Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Master Class: Lumet’s "Network"

Thirty-five years ago, a controversial film captured the zeitgeist. It was a heavily dialogue-driven indictment of a powerful new medium that was influencing people’s views of the world. It also had the word “network” in the title although, unlike The Social Network, it was about television. Directed by the late Sidney Lumet and written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, Network is one of the seminal films of the 1970s. It has been selected by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", in addition to being named one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films of all time. 

Network is about a fictional fourth-place television network called UBS that has been lagging far behind the major “big three” networks. Fox had not yet come into being at that time, but its antics and shocking, controversial choice of programs before it became household-friendly with American Idol and Glee closely echoed the fictional stunts on Network. One wonders if Rupert Murdoch intended this to happen or if it were merely delicious coincidence.

The "mad prophet of the airwaves"
The three central figures in Network include its news anchor, the aging and recently fired Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in an Oscar-winning performance of a lifetime), ambitious and ruthless UBS executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, also in an Oscar-winning turn) and the former news division head Max Schumacher (William Holden). Howard suffers a vivid mental breakdown including a pronouncement that he will kill himself on the air, and another featuring a rant so monumental that it became a catchphrase when UBS rehires him and re-jigs its news hour around him. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that Howard is clearly mad and claims to be guided by what he believes to be the voice of God. No matter: he’s simply branded as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”, and he’s a hit!

Diana, who is described as being “raised on Bugs Bunny”, pursues Max, the film’s conscience, and woos him away even though he has a wife and grown daughter. She’s so focused on business that while they make love, she is still busy talking about her business plan: the world’s first “homosexual soap opera, "The Dykes”.

Network is also noted for Beatrice Straight’s performance as Max’s scorned wife, on note as the shortest Oscar-winning role in history. It lasts barely six minutes in its entirety, most of which is contained in this one scene, but every last second of it remains overwhelmingly powerful.

There are words here, words there, words everywhere in Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script. They are said, uttered, conveyed, shrieked, bellowed, trilled and thrown. They are manifestly angry, passionate and always full of conviction. Some of the most immortal lines ever written for screen, although you may not know it, came from Chayefsky’s poison pen:

“I ran out of bullshit.”
“He’s saying life is bullshit, and it is. What are you screaming about?”
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
“You’re on television, dummy!”

There’s a smart exchange between two characters showing that this is a whip-smart, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners script. Before The Simpsons, this was one of the cultural touchstones for which no one and nothing was sacred. It is an equal opportunity offender:

“Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.”
“I’m Laureen Hobbs, a bad-ass Commie n*****.”
“Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.”

There are so many words written with such force, verve and purpose that the Blogger is compelled to share them, if you won’t watch this landmark film (why not???), with this link featuring some of the film’s most unforgettable lines.

Howard, the Messiah figure
Eventually, the network heads shake up the news division and decide that the current format is not to their liking. To give Howard Beale the proper venue to act out his mania, they remove the news desk and replace it with a stained-glass window backdrop upon which he can fully embrace and perpetuate his new image as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”. This “network news show” also features a soothsayer, a vox populi and other frivolous cast members who have clearly never gone to journalism school. It is to director Lumet’s esteemed judgment that these and the entire film are presented in a matter-of-fact manner, to let the audience react with the shock and raucous laughter he had intended. (Lumet’s legacy can be felt in the work of his screenwriter daughter Jenny Lumet, whose magnificent script for Rachel Getting Married is a delicate balancing act of dark humour and unsentimental reality.)

The film’s most compelling character is not the manic Howard Beale, but the far more maniacal and borderline sociopathic Diana Christensen, played with such crystalline malevolence that Dunaway must have channeled no less than Satan himself to play the role. She doesn’t care about Beale’s dignity, health, welfare or safety. She only cares about the audiences he brings in to spike ratings and therefore increase ad revenue. For Diana, it’s all about the bottom line, and Chayefsky saw in the 1970s that this type of figure is revered and will be in power for a long time.

Diana, the Devil figure
It’s no accident that her name, deconstructed, is ironically composed of the Roman name for the goddess of wisdom and a variation on Christianity, for she is neither wise nor at all saintly. She is far more toxic, penetrating and poisonous to culture and humanity rather than the mad Messianic figure embodied by Howard Beale. Why? Because the way Chayefsky sees it, as an influential executive, she has the power to do far more damage than he ever could with his ramblings by controlling what we see, what we absorb, and what forms our values. The difference, quite simply, is that she’s in a position of power, and her vision is completely deprived of conventional ethics and morality. That’s all well and good, as long as the numbers support it. As she herself put it, “all I want in life is a 20 rating and a 30 share.” Needless to say, she’s phenomenal at her job, and the puppet-master, with the power to cut the strings anytime she wants or is compelled to by her financiers.

Although I have described the film as a modern-day horror film, if it were one, it would be disguised as black comedy. There is a hilarious topical subplot involving a new reality series named The Mao Tse Tung Hour, about a fictional guerrilla Communist terrorist gang that films their crimes and sends them to UBS, to further their political agenda. Diana doesn’t argue over the group’s political content, stating she only cares about the ratings and how to sell the series as a product. Eventually, despite their Communist ideals, they end up fighting with the network over syndication rights and ad revenue figures. Turns out that just about everyone can be bought out for a buck, or several of them skimmed off the gross revenue. There are also throwaway moments such as Diana’s assistant pitching ideas on proposed new pilots, but once read aloud they are simply variations on the same premise. One can easily see the trend of aping successful series to create something “new”, a pattern best exemplified in network history in the mid to late 90s, when every other new comedy series was a variation of Friends (which itself was intended as a variation of Seinfeld, which preceded it). In other words, life imitated art, but not to the chillingly precise degree to which Chayefsky had envisioned it.

Max and Diana
In 1976, Network was dismissed by some critics and audiences as heightened reality and black comic fantasia. It’s “shrieking nothingness that you live the rest of the day”, as one character puts it. However, its power is wrought not only through the performances and the script, but by Lumet's smart directorial choices. Lumet knows how to frame his characters in any scene to portray detachment and dehumanization. Show business is not at all glamourous here, it is pitiless oblivion. This film has no warm fuzzy centre, no lessons to learn or to teach. It doesn’t even have a film score, lending it an air of documentary filmmaking. And after all these years, in the face of reality “stars” and the continuing decline of intelligent, challenging TV series such as the recently-canceled United States of Tara, it is nothing less than inadvertent cultural commentary and, at worst, prophecy.

"Television is a circus. You're never gonna get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear!" - Howard Beale