Monday, April 11, 2011

We're as Sad as Hell and We're Not Gonna Take This Anymore! - R.I.P. Sidney Lumet

By now any of you out there with any sort of connection to the wider world will have heard the news that legendary director Sidney Lumet passed away this weekend at the age of 86. He leaves behind one of the most solid and astonishing filmographies of any Hollywood director in the past half decade. 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, the list goes on. Lumet established himself as one of the best directors for confronting capital i Issues through the use of cinema. And yet he never won an Oscar (except for a lifetime achievement award from the Academy a couple years ago, which is nice I suppose).

By far the most iconic and oft-referenced of Lumet's movies is 1976's television satire Network. Owing much to Peter Finch's famous-for-a-reason "Mad as hell" speech, you see this one get brought out every couple years or so at Oscar montages, and like I said, it's famous for a reason: it's so damn good.

Network is centered around the story of Howard Beale, the primetime news anchor at "UBS" the lowest-rated network in the country. When he receives the word that he's been fired, he suffers what seems to be a nervous breakdown; or is it a prophet's revelation?

For one reason or another, maybe his rants and raves strike a chord with the American people or maybe viewers just like to watch a celebrity train wreck (what are you talking about?), Beale becomes a hit. The higher-ups at UBS (and her sinister corporate parent company) re-tool the evening news to become a showbiz spectacle, complete with fancy sets, fortune tellers, and an entire segment dedicated to Beale "the mad prohpet of airwaves" delivering his sermons on the end of civilization via the television. As things generally go in these types of situations, nothing turns out well for anybody in the end.

While the "mad as hell" speech is the most well-known part of Network by far, there are many more scenese that are equally representative of just how good a film it is. A scene for instance where CEO Ned Beatty lays out the way Big Business controls the world to Beale is just as scary in its implications today as it was thirty-five years ago. In fact, corporate control over the media has assuredly gotten worse in the decades since Network. I'm sure Keith Olbermann enjoys imagining himself as the Beale figure raging against the corporate machine around the time of his departure from MSNBC in the wake of Comcast's takeover.

Another scene, where a group of Symbionese Liberation Army-esque wannabe "freedom fighters" bicker amongst themselves over their contract to participate in a UBS highly-scripted reality show seems to fully encompass everything wrong on television today. Just with more automatic weapons and slightly fewer Kardashians.

Watching Network today, the film almost seems quaint in its depiction of corruption and lowest-common-denominator programming in the world of broadcasting. One can only speculate as to what extremes the Sidney Lumets of today would have to go through to make Network in 2011 (don't give Hollywood any ideas, they might try it!). In an age where mega-corporations are making more and more headways into the way we connect with media (social or otherwise), and where audiences seem to be satisfied with less news and more manufactured "reality" from celebrities and teen moms alike, Beale's doomsday ravings have gotten more real than ever.

Honestly, if this was how mad as hell he got over the state of the world in the Ford years, Howard Beale's head would explode nowadays. Network is well-worth a look. If you imagine that everyone is talking on cell phones and replace the words "Saudi Arabia" with "China", this movie may as well have been made yesterday. Let's just take it as a good sign that Howard Beale's biggest-admirer-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Glenn Beck is leaving the airwaves. That's probably a step in the right direction. Now about that whole Net Neutrality thing...