Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I'm mad as hell, and I don't know what to do about it

"Network" is as compelling a piece of heavy-handed, melodramatic film as has ever been created. The last line of the film upon Howard Beale's death - "the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings" - is as clear a revelation as any that the film is largely a joke. It is satire, or it has to be, in order for us to stomach it. Yet I find myself more struck by the film's prescience every time I see it:

the logic of anxiety, as in I'm not saying anything for certain, but I'm not denying that there may be a connection
the great success of Howard Beale's model of the modern American patriot, televangelist, and media-man-gone-mad
the peddling of fear and panophobia in a hybridized media-politic
the tracing of money trails toward suspect foreign interests
the muddling of entertainment and news
the dissemination of and belief in lies based on the most paranoid, conspiratorial and tabloid-worthy title
the importance of vox populi which propagates injustice in the pursuit of populism
the gospel of unmitigated globalization as the model for world peace
the lament over the loss of the individual
the TV generation who is incapable of emotion or ethics
the disbelief in democracy and the incapacity to acknowledge it
the latest development in great and aimless rage of American politics
the suspicion of systemic corruption which touches every level of human life
the media who cuddled the masses in their nostalgic blanket

All these stand as general trends which can be extrapolated from the film's plotline, characters and context. But there is at least one moral that could be taken from this variety show of ideas: that the intersection of media and capitalism has an ideology which will destroy human life. The business of media is vying for this kind of ecstatic attention, much like any business, and it will drive not just the newspeople mad, but every last one of us.

Yet the scapegoat is too simple. And the film's propaganda itself is not entirely pure: it also suggests a number of troubling questions which counteract this agenda. Are things worse now than they've ever been? Are we all just watching the world through our tubes; do we want to just be left alone? Or are we so decadent as to believe only what gets our attention, namely our worst nightmares? When the people no longer believe that, it will quickly throw it under the bus just to keep us buying. For example, the story seems to reassure us of at least one character who is sane in this mad mad mad mad mad mad world, Max Schumacher, the ex-producer of this corrupted news program and once friend of Beale, who has left the arctic TV programming queen, Diana Christensen, to return to his wife because he believes in love and human dignity and all these romantic things...yet it all seems to substitute one more madness for the last. There is no easy return to romanticism. Nothing can save us from this satire.

So how was this film - an exaggeratedly acted soap-opera and cynical satire of contemporary life - handed 4 Oscars and a host of other awards and nominations? Does it deserve applause for prematurely pronouncing the flaws of our time, or for adding to the apocalyptic visions of our "most advanced" form of human life? As I said, upon seeing it again tonight, I found the film incredibly heavy-handed in its critique, but artful in a way that kept me watching in even its most ludicrous moments. At the very least, this should say a little something about defining the divide between good and bad art: maybe the line is as crooked as a criminal, or maybe it is not there at all.

8.25.2010, 1:39 am