Monday, January 28, 2019

Some Notes on Network (1976), the Dark Look at TV "News"

Title: Network (1976)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Language: English
Rating: R (for language mostly)

For years, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was a respected, level-headed figure in TV news, but he’s about to get laid-off for poor ratings. After he has an on-air breakdown, one of the network executives, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), sees the ratings potentials of keeping him on. She convinces Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a hatchet man for the corporation that bought the network, to push for the Howard Beale Show, which turns into a major success.

This is a funny and dark movie that can be painful to watch because so much of our current culture is in it, even though the movie was made in the 1970s. The Internet and other mass media are basically Network on steroids. Some thoughts on the film:

- The network executives take something authentic and troubling and manipulate it. They also make sure it’s contained. Beale can rant to his heart’s delight as long as his corporate masters approve. When he gets his own show, his meltdown (or greater clarity about the state of the world?) is couched in the trappings of TV entertainment, including the presence of an on-air psychic. (The first thing that came to mind, watching this, is how easy it is to take advantage of the seeming authenticity of social media platforms. You may think you’re retweeting a person, when it could be a bot. Corporations and influential people direct your attention in ways that will most profit them. They influence trending topics and the amount of exposure you get. Nuanced, thoughtful discussion and information are mixed up in lots of fakery so that even things that are true or insightful can sound false.)

- As Beale rants about people not reading books and about how they feel their own lives are unreal because they’re too immersed in TV, he’s on TV himself. He’s part of the unreality and the careful staging. Can he escape it or subvert it from within? He obviously hits a nerve with people, but what do they really want from him? Maybe an opportunity to let out some emotions, particularly anger, and feel like someone understands them. Maybe they’re bored or looking for outrage. He can influence them to some extent, for instance getting them to scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” out their windows or mass-mailing the White House. But even they have a limit to what they want to hear about their lives.

- Before Beale goes on air with his new show, other people in the network, like the head of news at the time, Max Schumacher (William Holden), express reservations about it. These reservations seem quaint now. To actually see TV network executives hesitate before putting someone mentally unstable in front of a camera? And to see them care about excessive editorializing? It’s amazing.

- Among the main characters, Schumacher comes closest to being the moral voice in the film, the one who sees what’s happening to the culture and doesn’t approve. But the film doesn’t make him out to be a figure of shining virtue. He casts aside his marriage for an affair, and one that he knows will go nowhere. And from what I remember, Diana points out to him that as head of news he was already trying to bring ratings up by airing some topics that are more typically found in tabloids.

- Diana is interested only in ratings. Anything can be entertainment – murder, terrorism, whatever. Some of the movie’s funniest moments are the network’s contract negotiations with a violent left-wing group whose revolutionary tactics include robbing banks and with a representative of the Communist Party, Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield), to put together the Mao Tse Tung Hour, which Diana predicts will be a ratings success. (Watching Hobbs strenuously argue for a larger cut of the profits for the Communist Party is a fantastic scene.)

- There are excellent monologues in this film. The most famous is “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” but there are two others that stuck with me.

One is delivered by Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), a powerful businessman. He speaks of a world of corporations, no America or democracy, only IBM, AT&T, etc. and a world with “all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

The second is the monologue Beale delivers in which he describes the end of the “single, solitary human being.”
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 some two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
Highly manipulatable piston rods. Any spontaneous thoughts or emotional expressions contained and monetized by corporations.