Wednesday, March 21, 2012

F This Movie! - Network

Patrick and JB are angry prophets denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.

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Also discussed this episode: Casa de mi Padre, John Carter, 21 Jump Street


  1. I'm the one who showed "Network" to my father a couple of years back and yes, he clapped when Beale said the line about them (the media) 'telling you any shit you want to hear.' We're both huge Rachel Maddow fans though, so we'd take issue with JB putting Fox News and MSNBC on the same pedestal. Point still stands though, 'any shit' we want to hear!

    I've worked in TV (production side) my entire life, so "Network" is beloved by those of us that actually understand every Nielsen statistic Diana Christensen is spewing when she's having (bad) sex with Schumacher. More than any other movie about media I've seen (and I've seen them all) "Network" captures the desperation behind-the-scenes people feel when they're drowning in red ink and need a money-making hit (i.e. where NBC was up until "The Voice" came along) followed by their desperation to keep that hit going once they get it. These are life-or-death stakes for some of these folks because their personal identity/happiness is tied up to their careers (the primary difference between the Holden and Dunaway characters). When they're not good at their job someone else (Duvall's character) will be in control of their destiny.

    It's no accident that, like William Peter Blatty did in "The Exorcist" (also made in the 70's), when a passionate and good writer with clout as Paddy Chayesky is in charge of making the movie (hiring the director, polishing the screenplay, helping in the casting, etc.) it comes out a masterpiece. Also, in satirizing the TV business so brutally, Payefsky is showing how deeply he loves the medium. You can't be as pitch-dark and committed to the absurdity of what "Network" is portraying if, deep in your heart, you don't really love television so much you'd rather burn it all down in a blaze of self-referential glory than to see it become the thing you've skewered. Ultimately Payefsky lost because what was once biting satire has become everyday reality.

    My favorite scene in the movie is Beale saying during his still-regular news broadcast he'll blow his brains on the air the next day. Cut to control room people, wrapped in their own private conversation, not even noticing Beale's suicide threat until they're told. Perfect display of irresponsible media diseminating/creating information they're not even aware of until it's already out (and not the suits in charge but the peons in the production trenches). I've been in control rooms (in the 1990's and Y2K decade) and seen this disconnect between on-air product and the people working on putting it out, so that 'he said what?' "Network" scene feels real.

    BTW Patrick, "Network" has to kill Beale at the end. Besides being a genuine shocker back in '76 (all the crazy stuff that comes before hasn't yet resulted in the death of anyone) the movie needed to come full circle from Howard's early suicide threats of a clearly-snapped old man to the point where the network that can't squeeze any more use/dough out of him profits from his death (by generating a great lead-in for the new show). Plus, from Chayefsky's POV (IMO), it's a lovely metaphor for how TV (and now most media industries now) treats their employees: chew them up (hire them young and eager), squeeze as much use out of them (working many more hours than you pay them for, sacrificing time/relationships with loved one's) and then spit them out (fire them when the stock needs a higher dividend or the new sitcom block underperforms).

    And, now that you've done a "Network" podcast, you can have a whole series of podcasts about movies that chronicle the decline of news standards in the decades since "Network": "Broadcast News" (the 80's), "Wag the Dog/The Truman Show" (the 90's) and "The Social Network" (post-Y2K rise of social media).

    1. Thank you sir. BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE... (see below)

  2. Excellent post, JM. Thanks for your insightful commentary.

  3. One last thing and I'll shut up (hit the 4,096 word ceiling on my previous post). Television has picked up from movies the baton in portraying behind-the-scenes entertainment programming with a cynical attitude (not as cynical as Chayefsky's but cynical nonetheless) wrapped-up in the reliable TV trope of either (a) news-as-entertainment or (b) the workplace co-workers as a substitute family for career-oriented lonely individuals.

    I don't watch "30 Rock" (not my thing) but from what I've seen it feels like the long-distant relative or grandkid of "Network" that's making fun of the same things, only within a culture that's come to accept as normal the things that it "Network" felt ominous and prophetic. Plus, since its such a silly show, "30 Rock" can attract the attention of viewers like Doug (i.e. "normal" people) that wouldn't normally be interested in buying what "Network" is selling. "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" (a 21st century 'Howard Beale News Hour') are probably the best examples of a media-savvy 'news' broadcast for media-savvy viewers that is actually better at revealing the truth about a subject than real/"objective" news programming. Audiences are prepared today for the cynical reality that "Network" portrayed as unusual back then as a normal par for the course everyday thing.

    Nobody has worked the "Network" angle better in the past 20 years than Aaron Sorkin though. "Sports Night" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (the former better than the latter, although I loved them both 'till their short-lived bitter ends) come the closest of any media in the past few decades to doing what "Network" did back in the 70's. But, unlike the free hand Chayefksy had at biting the hand that fed him, Sorkin had to compromise and make these shows under economical commercial realities (i.e. ratings) that ultimaely doomed them. Still, with news that Sorkin is putting together an HBO show about the behind-the-scenes workings of a cable news channel (slated to premiere later this year), the spirit of "Network" is alive and well in 2012. Just don't look for it on the big screen unless you're looking for "Morning Glory" (yikes!).

    And BTW, when is JB finally gonna get around to watching "The American President"? "Studio 60" wasn't so bad that it turned him off from watching early Sorkin stuff for good, right? RIGHT? :-P

  4. Well, J.M. has said everything I wanted to muse on, so I'll just recommend the two collections of Harlan Ellison essays on television and writing for television, "The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on Television" and "Another Glass Teat." Both from around 1970, so the show references can be awfully dated, but there's a lot of writing in there that is still incredibly applicable to the TV of today.

  5. I find that the more adult story telling tends to be found in the longform television shows, than in most films.