Saturday, March 04, 2006

Why I've Come Around on Network

I was never that big a fan of the movie Network. Compared to Paddy Chayefsky's masterpiece -- the really audacious, taboo-breaking The Americanization of Emily, which took on the still-sacred ideals of heroism and glory and revealed them as fraudulent, I thought Network picked mostly easy targets and didn't hit even those targets hard enough. Chayefsky's portrait of network television seems unduly influenced by a nostalgia for the "golden age" of live New York TV -- that is, a time when TV producers would hire him -- and a seething rage against young people, of whom the Faye Dunaway character is the film's representative (William Holden lectures her on how much more decent and good his generation is than hers). Add in the fact that many of its points about TV had already been made in A Face in the Crowd twenty years earlier, and you get a film that doesn't have nearly as much to say as Chayefsky thinks it does.

But watching the new DVD edition, I've warmed to it a bit more. Not just because of what I recognized as the best performances in the movie, those of William Holden, Peter Finch and Ned Beatty (I'm less impressed with Faye Dunaway, Oscar or no Oscar). The theme that now comes through in the film is not so much the Face in the Crowd-lite theme about the dangerous influence of the media and the endless quest for ratings; it now comes off more as a film about people who feel that their life has no meaning, and the ways in which they try to validate their own existences. Max (Holden) tries to do it by snatching at youth, in the form of his affair with Diana (Faye Dunaway). Diana finds all the validation she needs in the quest for ratings. Howard Beale (Finch), after pulling back from the brink of suicide, decides -- and tells his viewers -- that you can find meaning in your life by getting angry and getting involved. But Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the crusading business mogul, sets Beale straight: there's nothing we can do, in the modern business-dominated world, to make ourselves meaningful participants in the world; everything is out of our control. And the movie ends by coming down on the side of this bleak message: it's true that we can't find any meaning in our lives; all we can do is escape into the TV and pretend that our lives have value -- and when Beale tries to tell his audience otherwise, his ratings drop and he is killed for it. Bleak, but relevant, especially in downbeat times.

Also, in light of current events, a major plot twist in the film is startlingly current. Beale discovers that the network is about to be secretly taken over by a Saudi company, and tells his viewers to block the deal:

I will tell you who they're buying CCA for. They're buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation. They're buying it for the Arabs...We all know that the Arabs control sixteen billion dollars in this country. They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, twenty downtown pieces of Boston, a part of the port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. They own big hunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona Land and Cattle Company, the Security National Bank in California, the Bank of the Commonwealth in Detroit. They control ARAMCO, so that puts them into Exxon, Texaco, and Mobil Oil. They're all over - New Jersey, Louisville, St. Louis Missouri. And that's only what we know about! There's a hell of a lot more we don't know about because all of the those Arab petro-dollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in this country. For example, what we don't know about is this CCA deal and all the other CCA deals. Right now, the Arabs have screwed us out of enough American dollars to come right back and with our own money, buy General Motors, IBM, ITT, AT and T, Dupont, US Steel, and twenty other American companies. Hell, they already own half of England. So listen to me. Listen to me, god-dammit! The Arabs are simply buying us. There's only one thing that can stop them. You! You!

...And Beale's influence causes millions of telegrams to be sent to the White House, an outpouring of outrage that forces the takeover to be blocked.

And, of course, this leads directly to the second-most famous, but best, speech in the film, the speech where Ned Beatty explains to Beale that

"You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it, is that clear? You think you have 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, multi-variate, multi-national 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 and 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 and mini-max 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 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 to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale."

"Why me?"

"Because you're on television, dummy."

Okay, I give. Network is relevant after all.

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