Network (1976, USA, Sidney Lumet)
Painful really. The satire is so fully realized, the critique so developed right to the end of the line, it is almost too much to endure how much worse it is in 2006 than it was in 1976. Thirty years later the comedy hurts because the fulcrum of sanity and hope in Network has all but eroded. In my review of Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck I addressed the almost nostalgic sensibility it cultivates, for an albeit paternalistic but nevertheless genuinely publically-minded media figure, a civic leader. By 1976, this was in it's final death-throes for anchor men in particular and television journalists in general as a result of their association with elected officials, never again to be trusted after Watergate. Henceforth, elections, White House communication with the citizenry, all the so-called democratic processes would be fully subjected to commercial techniques reducing politics per se to just another commodity and therefore political discourse to advertising. Interestingly but terrifyingly enough, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this has started to unravel with a return to direct techniques of propaganda and population control such as fear-mongering, disinformation and the like, the monopoly capital media now fully integrated into the Oval Office and the Pentagon. In short, fascism. But in 1976, the State itself was still figuring how to commercially spin-doctor and info-tainment itself, just behind the corporate news organs that were slightly ahead of the curve; afterall, that is their business. NET nails them to the fucking wall!
Certainly the fulcrum of sanity and hope in the film comes from Chayefsky's own orientation in an earlier generation before the hegemony of television in the mass culture and even in the subsequent period when he worked in television, as did Lumet, when it briefly promised to be an instrument of more than junk entertainment and brain-washing. By 1976, however, only idealistic fans of Sesame Street and the rest of PBS could hope for social democracy via the boob tube in general and the six o'clock news from the Big Three in particular was already show biz. NET nails them to the fucking wall!
I need to consult some historical analysis of the last "golden age" of Hollywood, in many respects encapsulated by the producer Robert Evans. No doubt, many factors need to be brought to bear but the one that I'm considering is the way the defeated counter-culture - in it's previous, optimistic phase expressed first and foremost in popular music - found avenues open in Hollywood to express it's disillusionment. This should not be over-estimated, naturally, and it would have to be historically traced both year-by-year and along individual directorial lines. Still, it seems to me that if Easy Rider from 1969 is taken as the definitive opening statement of counter-cultural foresaken-ness, increasingly more production money is made available for such bleak and critical fare, and likewise it generates handsome box office returns. The "golden age" is distinguished by films that show America breaking apart in various ways, discarding the myths that had hiterto held it together, ideologically at least, since the end of WWII.
And it seems to me that this comes to a peak at about 1976. Taxi Driver. Nashville. NET. The Vietnam War is finally over but everyone is still devastated. In fact, even before the end of the war in 75, the US treasury was under duress as a consequence of it. 1973 is objectivley a pivotal year for capitalism on a global scale and US imperialism as America is compelled to go off the gold standard and OPEC steps up to the geopolitical table. By the time Watergate hits, any notion that new leaders would emerge to replace those brought down by bullets in the 60s is long past due. People are well into Tom Wolfe's "me decade," trying to forget that they ever dreamed of changing the world. Yet, a bunch of film-makers find stories to tell and ways to tell them that reflect those utopian aspirations through a shattered glass darkly. Keeping up with the younger generation, the Coppolas and the Scorseses, Lumet is at the top of his game, what with Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and, of course, NET.
The performances are great all around, especially from Dunaway, and William Holden makes me overlook that he is too old for the part. Lumet is well-known for not wanting to display a style, adopting a pragmatist's approach to filmic exposition, subjecting the placement of the camera to the practical requirements of the drama and not to an extraneous visual conception. This is a highbrow and flattering way of saying that his cinematography tends to be dull. It certainly is flat, distant and colorless in NET. But other than wishing he had given Ned Beatty a few close-ups during his Capitalism = Nature = God speech, I found the look of NET perfect for the terrain it travels. Ugly does as ugly does, if you know what I mean. Perhaps more crucial, with all due respect to Tarkovsky, the priority of the image in film and all that, on those rare and wonderful occasions when the screenplay is the first and greatest star of the show, well, only a stupid director would have tried to come up with shots to equal the excellence of Chayefsky's dialogue. This is one of the greatest scripts of all time, take no prisoners, keep up or die, sublime craftsmanship from a master with some serious shit on his mind. Better even than Kubrick and Southern's Strangelove script, and that's saying a hell of a lot, although I think Strangelove as a film overall must be ranked above NET. Actors make pacts with the devil to be given the chance to speak these sorts of lines. It's at the level of the best stage plays. Diabolically clever, challengingly intelligent, movingly profound, and comedy-ain't-pretty funny to the extreme. The film is very, very (very!) good but the script of itself is a masterpiece.
P.T. Anderson, the director of Magnolia, showed this film to the cast and crew before he started shooting his (most ambitious) film. He said it was the greatest script ever written for the screen. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But also hard to argue.
I love Bill Holden, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch in this film, but you know, I just watched Chinatown with Jessica the other day, and damned if Faye Dunaway didn't impress the hell outta me in that one. She holds her own going up against one of the most charismatic film actors of our time. But as fine as she is in Chinatown, she kicks ass in Network. With her neurotic twitchiness, innate edginess and exotic beauty, Dunaway was made for this role (she's pretty good in Bonnie and Clyde too.) And a great role it is. The way she seizes the moment and is completely honest about her intentions (however nefarious)in both her personal and professional life, this is (nearly) a sympathetic character, particularly when stacked up against others in the industry, such as the Robert Duvall character, and as portrayed by Dunaway, she's a fascinating figure, a Real (damaged) Woman in a very masculine world.
The movie is, as you note, unrelenting in its attack on tv culture. I particularly like how the revolutionaries are seduced just as readily as the capitalists. They don't realize that the medium will bulldoze the message. Or perhaps they know, but don't mind because they're getting their fifteen minutes of glory. Also, notice how Chayevsky gives us each our Star Search moment ("I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore") only to have the REAL money shot delivered by the corporate master Ned Beatty ("You've meddled with the primal forces of nature...There is no America; there is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today") Nobody's safe from the satirist's sword. Here we all are, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Tune In Turn On Drop Out, and we're really fucking lost, ripe for the picking. This is real take no prisoners screenwriting at its best; the teeth aren't merely bared, they're chomping down with glee. Great stuff.
As you also pointed out, Lumet doesn't do much stylistically with the film, preferring a more gritty, pseudo-documentary style. I don't know if the brilliance of the screenplay had a lot to do with this decision, as this has been Lumet's chosen path in others of his films (Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon spring immediately to mind). Still, it is a very smart move. There's no aesthetic reason to gloss over this dirty, nasty business. How better to shove our faces in it than to serve it up, straight.
Great film. In his 80s now, Lumet's still making films, by the way. He's filming a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney and Ethan Hawke (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) that is scheduled for release next year, as well as a war themed film called Whistle, which he's scheduled to direct next year. Both he and Altman are still sticking it to the man.
And just like Altman, Lumet has not been consistent. But this is the path of the prolific creator, unseduced by the lure of perfectionism. Contrary to his mystique, Terrence Malick would be a better director if he was one more often.
As far as I'm concerned, Faye Dunaway was the IT girl of the period. I lost my Dunaway virginity along with Hoffman's character in Little Big Man. The actress who won the award as the evil nurse in Cukoo's Nest (Louise?) was great, but Dunaway (sexually buttoned down, to be sure) would have been great too. Who compares with her? Jane Fonda, I guess, but then who? I generally don't go for skinny women and I also prefer darker types but Faye is truly beautiful. And she chews up the scenery, in a good way, in a good way.
An unrelenting attack on tv culture, yes, but more, a critique of American society as such. Mostly for mirroring itself on that tv culture but deeper still, for returning to the lie that what's good for General Motors is good for America and what's good for America is good for the world. Returning. Returning after all that happened in the now commodified and pacified package of nostalgia marketed as "The 60s." Damn straight, the revolutionaries are seduced just as readily as the capitalists. Satire to the bone baby. To the porous marrow.
And how about Chayevsky's prescience regarding reality tv programming? The obliteration of the fourth wall, public and private space, shit, he's even taking the po-mo's down before most of us knew they were there.
Sometimes the Academy gets it right (Dunaway and Chayevsky won Oscars for their work on this film) and sometimes they don't (Rocky, an enjoyable but disposable film, beat Network and Taxi Driver for best picture that same year, and Peter Finch beat deNiro's Travis Bickle for best actor. It's kinda predictable that they showered the love on Finch, since he was dead and all when he won, but shit, this is one of the Big Mistakes.)