Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Turning a Prophet
It should surprise no one to learn that Sydney Lumet's pitch-black masterpiece Network is one of my all-time favorite movies.
It's a film that's almost impossible to wrap your head around as you watch it now, in 2008, because everything you see and hear seems unacceptably incongruous with the notion that the film was released in 1976.
To call Network "prescient" would be the ultimate understatement
The truth is that almost every grotesque, rotten and unethical thing that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky predicted about the future of television news has come to fruition in the thirty-two years since Network debuted in theaters.
There's never been a better movie made about the TV news business, and I'm not sure there ever will be.
Network will of course be forever remembered for Peter Finch's brilliant, Oscar-winning portrayal of doomed anchorman Howard Beale, whose furious on-air tirade produced one of the most legendary lines in film history, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
But for some reason, in a movie filled with astonishingly good dialogue (Ned Beatty's verbal scolding of Finch alone is priceless; as is the painfully heartfelt monologue which won Beatrice Straight an Oscar, despite only five minutes of screen time) there are two sets of lines which stand out for me -- for no other reason than the fact that they are so sadly prophetic.
The first is the exchange between Robert Duvall, as network hatchet-man Frank Hackett, and Wesley Addy -- who plays senior executive Nelson Chaney. It takes place when Hackett suggests that Howard Beale be allowed back on the air after ranting uncontrollably during the previous evening's newscast. The reason: It'll almost certainly get ratings.
Chaney says, "All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting."
To which Hackett responds, "We're not a respectable network; we're a whorehouse network and we have to take what we can get."
Chaney shoots back, "Well, I don't want any part of it. I don't fancy myself the president of a whorehouse."
"That's very commendable of you Nelson, now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow."
And the conversation is over. End of story. Sit down and shut up.
My second favorite line comes as William Holden's character, Max Schumacher, is preparing to finally walk out on the ice-cold network entertainment president Diana Christensen, played by a never-sexier Faye Dunaway.
What he says to her sums up perfectly -- pitifully -- everything about TV.
"There's nothing left in you that I can live with. If I stay with you I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You're television incarnate: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer; and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split-seconds and instant-replays. You're madness Diana -- virulent madness -- and everything you touch dies with you."
Why do I bring this up?
Because my name has now been officially attached, in print ironically, to the legacy of Network and what the film had to say about television news. Today's New York Observer features a profile of yours truly, insinuating that I'm the new Howard Beale. And while I'm not sure I want to draw too many parallels between myself and a guy who goes insane and is ultimately assassinated by a TV network in the name of ratings, I can't help but appreciate the association.
It's an honor -- in an admittedly weird sort of way.
(The New York Observer: "The Howard Beale Show, 2008" by Felix Gillette/2.27.08)
(Incidentally, looks like we have a winner for the "pick my media title" competition, despite doing my best not to refer to myself, first and foremost, as an addict.)