Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Movies: "Network"

Sidney Lumet, 1976

Previous Contact: I first saw Network around fifteen years ago, very possibly with DrSchnell. I remember expecting sharp but reasonably lighthearted hilarity, and that I was vaguely disappointed by its dark, somber brand of satire.


Network is a very sharp parody of television -- both the vacuous world view that it projects, and the predatory corporate environment that buys, sells, and crafts what it pumps out onto the airwaves. Its plot revolves around an aging news anchor who, as he experiences a profound mental breakdown, is alternately anathematized and exploited by several bosses as his increasingly bizarre behavior variously attracts or alienates precious portions of the viewing audience.

He rants, he raves. He is, famously, "mad as hell, and [he]'s not going to take it any more!" And he has plenty to say about his own industry:

Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!

We deal in *illusions*, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that 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 even *think* like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off!
Well, sure. And the joke in the film, much as in real life, is that the viewing audience laps this kind of thing up, watching enthralled at the man who is railing against enthralled watching. The studio audience happily shouts in unison that they are as mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it any more. It's all very satisfyingly sinister, if you think that television represents the death of individual thought, and all very condescending if you think TV is a nice way for us working stiffs to unwind at the end of the day.

The satire is rendered a bit too long and a bit too stiff by [wait for it!] a romantic subplot between network executives. Intended to lampoon the corrosive effect of corporation life on human relationships, the romantic plot bogs down in speechy setpieces, eloquently written and acted but neither funny nor particularly plausible.

To be sure, Network is a very smart movie, and it has many brilliant scenes and darkly funny moments. It is too bad that it is also just a little bit of a mess. It doesn't quite hang together. In trying to feed us almost every kind of entertainment at once -- high drama, laffs, romance -- it falls into the same trap as television, becoming just a little bit disjointed, trivial, banal.

It is interesting, 33 years later, to look back at a United States terrified by a faltering economy, a sense of failing national cohesion, and the threat of terrorism. Of course, just because the sky didn't fall then doesn't necessarily mean that the sky won't fall now. But still.

Plot: Executives vie for control of a foundering television network. Their conflicting visions of what their network is and should be reflects and/or inflicts social change in the society at large.

Visuals: Network is effectively filmed in a straightforward, documentary style. It is of an age of films where it is hard to tell whether the director was intending to highlight the shabbiness of everyday life, or if the 1970s were just kind of shabby, or if we just associate the 1970s look with shabbiness now because anyplace that still bears that look has likely been stagnant for the last three or four decades.

Dialog: Extremely literate. Much of the dialog in Network is in the form of strangely articulate speeches exchanged among characters, very well crafted and acted but somewhat at odds with the grittier realism of the visual style.

Prognosis: A must-see for anyone interested in Media Studies. A might-see for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 1970s, or anyone who just likes their comedy very dark and deadpan. Optional for all others.


Elizabeth said...

Yet another film I'd heard of, never seen, and am now interested in seeing. On the other hand, your synopses/analyses are so good, I don't have to.

DrSchnell said...

I think I did see Network with you originally - I've seen it again one other time since, and what struck me on the second go-round is just how hard it is to differentiate satire from what is actually going on these days in TV, and "news" in general. Satire is a tough business, because reality will soon enough eclipse even the most absurd satire.

boo said...

I do want to see it. After I saw Broadcast News a friend told me that I would enjoy Network more but have never remembered to queue it up. I think I will now.