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Sunday, March 19, 2006


You know how sometimes you go to a movie and you end up sitting near someone who exhibits some behavior that just distracts the hell out of you? Sometimes it's fairly benign – a noisy candy wrapper revisited every 8 minutes throughout Acts I and II, a chronic smoker's hack, an oddly feminine laugh coming from a burly mustachioed dude, the fermented odor of a Subway sandwich smuggled past the ticket taker. Most often though, the distraction results from the inability of some to tell the difference between how one should act while watching a movie in a theater and how one should act while watching Everybody Loves Raymond at home. These are two different things. This is me, the curmudgeon saying:


Recently Cindy and I discovered a new twist to this problem. What do you do when the entire audience is distracting?

Last week, after a tremendous Italian dinner at Marino, Cindy and I went to a screening of Network (1976, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch) directed by Sidney Lumet at the ArcLight in Hollywood. This now classic satire scorches the journalism industry, the television industry and the American public's preference for titillation over information. This is not a comedy. It has funny lines and humorous reactions but at its core it's using the world of television and its insatiable appetite for viewers to rip the skin off American culture and lay bare the depressing path we've chosen for ourselves. The humor is a tool that Lumet uses to show us how we are doomed. And worse, how we are doomed by ourselves.

What makes Network a classic is the amazing accuracy with which it foretold the future of television. In the movie, a sedate, traditional network evening news program is morphed overnight into an hour of sensationalistic, profanity-laced anger hosted by the news anchorman turned prophet Howard Beale. That Beale's sanity is in question or that perhaps the network has a responsibility to the American people greater than its need to increase its ratings is never considered by the executives. Their allegiance is sworn only to their shareholders. The result is a TV schedule saturated with sex, disasters, crime, and depravity all designed with one thing in mind – to keep the viewer watching. That is the one and only goal.

Beale says it best,

As I said, this is not a comedy.

I'm sure the audience at the ArcLight would disagree. Inexplicably, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, at least someone laughed at MOST of the lines delivered. At first, I thought they were just getting into the rhythm of the movie. Then I thought maybe it was nervous laughter. But as it went on and on, I got the impression that they just didn't get what the movie was about.

What made Network a hit in 1976 is that it was a warning, exclaiming "Look at where we're headed!" During the 80s and 90s, it resonated even more because we were right in the middle of seeing the warning becoming reality. Now in 2006, we have arrived. Television has become exactly the "circus" the Beale described. The generation that is now creating television never experienced a world without the circus. Perhaps that explains the ArcLight audience's laughter. It was a relatively young crowd (20s and 30s) and seemed to consist of a lot of people who work in entertainment. Perhaps they lacked the satire's context and therefore, just didn't get the point. Without any frame of reference, all they saw were a bunch of wild characters carrying on about something or another.

I'm afraid this would be the "somewhat dim L.A. crowd" to which Annie Proulx recently referred.

Despite the distraction and although the highlight of the evening was definitely the pasta, we enjoyed the movie. And Matthew Perry sat in the row in front of us. That makes two "Friends" that we've seen, the other being David Schwimmer. After the movie as we filed out of the theater, I eavesdropped on Perry and his date (?) as they walked right behind us. She was commenting on how Network is the kind of movie you can see five times in a row. Mr. Perry offered no audible reply.



At 3/20/2006 5:56 PM, WAT said...

I forget the ARCLIGHT has these classic movie screenings. I'd sure like to go to one! Your review of NETWORK is phenomenal, although I must say I'd probably be laughing out loud too, only because Peter Finch's performance is so outrageously tragic and disturbing that it actually makes me nervously laff. And like Annie Proulx, I too was hurt by the loss of her wonderful motion picture.

At 3/22/2006 9:44 AM, Anonymous said...

You and I are connecting on a molecular level apparently. My most recent show has a FRIENDS connection as well. I must see NETWORK again. There's some great scenes in that movie.

The Hollywood Podcast

At 3/23/2006 6:23 AM, Anonymous said...

Network is, indeed, an outstanding movie, but there is an alternate version that has yet to be filmed: one in which the "stoic, voice of God" "hard news" program DOESN'T change its format or content, but remains insistent that its views and opinions on facts are "the truth."

"Network" predicted stories and shows akin to NBC Dateline blowing up GM trucks for dramatic effect. "Network" predicted Geraldo and Springer. "Network" predicted Barbara Walters degeneration into a reigning gossip queen.

A sequel to "Network" should have been made - one that signalled the collapse of CBS, the irrelevance of CNN, the abdication of big corporate media.

Nevertheless, a great, great movie, with or without Matthew Perry in the audience.

At 11/01/2006 2:52 PM, M said...

Excellent review of Network. Most people completely miss the point of the film because they can see past the illusion. I'm pleased to see that you don't fall into the trap most reviewers of the film usually encounter, by saying the movie only predicted reality television. The film predicted everything that is on the tube today. Especially the news as told by the "fair and balanced" cable & network news companies pushing the agenda of major corporations. The most disturbing of all is that no one cares or is aware of how damaging this is.


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