Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer TV Worth Watching

By Chris Herrington

JUNE 1, 1998:  If the hype is to be believed, The Truman Show may become the definitive cinematic take on the effect of television on American life. But to do so it would have to unseat Network, a caustic, giddy, cautionary tale from the bicentennial year 1976 that seems more prescient with each passing week.

The network in question is UBS, a fledgling challenger to the big three that carves a niche with edgier and more sensational programming (Sound a little like Fox?). In one early scene, Max Schumacher (William Holden), the president of the news division, jokes that maybe the network should air a “death hour” with live footage of violent crimes and automobile accidents (sound a lot like Fox?). The film begins with an acknowledgement of the present, as news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who won a best actor Oscar) is fired for poor ratings. It ends with a warning for the future, as Beale is assassinated (on air) for poor ratings. In between these two events, Network attempts to show how one state of affairs can lead to the other.

Network’s vision of TV future may have seemed a bit overdone at the time (Pauline Kael and John Simon, among others, panned the film upon its initial release). But two decades later, virtually every warning the film issues seems absolutely pertinent. The sensational nature of UBS’ programming – a prime-time show dedicated to a left-wing terrorist group featuring authentic bank robbery footage, a populist prophet of doom as news anchor, a live assassination – seems to be a conceivable destination for a medium where Morton Downey Jr. (Remember him?) and American Gladiators has given way to Jerry Springer, Cops, and Fox’s own live-footage “death hour” series. The only difference between the crime and murder on UBS and that on the current airwaves is that networks don’t yet solicit such actions. And anyone who pays attention to commercials knows that Network’s prediction of the corporate-owned media’s ability to co-opt and anesthetize counterculture has come to complete fruition.

Network’s exploration of the frightening implications of endless corporate mergers and media monopoly was even more on-target. When the faceless domestic corporation that owns UBS is bought out by an even more faceless multinational corporation, Beale confronts his audience with this observation: “When the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for the truth on this network?”

Network is also a wicked entertainment. Paddy Chayefsky’s stunning screenplay (Sidney Lumet directed, but this is an actor’s and writer’s film) is one of the most literate and idea-driven Hollywood has ever seen. With so many great actors given such electric dialogue, one of Network’s central pleasures is in just listening to people talk. Finch, as a Jeremiah of the airwaves, gets one memorable speech after another. Everyone who’s seen the film remembers the part where he implores the audience to go to their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore,” but what about the wonderful little Vonnegut-like moment when he matter-of-factly explains, “So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.”

Network easily eclipses its bizarrely over-praised TV-related contemporary, Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979), another film that purports to say something significant about the role of television in American culture. Being There is a one-joke satire about Chance (Peter Sellers), a mentally retarded gardener who engages with the outside world through either talking about gardening or mimicking something he sees on television. The gag here is that Chance’s naivete is mistaken for insight and wisdom, and he is thrust into the media spotlight as an economic pundit and political prospect. With a running boob tube hovering in the background of nearly every scene, the film seems to imply that Chance’s digestion and regurgitation of television has enabled him to seem like a near prophet to a population of boobs.

The problem is that the public mostly responds to his homilies about gardening (“spring is a time for growth”), not his TV-related behavior, so the film falls flat as an exploration of television. In fact, it falls flat, period. Being There plays for a realism it just can’t achieve. We never believe that the characters in the film could actually take Chance’s behavior for anything other than what it is. The film would have played better as outright farce, a tone it awkwardly switches to in its final scenes. And Sellers’ performance is completely off. He shows none of the bewilderment or spontaneity that a person in Chance’s position surely would. His performance is creepy, with its stillness, constant facial expressions, and formal tone of speech. The film’s one fine moment is a small one. Upon seeing himself on television for the first time, Chance is initially excited, but quickly loses interest and switches channels on himself.

Much better is A Face in the Crowd (1957), another cautionary tale that may have been Hollywood’s first exploration of the negative possibilities of the TV age. Made by the same writer-director team as On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd tells the story of “Lonesome” Rhodes, a homespun hillbilly entertainer (Andy Griffith, surprisingly good in his film debut) who makes his way through local radio (on “The Voice of Northeast Arkansas”) and television(in Memphis!) en route to becoming a national sensation and power-hungry demagogue. The basic story here, of the common man’s rise and fall, and of the corruption of power, is old as dirt (All the King’s Men, Meet John Doe, and Citizen Kane all told roughly the same story earlier), but effective nonetheless.

A Face in the Crowd’s warning about the corruptive powers of the new medium are trenchant, if not exactly subtle (director Elia Kazan is not known for subtlety). “The mass has to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite,” a wealthy sponsor tells Rhodes. “Let us not forget that in TV we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.” The film makes its point about the ubiquity of television better through visual terms, though, showing a night sky as a forest of antennas at a time when television was a national event. Many of the images and plot points seem to be inspired as much by the rise of rock-and-roll as the rise of television, however. When hysterical teenage girls mob Rhodes, it has Elvis written all over it, and when he steps off an airplane with his new teenage bride, it echoes Jerry Lee.

A nice companion piece to A Face in the Crowd is Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), which is set during roughly the same period. A beautifully constructed slice of Americana, Quiz Show tells the true story of a scandal set off when it was revealed that the popular quiz show Twenty-One was fixed. Quiz Show treats the scandal as a metaphor for cultural loss, but its triumph is finding that loss not in the scandal itself, but in its aftermath. The big money guys at NBC and Geritol (Twenty-One’s network and sponsor, respectively) got away clean, and the quiz shows went on – instead of giving contestants the answers, they just dummied-down the shows. In other words, (corporate) money ascended to power and public discourse was lowered a few notches. Quiz Show mourns the disappearance of a culture where intellectual achievement was deemed worthy of celebrity, and shows the seeds of a social and cultural transition from front-porch conversations to living-room vegetation.


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