Friday, September 14, 2007

"Because You're On Television, Dummy."

[Update, Monday, 9/17: The following article is now slightly longer and much more coherent than when I originally posted it on Friday.]

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! You think you've merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars. It is the international system of currency which determines the vitality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale? You get up on your little 21-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."

The above quote comes late in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), long after Howard Beale's infamous "mad as hell" speech, and long after Beale was imprinted into the collective conscious of the American TV-watching public. Although Beale's early speeches are the locus of the film's ideas, I would argue that the real center of its themes is Arthur Jenson's speech to Beale from across the board room table (pictured above). Enveloped by the ordered surroundings of commerce, a brightly lit Jenson occupying a small portion of the frame informs Beale that there are no countries, no individual voices, and no real humanity beneath our surfaces. This inspires Beale to accuse his audience of having become "humanoids", in doing so Howard becomes just another blip on the screen. After single-handedly reviving a news division and a network, his ratings dip and executives discuss ways of getting him off the air. Audiences didn't want to hear they were humanoids -- they wanted to remain passive recipients of a message about revolution while complacently sitting in front of the television.

Sidney Lumet made Network more than 30 years ago. The film is remembered for Howard Beale's many famous speeches, in which the seemingly crazed news man preaches a revolution from the shackles of capitalism, war, and corporate power. Today, Howard Beale is considered a prophet. Critics and scholars cite the film's relevance in this time of hyper media attention and saturation. The cliche is that we are currently in the "here and now" age of digital reproduction. While I often despise the use of cliches and broad, familiar claims, there may be some amount of truth to this widely held belief. For example, popular magazines of the pre-digital age were known for long articles exhausting all angles of the given subject. Today, however, articles are becoming shorter. Online versions of popular news sources such as CNN or MSNBC routinely make errors in attempt to get something online or in print ahead of the competition. Networks now report "Breaking News" every 20 minutes on their websites without adequate information. Fearing that the consumer will choose another source, news Web sites and shows will do whatever it takes for those precious ratings so as to attract more advertisers. Moreover, our technological gadgets have further enabled us the convenience of shrinking the world into our own hands. Now we have more people to call or text message, more things to consume, and more pictures to take with our camera phones. And "news" -- both in presentation and content -- becomes a passing headline on the screen; faster, less trustworthy, and more controlling.

But it would be a great misunderstanding to assume that these digital media are displacing analogic media. Mechanical reproduction of electronic media enables the benefactors of capitalism to maintain dominion over the public, and digital technology only helps to sustain that. We are now experiencing a greater onslaught of the same systems of power, a greater reproduction of them in which the illusion of choice now becomes more believable to consumers. What appears to be pure democracy as represented by blogs, onDemand service and choice, YouTube, and digital downloads is just another veil of ignorance. Suddenly, Howard Beale's comments strike a resounding chord. Much like he says in his now famous speech, we have learned to isolate ourselves in our homes, cars, and in front of computer screens, surrounding ourselves with the comfort of brand names and products that we've been instructed to "need".

Perhaps, digital media are an intensification of our transformation into a culture of humanoids. Research, inquiry, and real living thought are argued to be devalued in our contemporary media culture in which the mainstream media will do everything in its reach to ensure that we choose between the Right and the Left. There we remain under the illusion that we "know a thing or two" about what's important in this world, totally oblivious that we think in product names and are conditioned to be good consumers. But now I'm starting to sounds like Howard Beale, aren't I?

Although it's tempting to reflect on the film and only think about Howard's illustrious speeches, perhaps our being so struck by them makes us just like the audiencing applauing his death at the end of the film, passive, acting and thinking that we're not going to take it anymore, but really taking all of it. The film poses this question by offering a narrative to which Howard Beale's plotline is the counterpoint. While Howard's speeches endure as some of the most memorable expressions of passion in cinema, the movie is so brilliant because it embraces the very real nature of its satire and the illusory nature of its drama. Lumet juxtaposed the biting satire of Beale's program with a subplot involving television executives Max Schumacker (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunnaway), the former a committed news man, father, and husband approaching the autumn of his life, and the latter a young, ambitious woman who thinks, lives, and breathes her job. Their work on popularizing the Howard Beale show brings them together. It isn't long before Max leaves his wife and home for a relationship with Diana. The film follows this subplot along with the behind-the-scenes subplots with Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who manipulates the business end of the Howard Beale show. Intercut with these subplots are new episodes of the Howard Beale show, as he continues to gain popularity by articulating "the rage of the people", as Diana puts it.

These seemingly disparate story threads of drama, comedy, and satire converge as the film reaches its end, and this convergence is Lumet's pedigree. The late scenes represent the movie's punishing blow. Otherwise, it would be just another smart satire about media and capitalism. In these moments, Network really becomes about Max and Diana's dwindling relationship, to which the Beale storyline becomes the counterpoint and mirrors its demise. Although Max's mistakes are many -- and he is by no means a protypical hero -- his leaving Diana represents the only bit of hope in the film; hope that some people will resist the commodification of life and fight for whatever humanity has left. But he too has fallen victim to the overwhelming power of the media that surround him and constitute his life at all. When he's telling Diana why he's leaving her as if he's pitching a script, he describes his own ending as a hopeful one in his desire to re-unite with his wife. If he wasn't so influenced by the illusory nature of his life's work, he'd realize that there is likely no happy ending for him and his wife. He has burned the bridge between them. But the film never shows us what happens to its characters. In fact, what happens to them is essentially besides the point.

The final tragic scene between Diana and Max encompasses the human side of the film's themes, where we see that the line between life and fantasy that Howard Beale speaks of no longer exists, between real people and flickering images on a screen. Those images inhabit our existence, which results in a disconnect from what's real and human, one from which we as a culture cannot return. Much like the heartbreaking exchange between Max and his wife earlier in the film (which won Beatrice Straight the Oscar), Lumet finds a dramatic pulse to the film that is both unexpected and bittersweet. Here we realize that Network is far more than just an intelligent satire. Lumet is not content to just let Howard Beale act as a symbol of his film's messages. Instead, he makes a film with a real story made with concern; it's about real people whose lives and personal relationships become the hollow network plots they discuss in meetings. By the end, these characters are speaking only in television terminology to convey their defeated emotions. Their artificial surfaces have enveloped them to the extent that artifice constitutes their very being.

This is made tragically clear when Howard Beale's popularity begins to slip and becomes just another passing trend. His message is the same, but he delivers it with a more defeated tone and disgust for humanity. Perhaps he finally acknowledges that he is himself another pawn of the corporate power that packages and markets him to consumers. Maybe he realizes that he spouts off messages which resonate only superficially with the massive audience he's amounted; for if it really did have the desired effect, no one would have to watch the show to begin with and Howard wouldn't be on the air ranting. But he is on the air, and his very presence reproduces the problems about which he preaches. His tirades against television fundamentally ignore the fact that he is the content of the medium he so detests. The irony of the film therefore is its McLuhan-inspired acknowledgment that the medium is the message. Control lies not in the message of the medium, but in the medium itself. Network therefore posits that television is an institution in which relatively few can control the interests of its viewers, where capitalism exploits even the smallest trace of humanity and knowledge, transforming it into a means of controlling consumers. This is perhaps best said by Beale himself:

"Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers; this tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people, and that's why woe is us that Edward George Ruddy died. Because this company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America; there's a new chairman of the board, a man called Frank Hackett, sitting in Mr. Ruddy's office on the twentieth floor. And when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?"

To talk about Network is to talk about issues of media, corporote control, and, of course, being mad as hell. But the film is far deeper than its satirical surface. It's a deep ponderance of humanity in the age of hyper-capitalism as manifest in the mechanical reproduction of media sources and corporate power. But, it also examines these notions within the dramatic spectrum of relationships and characters. Underneath its depictions of a news anchor turned media spectacle named Howard Beale is both a tragic narrative and a profound inquiry into media relations.

Howard Beale tapped into the fears and rage of the people so much that they kept tuning into his program, playing right into the very traps he was enraged about. Therefore, viewers remained in their passive states of inactivity and Beale was reduced to just another image on the screen, one that will vanish with the click of a button. And when Beale began broaching issues that no longer appealed to viewers' passive states of faux-rage, they did precisely that: they changed the channel. Then, a real, breathing individual preaching a message that wasn't condusive to the corporate interests that undergird the medium of "the tube" is shot down on his own show. The camera zooms in on his lifeless body, the lights come up, and the room fills with applause, signaling not just the end of the Howard Beale show and tragic media image that was once a man, but the death of individual voice, reason, and humanity. The finals image of the film consists of four television screens at the corners of the frame repeatedly displaying graphic images of his death intercut with various commercials and advertising. They show quick images at different times; a sensory overload accompanied by a mechanical voiceover narration.

The questions raised by the film's juxtaposition of Howard Beale and the personal struggles of the individuals who made him accessible to the public are startling and troubling: Can humanoids even recognize that they are no longer human if they have purged themselves of the means by which they once embodied humanity? Can one recognize the problem/s with a system (let lone try to solve them) if that very system has provided the tools with which one can determine the problem at all? Since we started speaking these words, writing them down, and reproducing our means of communicating, have we really been able to understand ourselves and that which is outside ourselves to even understand what it means to be human?

The scene I quoted at the start of this article evokes these questions and more when viewed in relation to the rest of the movie. Watch it real closely; the dialogue, the performance, the sound, the framing; it's all right there. Jenson is more right than he, Howard, or any of us really know. Maybe we're not as mad as we think. Maybe we're happy as hell and will continue to take it. After all, it's all we know, and it's all we are.


Anonymous said...

"Network" is one of the films that wound sending me to film school. Today, I can see a lot of flaws and facile spots, but I still love it. Lumet's rendering of the screenplay is perfect, even if the writing dominates.

Ned Beatty, who uttered that great speech, apparently didn't care much for it, by the way. He called the film "bad Brecht." I'd say it's good Brecht, but not Brecht at all. Chayevsky might have been concerned with worldwide mega-capitalism, but he was no Marxist.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob! It's interesting you should note flaws. I, too, have always loved the movie; more for it's messages and intelligence than for style. But Lumet's style is undoubtedly present, but it's almost so subtle that the fact that the viewer notices the intelligence of the film's screenplay and performances actually factors into what's really going on in the movie, which I tried to bring out my review here. Lumet is one of those filmmakers who operates seemingly without much style or directorial presence. But that's how he fools us. I have come to see films like Network and The Verdict as much more than structurally sound, intelligent, straight-ahead movies. Lumet's best work operates on far deeper levels than one would think.

Anonymous said...

To me Lumet is one of the directors who is more interpretive than creative. At his best, he interprets at such a high level, however, that he brings everything out of the material that needs to be there and not a thing more.

Another way of putting it that, even today, If I wrote a really good screenplay, he'd be a first choice. (My other first choice would be Stephen Frears, who's a bit more flexible and artifice-friendly, but who in many respects is from the same tradition.)

In the much likelier event I wrote a crappy screenplay, I'd prefer some auteur genius to come and make me look good!