Aug 19, 2011

On DVD: Network

A truly prophetic movie about the debasement of popular entertainment and the noxious influence of TV, Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is so timely right now that it should be required viewing for anyone who "is mad as hell and cannot take it anymore", which is pretty much everyone these days. Watching it, I had an epiphany. If we were to revisit the great American films of the seventies, we could just watch them and pretend that the downward spiral to moronic, corporate, hellish Hollywood movies never happened. There are so many good ones, we wouldn't miss a thing. They are newer, fresher, more brave and more original than anything we watch today. They are still surprising. In fact, they are surprising because they are so brazen, so free, so unencumbered by accountants and lawyers. I could not believe that MGM, a major studio, financed and distributed this movie, which basically spends two hours heaping damnation on companies like MGM. Network is sharp, and angry and it is basically Chayefsky's cri de coeur, his personal diatribe. It is theatrical, full of lengthy speeches, some of them the best expository writing in film; it is a freaking rant, is what it is. It stings and it bites and it warms the heart with divine vitriol and, as every Sidney Lumet movie, it is alive and crackling with energy. Lumet is the greatest master at casting character and background roles. Every person in Network is perfect.
I saw Network at the Plaza Satélite cinema with my friend Lani when were were about 15 or 16 years old. It rattled me, but I did not understand it. I thought it was over the top. I did not understand why Faye Dunaway would seduce an old man like William Holden or why that had anything to do with the story (three cheers for the loss of innocence!). I thought it was grossly exaggerated and bitter. I resented that it wanted to punish those of us who actually loved watching TV. Who the fuck did this movie think it was? There was something in its crankiness that I felt was valuable, I just did not now exactly why.  But that is the beauty of revisiting the classics. You get a chance to redeem yourself.
The miracle of Network is that it is even more relevant today than it was when it was made. I imagine that this movie will never lose its prophetic powers, because things can and will only get worse. What seemed then an unhinged, crazy idea for a news show, with anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) sharing the stage with a fortune teller and God knows who else, is not out of touch with the total debasement of the news today. Diana envisions a show about domestic terrorists who film their own attacks, which is totally prescient, not only about reality shows, but about people using cameras to document their every fart. There is a great scene where the network's army of lawyers are reading the contract for a TV show with a communist leader and the leader of some guerrilla group who are supposed to star in it. Both communism and the guerrilla pretty much go out the window at the mere mention of who's gonna make what money.
Five actors got Oscar nominations for this movie. But first let me say that having William Holden and Peter Finch in the same frame is, for film buffs, the equivalent of the 72 virgins in paradise for other people. You just can't believe you are lucky enough to be experiencing these two charismatic, masculine, awesome movie stars and great actors together at once. Finch won the Oscar, for his is the showier part, although Holden just kills, as Max Schumacher, a seasoned news producer, a relatively decent man, caught in the ratings frenzy, swept aside by younger, greedier, more ruthless people. Holden devastates. I miss him horribly.
The fabulous Ned Beatty plays a corporate titan and was nominated for one amazing speech in which he basically says there is no democracy and there is no America, there is only IBM, and ABC, etc. Only corporations rule. Beatrice Straight, won the best supporting actress Oscar, also for one scene as Schumacher's wife. Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her excellent work as flinty, driven network executive Diana Christensen. In the excellent commentary he provides in the DVD, Lumet says that when he first spoke to Dunaway about the script, he told her: "I know what you are going to tell me, that there is no vulnerability in this role. There is none and if you give her vulnerablitly, I'll make sure to cut it out of the movie." She said something like, "let's get to work". This is called cojones, and this is why I love and miss Sidney Lumet.
Lumet says that everybody spoke of Network as a satire, but that for him and Chayefsky, who both got their start on TV, everything in the movie is sheer reportage.
I believe him.
He also mentions that he has never been a director of comedy, although he has a great sense of humor. To me this is the key to the disturbing dissonance of this great movie. It is an extraordinarily biting satire, but it is not directed as such. It is served with as straight a face as possible, and Lumet amps up the drama, which makes it far more dangerous than if it had been treated tongue in cheek.
Some of the dialogue in this movie only Paddy Chayesfky could get away with. Characters explain at length who they are and why they do what they do, but the language is precise, lethal and delicious and it is just a joy to hear it. It also brims with truth.
So if you are feeling angry, there is nothing more satisfying than checking out this awesome, bilious film. 

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