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Movie Review: Network

September 13, 2013

I watched Network last night on the advice of my friends in Occupy. More like insistence than advice, actually: they claimed I absolutely needed to see it, that it would blow me away with its prescience and wisdom.

Turns out they were absolutely right.

Here’s the thing, though. Given that Network was released in 1977, I’m hesitant to even suggest to young people today (defined as: younger than me) that they watch it because they it’s so true, its predictions are so spot-on accurate, that anyone who wasn’t alive in 1977 might not – probably cannot – appreciate how incredible it must have seemed back then. It might even seem boring to someone who is used to a world of Fox News and the internet’s filter bubble.

Then again, that’s not entirely true. It’s not just an amazing prediction about what TV and society would turn into. The other strength of the movie is that it keeps changing, in a mostly painful but sometimes hilarious way, from scene to scene, subplot to subplot, and that keeps it from being about just one idea or just one person.

A particularly powerful scene of a jilted wife really got to me, and even though the movie isn’t particularly about that relationship, the movie manages to make it work.

And the most ridiculous scene, which involves two revolutionary groups reading over a contract with a crowd of network lawyers, might also be the most convincingly depressing: we might have our own particular emotional and political issues and rebellions, but we are all cowed by the power of money.

If you wanted to force Network to be about one thing in particular, it would have to be an argument concerning the role of the individual in the modern world. Here’s the protagonist, Howard Beale, preaching to his television audience from this YouTube clip of Network:

… when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this tube?

So, listen to me! Television is not the truth!  Television is a goddamned amusement park, that’s what television is! Television is a circus, a carnival, a travelling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion-tamers and football players.  We’re in the boredom-killing business!

If you want truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself because that’s the only place you’ll ever find any real truth!  But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us.

We’ll tell you anything you want to hear.  We lie like hell! We’ll tell you Kojack always gets the killer, and nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker’s house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry:  just look at your watch — at the end of the hour, he’s going to win.  We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear!

We deal in illusion, man! None of it’s true! But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal.

You do whatever the tube tells you.  You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs!

In God’s name, you people are the real thing!  We’re the illusions!  So turn off this goddam set! Turn it off right now!  Turn it off and leave it off.  Turn it off right now, right in the middle of this very sentence I’m speaking now.”

After a while, the head of the news corporation decides he’s had enough of Beale’s message and decides to give him the corporation’s perspective on the discussion. From this YouTube clip:

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy.

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.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale.  The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale!

It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.  And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

What’s incredible about Network is that, until possibly the last 2 minutes, none of it seems particularly unrealistic. It’s satire that rings so true that it manages to avoid the standard skeptical or baffled response. And although it is not uplifting, Network is incredibly thought-provoking and current.

Finally, the movie also has some show-biz advice for anyone trying to communicate a message. Namely, being consistently depressing and apocalyptic gets old, even if there’s an element of truth to it. It’s critical to balance that with hope about the power of individual action, sprinkled with outrage and impulsive energy.

Categories: musing
  1. Guest2
    September 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) is about television, and is suggested reading.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death

    Roger Waters referred to it in a song of his ….

    I am having a similar experience reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

  2. pjm
    September 13, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Yup.

    • pjm
      September 13, 2013 at 11:44 am

      PS. I think the post title is misspelled.

  3. Slats Grobnik
    September 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    So… does this mean that you’re mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore?

    • September 13, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      Well to be fair, that’s been true for a while. But yes.

  4. September 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    No wonder Harry Reid had a break down and said the anarchy is taking over! I know everyone kind of laughed at him with his presentation but there’s some truth in there for sure. You can see hints of a lot of it if you look around. Everyone and their “apps” that are so duped that think they can fix everything for one (grin) and yes I attack this all the time with the duping that goes on, and on that topic Johnson and Johnson on twitter this week talking about their apps (and mind you they dumped a lot of their apps) were back talking apps..which one…their investing app:) That was the #1 pitch, so just a little reading between the lines if you will…maybe that was because of their recall this week catching a lot media:)

    • Jason Starr
      September 13, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      What?

  5. September 14, 2013 at 7:34 am

    From 1:08-1:14 in the TV interview available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNa019FaNW0 , the supremely talented screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky speaks on what he sought to achieve in Network. “Well, I think what I’m trying to say is: how do you preserve yourself in a world in which life doesn’t really mean much anymore?” The whole interview is worthwhile, as is the movie commentary by director Sidney Lumet.

  6. curtosis
    September 14, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Beatrice Straight won an Oscar for that jilted-wife scene — just 5:40 in total screen time, still a record.

    It really is a phenomenal film in so many ways.

  7. September 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Spoiler alert: This is a comment about Network’s not-quite-feel-good ending.

    I’ve loved this movie since I saw it in the theater during it’s original release. And I have Dinah Shore, of all people, to agree with me and others in this thread in saying that Network, at it’s core, is about dehumanization.

    The Beatrice Straight jilted-wife character isn’t merely made to work in the movie. Her amazing five-plus minutes is pivotal. Her character is the movie’s sole emissary from the non-corporate and non-media-saturated world.

    She speaks of commitments and loyalty, and does things like hurt when betrayed, and visit daughters who are about to have babies. All the other characters live in or on the margins of the “shrieking nothingness” that William Holden’s character describes (and gets sucked into, along with would-be revolutionaries like Loreen Hobbs).

    Straight’s speech is amazing, but, in this film, is not the least bit unusual in how articulate it is. All of the characters are amazingly well spoken. This is a movie that is satisfying for smart people, and makes it’s audience smarter. The incredible dialogue portrays and pre-sages, though, a world in which being articulate is often mistaken for being intelligent or deep. In Network, word mastery, mental skill, and depth of all kinds are all different things. Silver-tongued stupid people, and intellectually brilliant soulless ciphers make up huge portions of the population of the coldly meritocratic world of Network.

    Besides Straight’s brilliant performance, what really makes her monologue stand out is that, in the midst of the primary narrative and the doings of so many characters whose souls are shriveling before our eyes, it is like a brief commercial message from the world of humanity. Straight’s character stops the plot advancement cold, and can’t be dismissed with a flip to the next channel. And the narrator never comments on the size of her “share”.

    Prophets don’t have crystal balls. Paddy Chayefsky and George Orwell and Aldous Huxley simply saw what lay around them in the present, and made the ugliness of it manifest. Network isn’t really about television or any other medium. It’s about the audiences for the various media. We’ve since learned that the dehumanization can be interactive, as can our resistance to it.

    I see the darkness that informs the movie, but do not now and did not at the time of it’s release, see this as a fundamentally dark movie. It didn’t reveal darkness, just provided some catharsis by addressing the darkness we already knew we were in, and suggested a way out, in the portrayal of the circular self-fulfilling paradoxes that suffuse all the Jeremiads of Arthur Jensen and Howard Beale.

    Just a few minutes before the ending that I’m not sure would have even comic shock value today, William Holden’s character–as he says goodbye to the sad, pathetic hollowness of Faye Dunaway’s character, and turns away from the nothingness and toward the very messy uncertainty of his own shortcomings and those of the world around him–finally grapples toward a route of escape from the darkness:

    There’s nothing left in you that I can live
    with. You’re one of Howard’s
    humanoids, and, if I stay with you,
    I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard
    Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen
    Hobbs was destroyed. Like
    everything you and the institution
    of television touch is destroyed.
    You are television incarnate, Diana,
    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. 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 are madness, Diana,
    virulent madness, and everything you
    touch dies with you. Well, not me.
    Not while I can still feel pleasure
    and pain and love.

    And, with that, he steps toward the sad, manic shell of the woman he has tried to love, tenderly kisses her on the eyelid, and turns to leave.

    • September 14, 2013 at 12:40 pm

      Jesus that’s absolutely true about the wife. Awesome.

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