Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Because You're On Television, Dummy

I've been struggling with how to write about the Occupy protests--this was originally meant to be a post about them, but it got out of hand.  So I'll save that for a later date--maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.  I just finished watching one of my favorite films, Network.  It was released in 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet, and won three Oscars for acting (Faye Dunaway, Best Actress; Peter Finch, Best Supporting Actor; Beatrice Straight, Best Supporting Actress; with another win for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky).  It's a hell of a film--and perhaps one that doesn't get as much appreciation as it is due.  There are aspects of it that are dated, of course (unless you lived through it or are a history dork, the "Ecumenical Liberation Army" storyline might make you feel somewhat lost, for example), but it really struck a chord with me today.   

Network tells the story of the fictional UBS television network during the recession and social upheaval of the mid-1970s.  The news division is in trouble, losing more money than it makes, and anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired for low ratings.  He announces on-air that he'll commit suicide during his show the following week.  UBS executives allow him to stay on when his ratings spike, as the "mad prophet of the airwaves" who rails against the media and big business, and Beale loses his grip on reality.  Behind the scenes, UBS executives, members of the board, and executives from the conglomerate that owns UBS conspire to get better ratings for the ailing network, at any cost.

According to IMDB (if such sources can be believed), Chayefsky and Lumet meant for the film, which is dubbed a satire, to be a depiction of what was actually happening.  And what is still happening.  It's a chillingly accurate characterization of today's media and today's mindset.  As Aaron Sorkin said (he also cited Network in his Oscar acceptance speech; skip to 2:00), "If you put it in your DVD player today you'll feel like it was written last week...The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write 'The Internet.' "  The link above with the Sorkin quotation comes from a New York Times article about screenwriter Chayefsky and gives a very informative overview of his thinking while writing Network and the film's relevancy today.

This is a seriously great movie.  I can't overstate that.  For the love of Bob, please go see it.  Admittedly, there's a lot of yelling.  But that's part of what makes it great--scene chewing (in a good way) from some of the best actors of all time--William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall, and so on.  There are a number of great scenes, such as Finch/Beale's rant about the importance of independent media (and lack thereof) and Ned Beatty (as the chair of the conglomerate that owns UBS) ranting about the one system that runs the world: money.  But below is the piece that most spoke to me.  It's arguably the most famous scene of Network, one that's been borrowed, cribbed, and outright stolen over the past thirty-five years.

It's eerie, isn't it?  Doesn't it feel like the message the Occupy folks are yelling about every day?  This was done thirty-five years ago, and it's just as relevant as it was then.

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