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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Still Mad As Hell... Why "Network" Still Matters Today

The Summer Movie Blockbuster season is upon us – and there is no better time to be a movie geek. I’m not talking about being a film geek. Sorry. I mean, cinephile (sounds fancier), or a fan of the latest foreign documentary that’s the darling of the film festival circuit. I’m talking about being a pure-hearted movie geek in search of their latest fix of big explosions, science fiction, and 3D mega entertainment.

I like to think of myself as a cinephile at times, but the truth is I am right there with the rest of the movie geeks who flock to those midnight screenings. Sometimes, I'm even there in costume. 

Don't judge. 

As much as I enjoy a few hours of mindless entertainment every now and then, I can’t help but wonder sometimes if any of these movies I’m watching through my 3D glasses will stand the test of time. Will any be relevant ten, twenty, or thirty years from now? Will any lines still resonate like this one?

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

It's been 37 years since a crazy television news anchor delivered one of the most famous movie lines in history when he ordered us all to go shout that out our windows during an on-air rant. That line has become more than just a movie quote over the years. Its become a succinct and powerful expression of anti-establishment outrage. I'll bet most people can't remember many lines from the summer blockbusters they saw over the weekend - let alone one that will still resonate almost four decades later. 

For those of you familiar with the line, but not the movie – it comes from “Network” (1976). Directed by Sidney Lumet, and written by Paddy Chayefsky (who won his third best screenplay Oscar for the script), “Network” is a scathing attack on the television industry and how the pursuit of ratings leads to exploitation, insanity, and ultimately to an assassination orchestrated by a major network. 

I saw it for the first time as a journalism student and rediscovered it again channel surfing over the weekend. The performances! Paddy Chayefsky’s words! Wow!!! I must have been sleeping that week in class, because  “Network” is quite simply, brilliant.

The film tells the story of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch in his Academy Award-winning role), the primary news anchor at the fictional UBS network. Near the beginning of the movie Beale, who has been told that he’s been fired because of low ratings and will be leaving the network soon, announces on-air he will commit suicide during his nightly national newscast. His announcement causes a media stir and panic within the network. But Howard doesn’t end up committing suicide. Instead, he goes on to become “a mad prophet of the airwaves,” articulating the desperation felt by millions of average, hardworking Americans – becoming a ratings sensation in the process. Howard eventually gets his own show, which has more the look and feel of a game show than a nightly news program.
Hey. I think I recognize that show.

When it was released, Network was billed as a far-fetched and satirical look at the television business. After re-watching it I believe it has as much prophetic relevance today as it did in 1976 – maybe even more in our “anything for ratings” media–driven world. It predicted our increased obsession with reality TV. It predicted the practice of exploiting and co-opting people for the sake of ratings. It raised the question of who owns the media and what impact that answer might have on the free press and American democracy. It even predicted the rise of future “mad prophets of the airwaves” (feel free to insert the name of your “favorite” one on air today here).

I couldn’t help but think while I was watching the movie unfold about what’s happening in television today. TV is facing its most challenging business model crisis in decades. Will the quest for ratings, for advertising dollars, the influence of corporate interests, the impulse to turn everything into mass entertainment and "must see" TV lead to some of the same interesting results you see unfold in “Network” ? 

In interviews at the time of the film’s release, "Network’s" writer, Paddy Chayefsky maintained that while the film was a satire, it is also "the truth". In Time magazine he said, “Television coarsens all the complexities of human relationships, brutalizes them, makes them insensitive... When the [dirigible] Hindenburg blew up, the reporter [witnessing it live] broke down on the radio [as he described it]. I can't imagine anything like that happening today. I imagine a detached, calm description of the ship going up in flames: ‘I do believe there will be no survivors.’ We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition. This is the basic problem of television. We've lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity.”

What’s that, Paddy? You say the basic problem of television is that we’ve lost our sense of shock, our humanity?

Watch “Network” again – or for the first time during this summer’s blockbuster season. See if you don’t find some tears welling up behind your laughter.

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