky and Serling, to mediocre nonsense written by for-hire hacks, to "reality" shows in which there is no more need for writers, allowing the producers and studios to reap more profits for themselves. And what seemed over-the-top and satirical in Network in 1976 looks toned down from today's reality, as we have shows about Bridezillas, toothless idiots in pawn shops, and other awful "people" acting like schmucks just to get on television.

Anonymous said...

I also went on a Sidney Lumet binge this year. I thought "Dog Day Afternoon" was great too. The acting, the mood and theme were really amazing. It's not as much as message movie as "Network" although I feel it captures the public's desperation in hard economic times and the feelings of futitilty. I also really enjoyed watching "Face In a Crowd" and "Ace In the Hole" (also called "the Big Carnival") if you're interested in future-looking movies, definitely recommended.

Joan said...

All I know is, you've got to get mad. You've got to say, "I'm a human being, goddamn it. My life has value."

Brilliant essay!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Once again, thank you, you know how much that means.


Thank you so much for that, it's very much what I was trying to get across. Since I was a little young at the time I've never seen Chayefsky's acceptance speech but I can only imagine. A genuinely serious satire on television might very well be impossible today--this film really was made at the exact point in history it needed to happen. Thanks to you again.


DOG DAY AFTERNOON certainly was one of the first I watched (again) soon after Lumet died. As as loyal Wilder fan I love ACE IN THE HOLE very much.


Whoever you are, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

Phil Hansen said...

I got Darren this for Christmas and so I watched it for the first time last night -- a fantastic film that is enhanced by your essay; I can not believe there is somebody who saw this film and didn't like it!

Your description of what you went through at work was so honest and relatable; I hope your current situation is better!

While watching NETWORK I thought of Regis Philbin being ousted when he doesn't want to go and of Occupy Wall Street and its' offshoots. A stimulating film and a thought provoking essay.