Network: So this movie has (minor) characters named Snowden & “Chaney”…

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My name is ilex13 and it’s been more than two months since my last confession of Cinema Shame…

But a partial excuse is that I chose a movie that gives the viewer A Lot To Think About.

Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, is a pitch-black satire of a declining, violent, post-imperial America, where the line between news and entertainment is hopelessly blurred, and where media spectacle hypnotizes the population while globalized corporate capitalism pulls the strings.

Oh, yeah, and it was released in 1976.

The one thing I thought I knew about this film was that William Holden tells everyone to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it it anymore”. That’s wrong. William Holden actually plays Max Schumacher, the news director for the fictional UBS television network. The network’s news anchor, Howard Beale, is played by Peter Finch (in a bitingly funny, deeply committed performance) and he’s the one who tells everyone to shout out the window.

As the movie opens, Beale’s ratings have been slipping badly, so the network puts him out to pasture. Beale responds by going on wild, unscripted rants, beginning with a threat to kill himself on the air. It’s not news, but it’s riveting television, so the ratings soar.  Finally, after a midnight conversation with a voice that may be God, Beale, clad in rain-soaked pajamas, issues the famous directive. It seems when he asked the voice why it had chosen him, it said “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Meanwhile, Max Schumacher finds himself caught between ambitious, budget-slashing young executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who regards the poor performance of the news division as “a wanton fiscal affront”, and the rising head of programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).

Max describes Diana, with whom he soon begins an affair, as “television generation…I’m not sure she’s capable of real feeling.” Diana is trying to put together a reality show, The Mao Tse Tung Hour, featuring the Ecumenical Liberation Army, a band of domestic revolutionaries who’ve kidnapped an heiress ( a la the SLA and Patty Hearst) and filmed their own bank heist. A forward thinker, Diana also wants to make what’s basically The L Word, only she’s going to call it The Dykes and run it as an afternoon soap. It’s the 70s, so Diana, who wants edgy, with-it, countercultural programming, has not heard of political correctness. She introduces herself to Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield), her Angela Davis-esque contact for the ELA, as “Diana Christensen, racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.” “I’m Laureen Hobbs, badass commie n*****”, responds Hobbs.

Needless to say, Diana sees Howard Beales as ratings gold. She makes him the centerpiece of The Howard Beale Show, featuring a resident psychic and a live studio audience shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” in unison each week.  It all goes swimmingly until Howard Beale uses his TV pulpit to rouse opposition to UBS’s latest corporate buyout. He’s called on the carpet by the company’s owner (Ned Beatty, in a superb cameo), who tells him: “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, MR. BEALE!”

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And soon the ratings begin to slip. The solution? Crossover episode!

Network is both darkly funny and wildly over the top.  Chayefsky makes the characters speak over each other and repeat each other, indulging in flamboyant phraseology and extravagant alliteration. They toss around the F-bomb in a way still new to the screen in the 70s. There’s a lot of shouting, especially as the stakes are raised. William Holden has some bizarrely metafictional speeches about the “scripting” of his affair with Faye Dunaway, while Dunaway gets a line about the “many-splendored night” they first spent together — a shoutout to Holden’s starring role in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).

At the beginning of the film, the UBS news team is plotting the coverage of that days’ events, all actual news stories of the time: the latest on Patty Hearst and on the US government’s failed attempt to deport John Lennon, as well as the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore (Moore was reportedly obsessed with Hearst; her attempt on Ford’s life followed a similar attempt, made less than three weeks before by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a former member of the Manson Family.  These references anchor the movie in a particular cultural moment, while also suggesting a world in which news and entertainment, celebrity and notoriety, are already hopelessly confused.

A few other elements mark Network as a period piece — casual adultery, the Chateaubriand steaks at a shareholders’ banquet — but at heart it remains frighteningly relevant.

P. S. “Jack Snowden” is the Washington correspondent the network initially wants to replace Beale; “Nelson Chaney” is the president of UBS. Yes, the first names are different, but hearing people shout “get us Snowden!”, or wondering how “Chaney” will react, nevertheless give the film an eerily contemporary ring.

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2001: A Space Odyssey. I See Why People Admire It. Really, I Do.

It’s taken me a while to write about 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ll confess — this movie makes me tired. As I said in my title, I can recognize the things that make it an interesting and significant film, even an awe-inspiring one, but its slow, deliberate pace and somewhat downbeat tone make it rather long and weary haul for me. Another confession — French cinema, however challenging I may find it, is an open book to me compared to the films of Stanley Kubrick. (Though I’ve only seen two others — Lolita and The Shining).  This despite the fact the interweb tells me that no other filmmaker has been as extensively quoted by The Simpsons (see my post on The 400 Blows).

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I’m very glad I went back and listened to the commentary track by the movie’s stars, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, whose enthusiasm for the project is still strong after all these years. I love Lockwood’s story about how he told his football coaches at UCLA he had a traffic court appearance in another city so he could ditch practice and go see Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) instead. I like his stories about sci-fi conventioneers bringing in models of things from the movie they’ve painstakingly reconstructed via freeze frame. I should also say I’m puzzled by his reference to the number of people who’ve told him they went into computer science because of this film (though, looked at another way, that explains a lot about people in IT…)

So, what’s it about? There’s a big, black rectangle (or maybe multiple rectangles). One of them lands on prehistoric earth, panicking the local proto-humans but also somehow inspiring them to figure out tool use. (Which goes badly for the local tapir population — I thought the tapirs were adorable. There should be more tapirs in cinema).

Then, in the year 2001, humans find another rectangle on the moon. This rectangle sends out a piercing high-pitched tone (which sent the cat running from the room on my first viewing). In the movie’s version of 2001, you get to the moon via Pan Am, which is a nicely anachronistic touch. Also, people seem to care passionately about the design of their chairs, but to have lost interest in food, apparently being content with mushy ersatz stuff in TV-dinner trays.Image

A few months later, a space mission sets off for Jupiter (apparently where the signal came from), manned by Gary Lockwood, Keir Dullea, and the famous computer HAL, who becomes paranoid and homicidal once they’re in space. Eventually Dullea makes it to Jupiter on his own, there’s a long sound-and-light sequence, and then Dullea spends the rest of his life in a Louis-XVI style suite with an illuminated floor. When he dies the rectangle visits him, and then he turns into a giant embryo in the sky.

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I realize this summary probably sounds a bit dismissive, but the power of the movie is in its sounds and images, not in the narrative. Or to put it another way, that story one of my English teachers told about hippies dropping acid and then lying down at the base of the screen for yet another viewing back in the day make more sense now.

Certainly, the movie was constantly quoted in the visual culture of my childhood — especially the monolith (as the rectangle is properly referred called) landing among the apemen as Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra plays. You can now recreate that and other scenes with this monolith action figure, if you’re so inclined: Image

Apparently, the monolith represents an infinitely more advanced extraterrestrial intelligence; supposedly Kubrick went in this more abstract direction after Carl Sagan warned him off bug-eyed aliens. Kubrick’s collaborator on the script was Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story, “The Sentinel” Clarke had written in 1948 (and which Keir Dullea remembered reading as a sci-fi-obsessed teen).

It’s a truly impressive film. Yet I can also sympathize with those critics who, at the time of its release, had no idea what to make of it. (Pauline Kael hated it — no surprise there). I can see how and why it became a cultural touchstone, but I’m probably not going to watch it from beginning to end again very soon.

Fairly random postscript: While I understand Kubrick got there first with the “Dawn of Man” section of 20012001_0002[1]

… I still have a great fondness for the desert-primeval opening sequence of Paul Schrader’s much-maligned 1982 remake of Cat People (whose no-holds-barred looniness deserves to be more widely appreciated).

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The 400 Blows: Still Not Sure I Get French Film, But Hey, I Already Get More References To It

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Now this is the kind of cinema redemption I hoped for.  After watching Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in which the word Fin appears across the young protagonist’s face as he wades in the sea, I went looking for matching images from the two Simpsons episodes in which characters make films that end with a big on-screen Fin. Specifically, Barney Gumble’s Pukahontas in “A Star is Burns” (season 6, episode 18) and Nelson Muntz’s Life Blows Chunks in “Any Given Sundance” (season 19, episode 18). As you might guess from the title, Life Blows Chunks borrows liberally from Truffaut’s film.  And now, when Nelson wades into the sea at the end, I get it.

By the way, if you want a capsule description of The 400 Blows, you could do worse than to say it chronicles a few weeks in the life of the Nelson Muntz of Montmartre, circa 1959, right down to the chaotic household and alarmingly callous mother. If Gilberte Doinel (Claire Maurier) isn’t also smoking her way towards enough Laramie Bucks to redeem for a golf umbrella, it’s only because Truffaut’s characters (including the 12-year-old hero) already smoke other brands (or roll their own). Young Antoine Doinel gets in trouble at school, which leads to trouble at home, which leads to more trouble at school. He runs away, crashes at a friends’ house, and ends up lugging a stolen typewriter around Paris, vainly attempting to pawn it, before finally landing in a juvenile detention facility for “observation”.

It’s vivid and immediate, alternately sad and funny; I see why audiences and critics alike embraced it. Still, I never feel like I entirely get classic French cinema. Give me Max von Sydow playing chess on the beach with Death, and I know where I am. Give me a spirit medium channeling a samurai’s ghost, and I’m right at home. I know what I should be paying attention to. But French films often seem to me to be exercises in just watching things happen. The characters go about their lives, for better or for worse, without much indication — as far as I can tell — what the viewer is supposed to make of it. (I’m sorry I can’t explain it any more clearly or eloquently than that.) I remember feeling this way after L’Atalante and Les Enfants du Paradis and Le Souffle au Coeur;  it’s the reason there are so many French films on my CinemaShame list. I’ve stayed away from them because I’m afraid I won’t appreciate them.

So did I appreciate The 400 Blows? I…think so. Young Jean-Pierre Leaud is wonderful as the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, and Truffaut accurately captures that youthful sense of always being in trouble, of being punished as much for attempted good deeds as for bad, of minor lies suddenly spiraling out of control. And Truffaut’s seeming refusal to judge his characters fits well with his vision of a world in which the adults aren’t any better — any more honest, or practical, or emotionally consistent — than the children they find themselves responsible for. This alone would set it apart from most coming-of-age tales, which are usually anxious to provide at least one role model. It’s not surprising to hear Truffaut say, in an interview that’s among the Criterion extras, that the film wasn’t released in Spain because Franco’s censors wanted so many cuts “it would’ve been a short.”

On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong about Truffaut’s style. Maybe it all Means Something.  After watching the film through, I turned on the commentary track on the Criterion disc and randomly chose a scene. The image of the characters descending a staircase going downwards to the right, the commenter solemnly informed me, can be recognized by “students of visual literacy” as symbolizing the protagonist’s “moral decline”. Am I missing that much subtext in every scene? Hey, at least I got that all the Christmas decorations are ironic.

I intended to start my path to redemption with something lighter, something without subtitles, and then to work my way up to the French films on my list. But apparently there’s a “long wait” on Netflix for Network, so I jumped ahead to something I figured would be daunting enough to ensure easy availability. (It’s the same principle according to which I rearranged my movie queue when some of my discs didn’t make it back to Netflix and I wondered if they’d been stolen.  I moved all the silent and/or foreign films to the top. Enjoy the early expressionist cinema of Victor Sjostrom and Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears, movie thief!) The 400 Blows was far more accessible than I feared it might be. I’m still a bit intimidated by Serious French Film, but at least I’m getting more references to it.

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My Cinematic Hall of Shame by @hollye_h

So here they are — the movies I really should have seen by now, or at least I feel I should have seen. There are still gaps. Really, there should be at least one Tarantino film on here, and some Fellini. Should I have added Tod Browning’s Freaks? The original Halloween? And if it stars Tom Cruise, should it bother me that I can’t feel much shame over not having seen it?

Note: These are not necessarily listed in order of Maximum Shame.

1. Network

Probably not a lot of people are walking around saying “I can’t believe you haven’t seen Network!” But I’ve come across enough references I feel like I should have seen it a long time ago. William Holden tells people to yell out the window, right?

2. Dracula (1931)

As a classic horror fan, I should’ve seen this by now.

3. Psycho

Probably the one I’m most embarrassed about. I sat through Torn Curtain. I own Shadow of a Doubt on DVD. But I haven’t seen Psycho?

4. Taxi Driver

Almost as embarrassing as Psycho.

5. Aliens

With an “s”. I’ve seen the first, but everyone keep referencing the second. Plus, I like Bill Paxton.

6. Godfather & Godfather Part II

I don’t know how it happened either.

7. Breathless

All the cool kids have already seen it.

8. Fight Club

Ah, references!

9. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Like Network, it was in the air when I was growing up. And if I don’t watch it now, I probably never will.

10. Repulsion

Rosemary’s Baby has been in my personal top five since I was in my teens. And I loved Knife in the Water when I finally saw it.  So why haven’t I seen Repulsion?

11. The 400 Blows

See #7

12. The Rules of the Game

See #7 & #11

Optional 13th: Last Year at Marienbad. So I can finally justify referencing it on Twitter.