Network (1976)

I just ran out of bullshit.

Network (1976), written and directed by the greats, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, respectively, is one of those films that just hits about every mark. The dialogue is verbose and prolix but in every way spectacular and the acting all definitions of the word grand. It is equal parts dramatic and comedic. It has social commentary and satire and a prescience that is normally reserved for heavy-handed sci-fi flicks. It touches on every aspect from love and hate, the ubiquitous shadow of the media, leftist revolutionaries, soothsaying, corporatist conventions, and male menopause.

The film features a bevy of colorful characters, each more ridiculous and lovable, but simultaneously unlikable, than the last: an aging television news anchor who becomes a mad prophet, the company man who is after the big job, a middle-aged man who ends up cheating on his wife, the cold and unfeeling woman with whom he cheats, she the very identity of the television generation, every bit committed to her job and not much else. There are leftist revolutionaries, company presidents, and executives who care for nothing but the bottom-line.

But the most impressive element of this movie, which is saying a lot, considering everything that is going for it, are the wonderful bits of dialogue, lines put together that you only wish you could speak in real-life. The script is immense, juggling together an impressive vocabulary with intense subject matter, including the illusions of religion, the ecological balance of global business, the media’s influence on every facet of life, and Robert Duvall’s Frank Hackett ranting about his corporate end.

Here are five speeches from Network and some of my own thoughts on them. Why? Because I’m a lazy ass and I think the film speaks for itself.

5. Frank Hackett, the fallen sun god

Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett, Network (1976)

Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett, Network (1976)

“Four hours ago I was the sun god at CCA. Mr. Jenson’s hand-picked golden-boy. The heir apparent. Now, I’m a man without a corporation… … Two billion dollars isn’t pique! That’s the wrath of god! And the wrath of god wants Howard Beale fired! I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna impale the son of a bitch with a sharp stick through the heart. I’ll take out a contract on him. I’ll hire professional killers. No, I’ll do it myself. I’ll strangle him with a sash cord!”

Sure, it isn’t really as socially aware as some of other speeches, but what’s not to like? Robert Duvall’s acting is dynamite in this scene. Ever have one of those bouts with extreme hatred, where you honestly felt angry enough to do some major harm to another person? This is that. And Duvall makes it feel natural, not the acting of a character. I also love how Faye Dunaway keeps talking but the emphasis is on Duvall’s character. There’s something about the juxtaposition between Dunaway’s level-headed corporate and ratings talk versus the emotional ire of Duvall’s. This scene is also a foreshadowing of what would come at the end of the film.

4. Howard Beale’s “last” broadcast

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network (1976)

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network (1976)

“Good evening. Today is Wednesday, September the 24th, and this is my last broadcast. Yesterday I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, I’ll tell you what happened: I just ran out of bullshit. Am I still on the air? I really don’t know any other way to say it other than I just ran out of bullshit. Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living. And if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit. We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humiliation, decays, so there better be someone somewhere who does know. That’s the God bullshit. And then, there’s the noble man bullshit; that man is a noble creature that can order his own world; who needs God? Well, if there’s anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me: that man is full of bullshit. I don’t have anything going for me. I haven’t got any kids. And I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don’t have any bullshit left. I just ran out of it, you see.”

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) so aptly expresses what so many of us feel on a daily basis. None of us has a reason to live, and yet everyday we wake up and give ourselves that reason, no matter how bullshit. Bullshit: it’s all the reasons we give ourselves for living. Howard Beale is no extremist. He is, in fact, a realist. The man whose loss of a job has finally caused him to realize what is inherently wrong with human life. And if, for some reason, we cannot make ourselves feel good, we turn to that almighty demon in the sky to give us guidance: the God bullshit. Some us have an asinine belief that man is a “noble” creature, when, in fact, we are just animals, whom evolution believed could benefit from some irrational form of sentience. In one scene, Beale manages to sum up the nihilistic, existential and irreligious feelings in all of us, and does so with the gusto of a man brought completely down to earth.

He just ran out of bullshit.

3. Max Schumacher’s farewell speech

William Holden as Max Schumacher, Network (1976)

William Holden as Max Schumacher, Network (1976)

“It’s too late, Diana. There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you, and the institution of television touch, is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain… and love.”

Almost a stark contrast to Beale’s “last” broadcast, Schumacher’s breakup speech with Diana seems everything that’s right with humanity. Could love be the answer to everything? Schumacher, played by William Holden, is the classical Hollywood male. Cool as hell, self-assured, and can make you feel sympathetic for him, even if he’s the one doing the cheating. This scene is a complete throwback to those days, and, personally, is a reminder of so many of the classic Hollywood films (particularly film noir), in which the male protagonist expresses a desire to be with the beautiful woman, but knows that he cannot.

And he knows exactly why. The other great thing about this scene is its commentary towards television. One wonders what Max Schumacher would have had to say about the dehumanizing effect of a generation that has its ear on the phone and its nose in the computer screen and its fingers on the key all day. Remember when the most one had to fear was somebody pressing the wrong button? People do that every second of every day now.

Schumacher’s criticism is directed at a media which essentially controls the human being, its physical nature and spiritual/emotional nature. Malcolm X once said that the media was the most powerful entity on Earth, that “They have the power to make the innocent guilty and make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” Media. Corporations. And now a corporate media.

Schumacher finds the media problematic between those who wield it, and those who wield it badly. And, yes, there are obvious differences between the world of television and that of, for instance, social networking. It would seem presumptuous to state that a man who was in the television business for his entire life would not have something positive to say about it. But he knows its negative effects. Just like how technologies today can bring a depressive element as much as they bring a positive uplifting. Most of us have no avenues of creation; we merely reblog.

Schumacher’s speech is so wonderful not only because it completely crashes the entire façade of television to the ground, but also how it uplifts those wonderful bits of humanity, no matter how small they may be. Schumacher is a veteran of the very industry that he criticizes, and is definitely not immune to its machinations. But he looks past it. Television: more human than human? Or does it just destroy humans? Schumacher seems to have made up his mind.

2. Howard Beale lambasts his viewing audience

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network (1976)

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network (1976)

“It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods… Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word? Because good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid – creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things…”

Although the United States is now a nation of over three hundred million, the dynamics of his speech are no less significant. In fact, it might be even more prescient in this day of high-tech and low-life. People have become faceless commodities. Many of us expertly navigate the net with “anonymity” (how anonymous one is, is another debate) and lash out at others behind this mask of comfort. We have no need to care anymore. We have become dehumanized.

Humanoid: we are creatures that look human but aren’t. What does it mean to be human? It’s the age-old sci-fi question. The concern over individuality becomes more alarming as it becomes a world of increasingly high technology. Television may have turned human beings into pawns in some perverted broadcast and people into numbers, but it cannot hold a candle to the dehumanization of the internet, which continuously erodes what we call “individuality”. We are nothing but bits and bytes, mindless drones, the denizens of the vast and arcological sphere of the net.

We know this, which is why many of us do so much to try to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. Our political inclinations (dead democracies), religious beliefs (the God bullshit), and the movies we like and music we listen to, everything has become collectivized and commoditized. Popular opinion means everything, and is our determinant for right and wrong, good and evil. Even memories, the element that made us so individualistic in the first place, are becoming shared widely. There will be no surprise when the day comes that our entire lives may be broadcast live over the web in real-time, on a second-by-second, minutely basis.

1. Arthur Jensen and the corporate ecological balance

Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, Network (1976)

Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, Network (1976)

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it! Is that clear? You think you’ve merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

“You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reich marks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels.

“It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and youwillatone!

“Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

“You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

“What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.

“The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that… perfect world… in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

“And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.”

There was an interesting article nearly two years ago written by Chrystia Freeland. It appeared in the Atlantic in early 2011. Freeland has since expanded this into a book called Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (released October of 2012). Everybody – at least, everybody who is informed – knows of the alarming increase of the gap between the rich and the poor. But it is not just the physical wealth that one must worry about.

The people at the very top, the richest and most powerful, give no damn about nations, states, nation-states and nationals. They care only about the “ebb and flow” and “ecological balance” of dollars. Here is a crude example: American presidencies routinely deal with Saudi kings over oil. They don’t give a damn about ostensive ideological, racial and religious differences.

The only people who make the mistake of caring are the lowly folks: you and me. Business doesn’t care. In this world, supply and demand, the movement of money, the power of currencies, these are the only things that matter. Human beings are merely a commodity, like everything else. If people would merely wake up and realize that these petty “differences” that divide us – religions, nations, races, creeds, colors – only serve to make those that are rich, richer. The only legitimate war is the class war.

Jensen’s speech is a thing of brilliance. He voices what so many of us should already know. That the concept of nation-states is bullshit, that the apparent differences between peoples are no differences at all, and that the only thing that dictates the real world is this ecological balance of the college of corporations. The American racketeers knew it; likewise, so did the Soviet oligarchs. To the richest and most powerful, the lines of business have already destroyed the lines that separate nations. The wiping out of the nation-state, the obsolescence of arbitrary lines on maps: these are things which are blurred daily, and something which many of us wish for, but that the richest and most powerful already know.

The passing reference to decaying and/or absent democracies is also one to note. There is no democracy, and America is certainly not the democratic bastion that its patriots claim it is; nor was the Soviet system in any sense communist, at least in the way Marx would have envisioned it. Both are and were on slightly opposite sides of oligarchic systems. And yet this illusion of the control of the people makes most of us sleep soundly at night, because to confront the truth would be too painful.

There is only one holistic system of systems. We all live in it. Most of us are too ignorant to realize we are a part of it, and that our petty squabbles are but the manipulations of the players of pawns on the international chess board.

Am I getting through to you?

It is a wonderful speech from a purely dialogue and act-driven point-of-view. Dare I say that Ned Beatty’s performance really reminds one of Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross (1993); two actors that briefly show up and almost singlehandedly steal the show from the rest of the amazing cast.

Network (1976) has entered my coveted list of favorite films, and it is definitely one of Sidney Lumet’s best works (and this is a man who directed 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, among other classics). If you’ve not seen this film, I highly recommend you go and watch it. You will likely not be disappointed. In fact, I think the film is even more relevant now than it was in 1976.

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One response to “Network (1976)

  1. Pingback: The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves: Howard Beale Speech – x2b3·

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