So I’m actually thinking this way. And I don’t know whether to feel bad about it. That I don’t know is the upsetting part.
That needs a little unpacking. It’s in the way I write. Bear with me.
So... I’m watching ‘Network’ with Faye Dunaway and William Holden from 1976. Released when I was 5 years old, a whole 37 years ago, and damned if it doesn’t still hold up after all this time. Remake this like they were trying to do some years ago, and make it a commentary on reality TV instead, and they could do it. And that’s part of what I mean about thinking this way. And a lot of us do this too. I find myself saying stuff like that to my wife, who very patiently nods and says, “That’s all you, sweetheart.” when I suggested we watch it.
My first exposure to this movie was not actually the movie. It actually took me 37 years to see it for the first time today. My first time seeing it was the old Mad Magazine movie parody comic of it. One that ended with all the shareholders and network execs suddenly and suicidally realizing that PBS and educational shows were where the real interest and money lies. It’s something I’d love to see happen someday.
I’d love to see that our interest lies not in the latest blood-filled newscast, or exploitatively insulting competitive talent shows, or the next CSI, or the next sitcom jumping the shark as, in its latter seasons, someone gets pregnant to cash in on the ‘Aww, lookit da widdle baby.’ season or two of standard schtick. I’d love to say I’m as mad as hell like Howard Beale in the movie says. Go to my window and shout it all the way up to the ISS and hope it’ll come down over the heads of each and every one of us. If you can but imagine hearing that faint but pissed-off indignation drifting down from the heavens while out for a walk.
But this isn’t what I wanted to talk about.
My second exposure to the movie was as an acting student. They publish these paperbacks for acting students. You can find em in bookstores. Scenebooks full of nothing but interesting monologues cribbed from oscar winning movies and tony winning shows. And the two I remember the most?
The first, of course is the one everyone remembers. The third broadcast where the newscaster, Howard Beale, veteran of the biz all the way back into the 1950’s is faced with being fired and having nothing left in his life. Some corporation is turning his network’s news division into the 1970’s version of Fox News. Emptying it of substance. Going for network share before anything else. (Prepare your sphinchters folks. A lot of you won’t remember a day when there were only three national TV networks.)
And during the beginning of a huge mental breakdown, Beale announces during his last night on the air that he’s going to shoot himself on national TV. The ratings, very cynically go throught the roof. The entertainment programming division is given control of the news division immediately and the whole business is allowed to continue. With a deteriorating Beale haranguing the viewing public with more truths than they’ve been allowed to see on TV ever.
It is the ‘I’m as mad as hell! And I’m not going to take this anymore!’ monologue that he gives on that third broadcast that I read in my early 20’s. I think I may have actually done it for an assignment onstage at the community college I was attending that year. I read that one, and I did the one where Max Schumacher’s wife finds out her husband’s been cheating on her.
And I’m stricken by the gulf of years behind my experience then and now. I am aware of so much more of the subtext I read and see in everything now. Those monologue-filled books didn’t give much context as far as the mindset or motivation behind the words I’m seeing flung around on-screen 22 years after the fact.
I remember that my Drama professor was on Equity juries here in North Carolina. And I have to wonder to myself in some species of embarassed mortification how he stood it? How did he stand to see all of us students up there trying to remember our lines and deliver them with even a smidgen of the motivation we would have had as seasoned mature adults. Gods, our brains weren’t even developed fully yet! How were we supposed to access all the pain, shame and anger found in these pieces we were supposed to perform?
We were not the equal of the material sold to us. We were certainly not the equal of ‘Network’. And if my Drama Professor from CPCC in Charlotte is out there somewhere, my heartfelt and retroactive apologies go out to him on behalf of every one of us who ever mauled some piece of laudable drama in front of him. We were young.
The other thing that struck me about this movie was the TV Exec, Max Schumacher. When asked by his wife if the woman he’s been cheating on her with loves him, He says, “I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings. She’s television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows comes to her from over the TV Set.”
And I had a moment of defining clarity of my own. I am getting old. I had a moment just as cynical and faithless in the millennials as the boomers had about us Gen-X-ers. And that the ‘greatest’ generation had about the boomers before us. The boomers represented by Dunaway here in the movie playing the VP of Programming, Diana Christensen. I mention her title before her name quite specifically. Her name is incidental. There’s not a living person inside her character’s skin.
In this cynical and faithless moment, I caught myself experiencing a moment of hypocritical horror, thinking to myself how these kids today only see reality through some lens of endlessly ‘unscripted’ programming on 100 different channels whose ratings must get lower and lower the more niche they become.
And then I stopped as I heard William Holden’s character, Schumacher go on. About how this youngster had so many different movie-like and episodic scenarios about how their peccadillo will end, and how he’d go back to his wife cos the public’s too invested in the idea of the nuclear family for her to consider he’d actually leave his wife for her.
Hell, the scenes before that showed him and his corporate TV mistress in a montage of a getaway weekend, and the only dialogue you heard was how she went endlessly on and on about some show she was developing where she’s cashing in on terrorist liberation organizations of the 1970’s, and cynically exploiting their various manifestoes for episodic ratings share. She didn’t experience life. She evaluated it for development as a movie of the week or an ongoing series.
And that’s all she was. Meaningless hunger, ambition and drive wrapped in the flesh of Faye Dunaway. Convulsing in orgasm over Schumacher, even as she droned passionately about how they were going to get around the FBI’s accusations that they were funding terrorists.
And all I could think of is the last time I wanted to see my favorite comics made into a series. (Preacher, Transmetropolitan, The Invisibles) Or my favorite novels. (for the record, “The Dark Tower” by Stephen King, “The Dragonriders of Pern”, by Anne McCaffrey, and “The Keltiad” by Patricia Kenneally-Morrison.) How I couldn’t be satisfied with just reading them. How I needed them adapted and made alive, but knowing they’d never be as alive as these characters could be in my imagination when I read them.
That’s what I meant when I said that I didn’t know how I felt about thinking this way. I catch myself in my head developing and adapting for a series or franchise whenever I read something I deeply enjoy. Sometimes I’ll look at the threads about how something may be unadaptable, un-make-able and fall into the trap of judging a work by how adaptable it may be instead of on its merits. (SEE: Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix Parody Poster: ‘Difficult adaptations lie ahead, Harry.’) And having seen Network here, I have to wonder if I’ve been cheating myself of actual enjoyment of a thing. Or if I’ve been merely consuming instead of experiencing the reality around me. Being more of a Diane instead of a Schumacher. And the entire time, my inner Beale shouts at the sky, damning me and everyone else for being humanoids, and not human.
And I’d say, by damn, that ‘Network’s message is more and more relevant with the passing of every cynical year. It becomes more relevant as the news becomes more and more detached from reality, and the life that the news covers grows ever further from anything resumbling truth. I feel sometimes that what we see through our monitors and televisions only, at best, resembles a sensationalized verisimilitude. And that my being able to realize that fact is both elating and troubling to myself.
I won’t rehash the plot of the movie here. It’s a story of tragedy, cynicism, and human beings being mashed together with soulless characatures. If you haven’t seen this, you ought to.
*/end article, compile with relevant pictures and package, upload and monitor for commentary*