In the course of writing my new book, I’ve had to rent a lot of old movies and double check facts and dialogue and such. So a few weeks ago, my wife and I watched “Network”, starring William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The movie is 30 years old now, and practically quaint in its depiction of a world dominated by four–yes, four–competing networks. In 1976, Fox wasn’t even a glint in Rupert Murdoch’s eye. Then again, maybe he saw this and said to himself, “Hey, there’s an idea.”
The premise is probably familiar to everyone–a struggling TV network puts on sensational shows with no concern for what it might do to the audience. It’s familiar, because you’ve been living it. Although today, if anyone watched Peter Finch screaming, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” instead of a rush to fling open the window, there’d be a shrug, a grin, and a comment on how he’s ranting to save his career. And the other elements included in the NewsHour, like Sybil the Soothsayer and the Hollywood Tattler, plus the live studio audience, aren’t shocking in the least. Like I said, we’ve been living it.
Still, it’s a terrific movie, with a punchy script by Paddy Chayefsky. Would any screenwriter today describe someone’s position on a policy as “intractable and adamantine”? It sounds even better when it’s said by a weary Robert Duvall in a tuxedo. Would anyone have an actor describe a psychotic dream as “a cleansing moment of clarity”? Equally marvelous are Finch, Holden and Dunaway, who’s 35 in this movie but looks stunning. (Things do drag when Dunaway and Holden are trying to sort out their love affair in the final third. I walked the dog during that time.)
One line in particular struck me, because it’s at the same time both accurate and inadequate:
“Right now, there is a whole generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube!”
Thirty years ago, this was true. Today, there’s a generation that doesn’t know anything that’s not from a computer, never had fewer than 200 channels at its fingertips, and doesn’t do anything without a cell phone plastered to its ear. Chayefsky might not have his technology exactly right, but about being “in the boredom-killing business,” he was as accurate as TV’s Sybil the Soothsayer.
And a few more chewy quotes (think of the raving Peter Finch while you read):
“Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park!”
“We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell.”
“You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal! You do! Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing, we are the illusion.”
Now surf over to another site, before you get bored.