Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Network,’ on How We Became ‘Mad As Hell’)

Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, pictured): “I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"—Network (1976), screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet

He was born Sidney Aaron Chayefsky in the Bronx on this date in 1923, but the world came to know him as Paddy Chayefsky, award-winning writer of screenplays and teleplays.

His birthplace provided many of the characters and themes in the first significant part of his career, the live dramas he created in television’s first decade of promise, the Fifties. Shows such as Marty and The Catered Affair featured realistic settings and naturalistic dialogue, spoken by second-generation, blue-collar New Yorkers just trying to make it from week to week, barely able to articulate their frustration and loneliness. (From Marty: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man's life when he's gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain't got it.”) These, Chayefsky once noted in explaining his early success, were “the people I understand—the $75-to-$125-a-week kind.”

Two decades after Chayefsky left television, his scathing dissection of the medium that made him famous, Network, premiered. After watching it for the first time, I asked a relative what he thought of it. “It was a nonstop lecture,” he grumbled.

You don’t hear that kind of opinion too much these days, at least among the chattering classes that have taken the film to heart, but I know what my relative meant, even if I disagreed with him on the movie’s ultimate value. 

Like George Bernard Shaw, Chayefsky was using his characters as thinly disguised mouthpieces for his own opinions—only in this case, the opinions were not couched in paradox, but in furious jeremiads. The “$75-to-$125-a-week kind” of characters in which Chayefsky once specialized—the kind my parents and their generation were—no longer appeared in his work. What we saw on the screen now was another matter entirely—different in tone, character and audience.

Critics as well as film and TV professionals such as West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin have hailed Network as a prophetic denunciation of a corporate-driven medium that exploits the worst nihilistic instincts of viewers. (Former Washington Post critic Tom Shales even has gone so far as to write that the movie might be "the most prophetic ever made.") That is true, so far as it goes.

But this “Movie Quote of the Day,” containing one of the most famous lines in film history—“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—hints at the wider ambitions of his Oscar-winning screenplay. “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times,” he wrote in letters to two TV newsmen (probably Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor).

Just as The Catered Affair can be seen as a companion piece to his other early teleplay, Marty (both, of course, converted to films starring Ernest Borgnine), Network can be seen as a counterpart to his first Academy Award-winning script from the Seventies, The Hospital (1971), starring George C. Scott.  The similarities are striking, as both films:

*Feature madmen—a murderer who roams the halls in The Hospital, a fired anchorman who becomes a sensation of the airwaves for his rants in Network.

*Include long, rhetorical outbursts—Sorkinesque, if you will—by hypereducated main characters.

*Spotlight much younger women—played by Diana Rigg in The Hospital and Faye Dunaway in Network—whose affairs with the protagonists are short-lived.

*Contain, as their moral centers, burnt-out middle-aged men, who find they are not only barely able to survive themselves, but also called upon to stand against the forces afflicting their institutions from within and without. Herbert Bock (played by George C. Scott) is an alcoholic chief of medicine in a major teaching hospital in The Hospital, and Max Schumacher (played by William Holden) is a news-division president aghast at what is occurring in his operation in Network.

*Anatomize national unrest that threatens to overwhelm the protagonists’ institutions—a strike at The Hospital, terrorism (plus all the events mentioned by Howard Beale in today’s “’Movie Quote”) in Network.

1 comment:

egads said...

For folks who may be in the San Francisco Bay Area during May (2013), the Mechanics Institute Library will be screening 5 Chayefsky films, one each Friday evening, beginning with ‘The Americanization of Emily’ this Friday May 3rd and ending with 'The Hospital' on May 31st:

Cinemalit – Paddy Chayefsky: Scenes from American Lives: