“Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” by Dave Itzkoff

Image

Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” a brutally funny and depressing view about American television, is one of the most highly acclaimed (and sadly prescient) satirical films ever made.  Scripted by Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it was critically lauded and was also a decent-size box-office hit, a rarity for a satirical film.

Dave Itzkoff’s superlative account of the making of “Network” and its influence on modern news / broadcasting is a wonderfully entertaining read and is recommended for anyone who has an interest in comedy, 1970s Hollywood, broadcast journalism, and Chayefsky.   Itzkoff not only paints detailed backgrounds of all the principals involved, but also quotes many of the actors who had minor but pivotal roles in the film.  Itzkoff’s last chapter deals with the influence of “Network” among broadcast journalists, including some (Glenn Beck, allegedly a huge fan) who seem to have missed the point of the film entirely.

My own feelings about the film are positive, but a little mixed.  In the plus column are the acting performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and several others.  Also in the plus column is Lumet’s realistic, almost deadpan direction which is the appropriate tone for a movie that gets increasingly outrageous.  And yes, Chayefsky’s script is very good and is justly famous as one of the greatest scripts of all-time.  Chayefsky’s hellish vision of television news devolving into cheap entertainment seemed outrageous in 1976, but is nowhere near as ridiculous as what passes for “news” these days.

However, the problem is also … Chayefsky’s vision.  The film’s strident tone, the shrill manner in which the dialogue is often delivered, and the endless harangues and speeches really grate on the nerves.  Unlike most films, this can’t all be blamed on the director (Lumet), since Chayefsky was the one who insisted on complete creative control (probably one of the only writers who had this much autonomy over what they wrote).  Whatever you don’t like about Spike Lee or Aaron Sorkin (who always deliver their points with a sledgehammer) can be traced directly back to Chayefsky’s script for “Network.”  The most grating character is, ironically, the one who is supposed the be the voice of reason, William Holden’s Max Schumacher.  While I agree with some of the sentiments of what he has to say, the tone comes off as unbearably smug.   I don’t know how much of that is due to the way Holden interpreted the character or what he’s been given to say.  Either way, in the second half of “Network,” Schumacher comes off as pompous and self-righteous and it leaves a bad taste.   I realize I shouldn’t be showing this scene out of the context of the film (I urge you to see it in full and make up your own mind), but it’s the clearest example I can find for why this film doesn’t sit well with me, even thought I admire it very much.

“Bamboozled” (2001) dir. Spike Lee

Video

Arguably,”Bamboozled” is Spike Lee’s most underrated film. It didn’t get a lot of critical respect back in 2001, but this is a film that seriously needs another look.

“Bamboozled”‘s lead character is an African-American executive for a television network (played by Damon Wayans) who wants to get out of his contract, but can’t unless he’s fired. To get fired, he decides to come up with the most racist show he can imagine, a new-Millenial minstrel show, with black actors in black face, tap dancing, etc. Unfortunately for Wayans’ character, the network not only loves it, but the public does too. His show becomes the most popular show in the nation and Wayans ignores his ideals, embraces his new fame, and loses his soul.

Lee patterned “Bamboozled” on two stellar and abrasive media satires, Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg’s 1956 film “A Face in the Crowd” and Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film “Network.” While you can definitely see the influence of both films on “Bamboozled,” “Bamboozled” throws race into the mix. The result is a very uncomfortable and disturbing look at what we, as Americans, have called “entertainment” for over a century … an entertainment that is based on the debasement of a race of people. “Bamboozled” isn’t perfect and it could have been shorter by about 20 minutes or so, but what’s there is still devastating, especially the montage at the end which is a compilation of some of the most horrific examples of racism in film history.

“Bamboozled” in many ways prefigured the Dave Chappelle controversy of 2005, when Chappelle left a $50 million contract with Viacom because he no longer felt comfortable with the material that he was doing on his very popular cable show for Comedy Central.

What’s also intriguing about “Bamboozled” is that it’s one of the few films that seriously analyzes the art of comedy. Being a comedy junkie, I relish any pop culture artifact that takes comedy seriously and examines, sometimes uncomfortably, what makes people laugh and why.