Around Town: Mad as hell
Buffalo Film Seminars to feature Network
Published: Sunday, October 13, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 13, 2013 19:10
Howard Beale, a longtime television anchor played by Peter Finch, has a meltdown on the air. He screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” in the most famous scene from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network, which professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian will be showing Tuesday night through the Buffalo Film Seminars at Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre.
And though that phrase is what has managed to enter its way into our language, what the film really deals with is what has spread even more widely into culture. Network is as energetic as it is emphatic to make its point of how human values become suppressed inside a media-saturated culture where the goal of producing profits and increasing ratings overpowers all other drives.
The danger lies in becoming impervious to feeling – that if people so desperately crave to be entertained by those on television, they may fail to recognize the humanity of whom they are watching.
What explains the central criticism of television that Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky impel is the way they want to show the irony of how ratings (which evaluate the response of audiences) actually work to distance the television world from any meaningful connection to the world outside of it.
As Pauline Kael said of Chayefsky’s script, “Television, he says, is turning us into morons and humanoids; people have lost the ability to love.” Kael would later go on to skewer the film, characterizing it as a “messianic farce” – unmoved by its high-mindedness. High-minded it may be, but unmoving it is not; Network is a great American film.
The plot is centered around a fictional television network, UBS, and its struggle with poor ratings; the story, however, is primarily about an avaricious ratings executive, Diana Christensen, and a middle-aged newsroom executive, Max Schumacher, as they embark on a relationship while the corporate structure of UBS changes dramatically.
When Beale has his live meltdown on the air after he is abruptly told he has only two more weeks with the network due to declining ratings, he announces his plans to commit suicide – on the next broadcast. Indignation suddenly gets replaced by opportunism when, the next day, ratings surge – and Christensen decides she wants to keep him on the air.
What ensues is an intricate, fascinating satire in which a television network turns into a madhouse. Lumet is in good form working with editor Alan Heim, making each erratic transition seamless, shifting gracefully in hypnotic rhythms from moments of sensuous excitement to insidious danger to lugubrious despair.
Network moves beyond a mere mocking of its subject; it really engages it – and implicitly suggests a reforming instinct that guides its direction.
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall and Beatrice Straight, the film was a sensation when it was released and would go on to win four in Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay.
Network will be playing Tuesday at 7 p.m.