Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves

by Brian
I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'

Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'

I've seen Network several times before, but I came away with something different after watching the new special edition of the film this morning. It's been endlessly discussed how prescient the film is in its indictment of the TV news culture, and that's obviously true. What really struck me today, though, was the cynical view of the public in the film.

Take the reaction to that iconic speech by Howard Beale (Peter Finch). When William Holden's daughter sticks her head out of the window, we hear a few isolated I'm-as-mad-as-hells, which grow into a chorus as the entire block takes part. It's a comical scene, hardly the release of pent-up frustration and anger that Beale envisions. Rather, it's more of a fun group activity: chic anger. By the time Beale gets his own show, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" becomes a catchphrase, the whole studio audience repeating it with big grins on their faces. Being mad as hell is a fad, a game for the whole nation to join in on. And when Beale becomes "depressing", his audience slides dramatically, and again it doesn't seem that it's so much the substance of his rants so much as the tone that people react to.

The great joke of the movie, of course, is that Howard Beale is probably the most sane person in the movie, at least when he's on the air. He's a tragic figure, in a way, going from respected newsman to village idiot simply by raising his voice; no one even pays attention to the substance of his rants. He's marginalized at every turn, not least of all by his friend Max (Holden), who, as Faye Dunaway's Diana icily points out, is more concerned with "sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies" than the human reality that he pretends to care so much about. He (and implicitly the rest of his colleagues) prefers to think of Beale as an undignified old man and fret about damage done to his sacred profession rather than listen to anything Beale's actually saying.

Most of all, though, he's marginalized by his audience as "entertainment" - the truth becomes just another means for the masses to distract themselves. We see a lot of the same kinds of things happening today. Our economy is on an unsustainable path, we're in the thick of a dubious war, our image in the world is shot to hell, and yes, our air is still unfit to breathe and our food unfit to eat. But we need to look no further than the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean to see how easily "anger" is mocked and delegitimized. I'm not saying that Dean was a good candidate or a bad one, but how often was the question seriously addressed? How often did you hear serious analyses of his campaign platform, versus how often you heard "The Scream" replayed? It was a ceritifiable pop culture moment, and the nation had a good laugh.

The most piercing insight of Network isn't that TV news is corrupt, or that networks will do anything for ratings. It's that the audience enables the sensationalism and debasement of the public discourse that TV is seemingly responsible for. And in that way, I think that Network is most prescient of all.


Blogger Professor Wagstaff said...

An interesting analysis Brian. I'm not sure I agree with some of the points you make but I would have to watch the film again to make a full response.

Two general comments about the film: I always thought the great thing about 'Network' was that how it was so daring and risky that it didn't really matter that 15% of the film didn't work because the other 85% was so good. The sex scene between Dunaway/Holden was the low point of the film imo.

And I never really liked Robert Duvall's performance. The reason being that in the context of the film, surrounded by hysterical and shouting characters, he should've provided a contrast with the epitome of the cold, calculating executive. Instead, he joined in the hysteria and some of the impact of his character was lost.

3/12/2006 01:31:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I think the sex scene between Holden and Dunaway was a key insight to her character--you notice that she orgasms quickly, almost as if it were premature ejaculation. It's another way that Chayefsky/Lumet suggest Diane is in the male role, while Holden is playing the typically female role in the relationship.

3/12/2006 06:25:00 PM  

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