The Sidney Lumet directed, Paddy Chayefsky written film NETWORK remains one of my desert island films, its screenplay in my estimation the finest ever written, this fact being in no way coincidental, given that Chayefsky is the finest screenwriter America has produced.
The subject matter of the film aside, the script is a model of literacy and elegant wit, the likes of which we almost surely will never see again, not because it is impossible to foresee writers capable of such superior work, but because no studio or producer will touch that level of verbal sophistication with a pole of any length. When the broad audience for films as often as not communicates primarily through what we may generously call a laconic language of phone texts, facebook bites and Twitters blips, “U R prolly screwd” if you hope to see dialogue again in complete sentences or well-constructed paragraphs.
It is a fair point to say that fidelity to verisimilitude rules that out in any work closely approximating reality these days, though there still must be conversational speech at higher levels of articulation some place, though if you put a gun to my head to name one specifically I suppose I would have no choice but to prepare to meet my maker. It is reasonable enough at the very least to say that felicitous and acrobatically spun dialogue is going to be considered only an inhibitor of profits rather than an additional generator of them. Yet, while not an eventuality for which one should wait by voluntarily inhibiting respiration, it would certainly be a treat should producers sometimes take a chance, like those who gave us NETWORK did, by crediting an audience with higher capabilities and expectations, rather than nearly always taking the conventional route of underestimation
Occasionally lauded, and rightly so, for its prescience on the subject of television specifically and media generally, NETWORK likewise discerned broader changes slowly solidifying in the country and in the world at large. These are principally articulated by the character Arthur Jensen (actor Ned Beatty in an electrifying turn) head of the fictional conglomerate CCA, and delivered in the modus of a tent evangelist, in one of the simultaneously most visionary, uproarious and mesmerizing movie monologues committed to film. It is addressed to Howard Beale, the lunatic savant anchorman the struggling UBS network has meretriciously left on the air as a ratings grab despite, or because of his crumbling psyche, after he uses the occasion of his nightly program to urge a write-in campaign intended to thwart a corporate deal that involves CCA:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it!! Is that clear?! 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 and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.
It is the international system of currency which determines the totality 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 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 get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, 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 bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or 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, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.
Observant for the time, and also predictive, whatever hyperbole flourishes in this satirical assessment, now has settled into what at present is something approaching base reality. Indeed, nation states are not clandestinely but in fact overtly subservient to multinational corporations, both dependent upon them and under their indirect if undeniable guidance. Whether it is though the nearly unlimited, profoundly powerful or frankly lubricous monetary influence upon the governmental process itself, or the similarly high-financed oiling of the propaganda machine, the democratic process, as Mr. Jensen suggests, is ceremonial now rather than real. In fact, the corporate agenda and the whimsicalities of capital are ubiquitous and victorious.
The free market no longer is “free” by any stretch of any imagination nor has it been for quite a long time, the imbalance of leverage exerted by, and societal value placed respectively upon capital and labor maximal now in the favor of capital; and consumer demand hardly the sovereign economic actor it still is purported to be by rightist economic lights of the day and the radical new conservatism, but rather as leveraged, influenced and utterly dominated by advertising and propaganda as the political environment is.
Propaganda finally has thoroughly, and perhaps with finality replaced information and factuality, truth now as successfully manipulatable as automobile buying habits. The subjugated and subordinate state of governmental and political leaders means the corporate and financial sectors have reached what well may be their historical apogee of unaccountability. Whether the metric is tax structure, apportionment of GDP, concentration of ownership, rawest and bluntest monetary power or the rulership of conventional wisdom, the ends of the multinationals have been realized
In the realm of television of course, NETWORK’S satirical depiction passed into reality quite some time ago. Highway rubberneckers seem to be the targeted demographic. If squalid and banal reality is your cup of tea, there’s a niche of reality television always at your disposal. Whether it is violence or the tawdriest domestic melodrama, your voyeurism will be catered to with no regard for any delicate artistic, human or intellectual circumspection. In a scene early in the film, anchorman Howard Beale tells his friend and producer Max (an impossibly suave and sophisticated William Holden) that he intends to blow his brains out on the air. This is the exchange:
Howard Beale: No, no. I’m gonna blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 O’clock news.
Max Schumacher: You’ll get a hell of a rating, I’ll guarantee you that. 50 share easy. We could make a series of it. “Suicide of the Week.” Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? “Execution of the Week.”
Howard Beale: “Terrorist of the Week.”
Max Schumacher: I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour.” A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It’d wipe that fuckin’ Disney right off the air.
Dorothy, we aren’t in the Land of Hyperbole any more.
But in another sense, and certainly one more rueful in its commentary about our current state of media, as well as cultural reality the present day is in some ways more shocking than the anticipatory satire. At least then, after Beale’s first couple of threatening and unhinged rants, the brass will refer to the latest incident as a “colossally stupid prank.” When Frank Hackett, the executive played by Robert Duvall is entertaining the proposal to keep Beale on the air permanently for the ratings bonanza, he says in a tone of caution, ““We’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television,” though of course in the end the ratings ploy will win the day over more sober and responsible better angels. But at least there was the initial recognition and acknowledgment of what exactly was under proposal. And when Beale’s tenure as “mad prophet of the airwaves” has endured for some time, Max Schumacher makes reference to the entire gambit as “gutter depravity.”
In the era of Glen Back, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs (really, just fill in the blank with your own choice) such clarifying moral, philosophical, intellectual and artistic judgments and observations and cultural rigor sound downright quaint.