Sunday, March 12, 2006

Still mad as hell after 30 years

Everything Paddy Chayefsky wrote about in his screenplay for Network -- the all-powerful college of corporations, the devaluation of human life, the culture hungry to articulate its rage -- was true then, and is true now. People gush about the film's prescience and, in small ways, it was prescient.

But in the commentary and archive footage of the new two-disc special edition of Network, Lumet and Chayefsky (who both started in live TV) stress that the movie is "sheer reportage," not satire. Everything is dramatized fact. The only part of the movie that had not occurred in 1976 and has yet to occur is the coordinated assassination of a TV personality because of poor ratings.

The new DVD is long overdue. I devoured its special features (they are adequate) this past week. The driving force is Lumet, of course, one of our dearest directors and human beings. Thankfully, Faye Dunaway participated enthusiastically in the making-of documentary (which bothers to feature bit player Lance Henriksen but not Ned Beatty or Robert Duvall). And there's a ridiculous clip of Chayefsky on "Dinah!," which was apparently a talk show back then. How Dinah Shore had a career I'll never know, but the clip is worthwhile because it's proof of how the film was received upon its release: as a shocking and controversial "satire."

But Network, the greatest movie ever made, is much more than a stinging indictment of humanity's assault on itself. It is first and foremost a marvelous story told marvelously. The mechanics of Chayefsky's screenplay are breathtaking. It's like he's juggling a hundred balls, catching some with his feet and in the crook of his neck as he sends others even higher, until he's able to let them all drop at once into a neat, manicured square on the floor. If a screen story has never made love to you -- or if you don't even know what I mean by that -- consider submitting to Network.

I could devote this blog to examining the film's prescience, line by line and plot point by plot point, and never run out of material. I'll just offer this penultimate sermon by Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, played by Peter Finch like he had only months to live (and he did):

At the bottom of all our terrified souls we know that democracy is a dying giant -- a sick, sick, dying, decaying political concept writhing in its final pain. I don't mean that the United States is finished as a world power. The United States is the richest, the most powerful, the most advanced country in the world, light years ahead of any country. And I don't mean the Communists are going to take over the world because the Communists are deader than we are. What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies -- totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods. Well, the time has come to say "Is dehumanization such a bad word?" Whether it's good or bad, that's what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid -- creatures that look human but aren't. The whole world, not just us. We're just the most advanced country, so we're getting there first. The whole world's people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things.
Speaks for itself, as it has for 30 years. And this is the calmest, subtlest speech in the film, which builds with such sheer confidence and sleekness toward its climax. I mentioned above that the climax -- the on-air assassination -- is the only thing that isn't based in fact. The last line of Lumet's audio commentary?

"But I think it's still to come. I wouldn't be surprised to see it. On one of the reality shows, it'll happen. There will be real death. And it will be shown to you, I promise you."


Middento said...

Wait, you've never heard of Dinah!?

The next thing you'll tell me is that you're too young to remember Donahue.

J.J. said...

I *am* too young to remember Donahue. Heard of Dinah Shore, but not of "Dinah!," and I kind of liked not knowing about it. Must've been the worst talk show ever. Worse than "Tyra," or "The View."

is that so wrong? said...

I agree with Lumet.... there will be a shocking event like a death, and it will be televised. It's only a metter of time. You've seen Series 7: The Contenders, right? It's a great satire on how far reality television will eventually go (in a kind of Shirley-Jackson's-"The Lottery" world), much to Lumet's prediction. It's a bit low budget, but certainly worth a viewing simply because it's so enjoyably dark. Interestingly enough, it came to being around the time "Survivor" was fresh to the airwaves....

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Dinah Shore seeing Burt Reynolds for awhile there..?
Anyways, here's a trivial comment: the box set of "media" related films that's being released(NETWORK, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and DOG DAY AFTERNOON) is a pretty cool package of films, not a weak one in the bunch.

And, as I continue to feel my age every day, I wonder how many people high school age will be thrown by ALL THE... MEN's very opening image of an intense close-up of a blank white page suddenly filled by letters being pounded into it by a typewriter. Will this confuse them? Will this be the equivalent (for them) of watching the Gutenberg press at work?

J.J. said...

I actually have the box set, and am currently viewing. I'll post about it soon. Let's just say the world of journalism (and the Post) as depicted in President's Men has changed -- irreparably, perhaps -- for the worse.