Down is up.
Up is down.
Yes is no.
No is yes.
White is black.
Black is white.
The center no longer holds.
By any recent relative standard, these past weeks and months have been, at the very least, disorienting. And if there are still a few places on where one may once again regain their land legs and attempt to create some sort of order out of the chaos, they, for me anyway, lie in the arts. Yes, we may be on fragile, virgin terrain but it’s not as if we haven’t, in some fashion, been here before. And there are some stories that can help tell us where we’ve been, where we are and where we might be going—these to both make sense of the crooked paths we traverse and hope to navigate towards where we might want to be.
Three films which have haunted many a mind over the years still sing as chillingly prescient: Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). The latter two were given ample lip service as the recent presidential campaign peaked and if less attention has been paid to Capra’s dusky, yet hopeful gem, it is of the same connective tissue and tends to be overlooked in what might be loosely categorized as a trilogy exposing the dark, behind the scenes forces manipulating media, politics and, hence, you and me.
All three films concern the arrival, rise and fall of a common man imbued with charismatic charm who—to varying degrees—come to be manipulated in a larger, nefarious game of power.
All three films include a strong, flawed female lead who enables the fomenting cult of personality surrounding a central character. And all three strongly suggest —then as now—that what flies across the newspaper headlines, radio blare, television’s numbing “breaking news” headline crawl or social media transom du jour are rarely, if ever, what they appear to be. Not even close.
And, most salient to the contemporary moment, all three films reflect their respective cultural era in grasping how the explosion of information and its technological delivery can shape thought, discourse and action.
These films might also loosely be placed in the genre of conspiracy cinema and television programs which have been a constant for about as long as the mediums themselves. From Birth of a Nation (with its sympathetic portrayal of the KKK) to Seven Days in May and its suggestion of a military coup being a road an unchecked democracy might inevitably lead, Advise and Consent that lifted a veil on the dark machinations of inner circle Washington, D.C., The Manchurian Candidate with it’s cockeyed Cold War hysteria, the Hitchcockian Three Days of the Condor and its indictment of domestic black ops, JFK (‘nuff said), Wag The Dog’s fantasy of Hollywood-manufactured events, and on through the Bourne films and beyond to television’s X Files, 24, The Americans, Homeland, and The Man in the High Castle, we have been confronted with the prospect that what we are told is not what is. Even innocent glazed kiddie fare like Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T. more than suggest the power of the media and its relationship with government to conceal and misdirect. What the cumulative weight of these fictionalized but often too close for comfort dramatizations have had on the collective psyche and sculpted the worldview of the populace both home and abroad can never be quantified. But it they have, to probably a greater extent than not, made their mark on how we perceive the state and the power of its leaders, be they in the state house or the boardroom.
It is a testimony to art itself that, for a century, moving picture stories have cast such a cold eye on life and death and their merchants.
If folks are familiar with the name Frank Capra, they are, like me, probably softies for his most famous film, the much cherished It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)—our nation’s holiday season answer to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But if It’s A Wonderful Life wades knee deep into the black ink of the human soul (dramatically personified by Mr. Potter’s treachery in his attempts to bring ruin upon George Bailey), Meet John Doe takes a full long cannonball splash into the very deep end. Potter’s machinations are local in their focus, driven more by simple greed than by the lust for unbridled power. Meet John Doe views matters with a significantly more jaundiced eye albeit with Capra’s signature dashes of homespun, “aw shucks” humor and requisite cornpone.
The film’s conceit is the stuff of pure pre-WWII screwball comedy. A big city newspaper, The Bulletin (“A free press means a free people”), losing circulation and ad revenue, is going through a face change or, as might be framed in today’s parlance, a “re-branding.” Now called The New Bulletin (“A Streamlined Newspaper For A Streamlined Era”), it immediately lays off staff (sound familiar?) including the “dead wood” and a recent hire, striving columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who is among those who get the axe in a major cost-cutting measure.
In both a “Hail Mary” and a figurative parting middle finger held aloft to her soon-to-be exemployer, she rifles off a swan song column—a poignant piece of “fake news”—in which she concocts a letter from one “John Doe” who, in bemoaning the sorry state of human affairs (specifically, the Great Depression) and his inability to find a place within them meaningful or otherwise, vows to leap from the top of City Hall as the clock strikes twelve midnight on Christmas morning.
Ann’s column, naturally and in true Hollywood fashion, causes a huge outcry, spiking the paper’s circulation and saving her gig.
Eyebrows are raised at the city’s rival rag and The Bulletin, er, The New Bulletin is pressured into habeas corpus mode. That scores of society’s forgotten men have made a beeline to the paper’s front door claiming to have penned the suicide screed makes the vetting job by Ann and her managing editor (played to the crotchety, crusty hilt by always sharp-elbowed James Gleason) a colorful and, ultimately, successful exercise.
Their John Doe is personified in one John Willoughby (a note perfect Gary Cooper in one of his most memorable roles), a former bush league pitcher with big league dreams and a bum arm looking to scare up some bucks to get career saving surgery. He and his sidekick, The Colonel (Walter Brennan in a quirky, scenery-chewing turn), have been riding the rails and doing some Woody Guthrieseque “hard travelin’”—no strangers to the land’s hobo jungles.
Willoughby is, true to his name, an honest John—humble, self-effacing and, essentially, a mark —who, despite his solid sense of right and wrong, sees the ruse as his last, best and naively innocent chance to fix his broken wing and once again stand on his own two feet and, in his mind’s eye, a pitcher’s mound. And that his heart goes pitter-patter in Ann’s presence only seals the deal.
The New Bulletin, knowing a good thing (and potential sales bonanza) when they see one, has a simple, if ethically fraught proposition: Ann will ghostwrite a regular column for Willoughby railing against society’s myriad ills while still dangling the promise to end it all on Christmas Eve.
The Colonel wants none of it and advises Willoughby to take a quick payoff and skedaddle, whispering into Willoughby’s ear and giving his friend’s minders an earful with an evergreen plaint of anti-conformity and freedom: “When you become a guy with a bank account, they got yer, yessir, they gotcha. You’re walking along, not a nickel in yer jeans, and you’re free as the wind; nobody bothers you, hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business—shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture—everything, and they’re all nice, lovable people and they let you alone. Then you get hold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become Heelots! A lot of heels. They begin creeping up on yer, trying to sell you something; they get long claws and they get a stranglehold on yer, and you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try and push ‘em away, but you haven’t got a chance—they gotcha! The first thing you know, you own things—a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff, like license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve got to have money to pay for all those things, so you go after what the other fellow’s got—and there you are, you’re a Heelot yourself!”
As papers fly off the newsstand and Willoughby ascends to, first, folk hero and, soon, star status, a populist movement in support of the humanist philosophy embodied in his speeches (though Ann’s words) begins to simmer and spread across the country.
None of this is lost on D.B. Norton, the New Bulletin’s new owner (connivingly played by Edward Arnold and depicted early in the film as a man with his own security force) who smells the opportunity for a political power grab. What with all the rabble so enamored with Willoughby’s—er, Doe’s—charisma, they should be easy pickins’, huh?
Norton is type who, as more than one politician has thought but only one to my reckoning has said or said so loudly, “loves the uneducated.” Or maybe, as was said of New York power broker Robert Moses, “He loved the people but hated people.” And behind the scenes, in those fabled smoky back rooms, Norton is making deals and pulling on Doe’s puppet strings while playing Ann along, grooming her as his very own in-house Leni Riefenstahl.
When Willoughby all-too-slowly comes to realize he is being duped and but a mere pawn in a very high stakes game, he bursts into Norton’s home where the mogul is feting his cadre (including Ann), and vows to expose their cabal at a speech he is to make that very night at, fittingly, the local ballpark. Ann, fully grasping that she had been played for a sucker when coming under Norton’s spell and duped not only herself but Willoughby too, tries to join John but is restrained by her boss’ hired muscle. Willoughby makes it to the venue in a downpour but just as he commences to address the throng, Norton’s goons sabotage the event, cutting the power, distributing copies of The New Bulletin exposing Willoughby (while shrouding their hand in creating him) and causing enough mayhem to bring a good man to heel before he disappears into the cold, rainy night.
The mob that was once at his feet are now, to reference both Winston Churchill and Wilhelm Reich, at his throat—all-too-ready, willing, eager, and able to get a rope to hang him with or a cross to nail him to… whichever is closest. Left bereft in ignominy, he wanders the land a near friendless national pariah.
Ann is devastated—wracked by guilt in a betrayal not merely of Willoughby but of her own, once lofty ideals. By Christmas Eve, with the midnight hour fast approaching, she pulls herself out of a very sick bed and to City Hall where she is convinced Willoughby will make good on her illusory John Doe promise to take flight off it and the mortal coil.
Conversely, Norton is similarly concerned though more vexed that Willoughby’s suicide will pose an undetermined political liability than by the prospect of an innocent’s blood on his and his cronies’ hands. He arrives with his posse of foul-scented big wigs and makes it to the airy parapets just minutes before Willoughby. Hiding in the shadows, they watch as the doomed man slowly steps to the building’s edge as solemn, holy snowflakes blanket the hushed city.
With Willoughby poised to take the plunge, Norton and his boys reveal themselves—the master deceiver explaining that he has the power to erase any evidence of Willoughby’s untimely demise and that he will, in essence and in death, be just another anonymous John Doe when his corpse is laid out on a cold slab at the city morgue before its eventual disposal in a mass, unmarked grave at the local potter’s field. That suicide note Norton saw Willoughby pondering before stashing it in his inner breast jacket pocket will do him no good.
Willoughby counters that he has, separately, mailed a copy of the letter to the rival paper ensuring that the marionette master and his scheme will be exposed.
Just as he moves to meet his maker, the ailing Ann bursts into the scene tearfully begging John to reconsider, embrace life and continue engaging with the movement he catalyzed. When she collapses in paroxysms of sickness and desperation at Willoughby’s feet, some of the dearest, salt-of-the-earth John Doe supporters profiled earlier in the film, storm the roof and bring their
symbol back into the land of the living.
Gleason, thumb pointing back over his shoulder fires a final salvo to Norton and his onepercenter chums in perfect Runyonesque fashion: “There you are, Norton! The People! Try and lick that!”
“The People,” as Gleason’s character expresses it, is an amorphous term. Still is. Released in 1941 as the country emerged from the Great Depression but before Pearl Harbor, it is easy to conclude that Capra was envisioning an inclusive, egalitarian, small “d” democratic society that would always act as a counterbalance to kleptocracy, theocracy, plutocracy and any other ocracy you can name and the winds of fascism then squalling through Europe. “Isms makin’ de schisms,” as Bob Marley might have sung. Capra, no progressive Woody Guthrie lefty, was an avowed conservative Republican and, presumably, at odds with the social and labor programs set forth by president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and their, then, controversial fallout. Still, he and his screenwriter, the liberally-minded Robert Riskin, crafted a generally egalitarian embrace of the common person.
But who exactly embodied Capra’s notion of “The People” in Meet John Doe is fuzzy at best. Only one African-American has any memorable screen time in Meet John Doe and he—a nightwatchman at City Hall as the film’s climactic scene unfolds—is imbued with antic, not particularly complimentary Stepin’ Fetchit’ qualities that have not, to say the very least, dated well. While certainly not uncommon of the era’s films, it, along with the few, almost always caricatured roles for minorities in Capra’s films (think of the Bailey’s maid Viola in It’s A Wonderful Life) suggests Capra’s limited conception of the masses.
Regardless, Capra’s “folk” are distinguished by two things: they help one another out and they, in true, messy democratic fashion, organize.
Cooper was, along with Jimmy Stewart, Capra’s “everyman”—the embodiment of the ethos, humility and selfless soul that has made the world, if not great or great again, a tolerable and even, at times, inspiring place to be—an archetype now solidly in Tom Hanks’ back pocket.
When we meet Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, we think we’ve encountered another American everyman though one at the tail end of a mega-bender. In what is, unarguably (and with all due high deference to his conjuring of Sheriff Taylor in television’s The Andy Griffith Show) his greatest role, Andy Griffith’s Rhodes is a man who has hit rock bottom… again. Ranting and raving after sleeping off most of his latest binge in a rural Arkansas drunk tank, he is fished out by local radio producer Marcia Jeffries (played with her signature steely grace by Patrica Neal) who sees something in the boisterous bumpkin with a leer… and an and a snake’s tongue. So, based on his plaintive singing, guitar strumming and raw hayseed humor, she gives him a spot on the regional station she manages.
Rhodes is an instant smash, mixing musical interludes with his down-home folksy charm and musings in hawking the sponsor’s merch while also tweaking its brass to counterintuitive success.
But if Meet John Doe’s Ann accidentally enabled a humble, well-intentioned Moses-like figure, Marcia is unwittingly creating a monster. Rhodes is an extroverted, prowling force of nature always pushing the envelope in a gluttonous quest for the limelight and its accompanying goodies.
Like John Willoughby, Rhodes soars from a local curiosity to national phenomenon and obsession anchored by a daily A Face in the Crowd television show in New York City. A simple affair in which Rhodes holds court throwing in his two and three cents on subjects ranging from the price of apple cider to Russia surrounded by a coterie of good ol’ boys on a studio set designed to appear as small town country store complete with a wood stove.
Behind the facade is, as the film’s promotional poster proclaimed: “POWER! He loved it. He took it raw in big gulpfuls… he liked the taste, the way it mixed with the bourbon and sin in his blood!”
Rhodes, in his meteoric streak across the pop cultural sky, aligns with the nation’s power elite even as he leaves a trail of broken lives in his wake. Those who aid and abet him—Marcia, cynical staff writer Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), slimy deal maker Joey DePalma (Tony Franciosa in a role that gives Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success a run for his money), and a young and always fetching Lee Remick in her film debut as a baton-twirling beauty and bride to Rhodes—are all shown no respect much less loyalty. Other than the financial riches, celebrity and the illusion of love these characters grease the wheels of, Rhodes cares nothing for them. Only the next rung of popularity and its attendant intoxicating power seem to focus his flaming, beady eyes.
Rhodes forms an alliance with Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), a northeast patrician U.S. Senator with visions of occupying White House dancing in his eyes which further heightens the television celebrity’s self sense of omnipotence. And when he shares his dream of control with Marcia in the film’s notable “dark night of the soul” scene as a storm rages outside an apartment window, Rhodes lays out his cynical vision: “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep! Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers—everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller.’ They’re mine! I own ‘em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ‘em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president—and you’ll be the power behind me!”
Soon after, Marcia, seeing that Rhodes’ ascendancy must finally be stopped, switches the studio mics as the show’s end credits run, catching Rhodes in a moment of unguarded moment of candor that, heard by his millions of viewers, nakedly unmasks the wolf in sheep’s attire: “Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got ’em like this… You know what the public’s like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”
The unmasking of Rhodes (coming as it does off-mic and while engaging in a moment of something akin to “locker room talk”) is oddly prophetic but with an extra layer of ironic frost. The public backlash against Rhodes is swift and all but fatal. His words lay him low unlike or at least not yet, say, an orange-coiffed teflon businessman cum showman of current vintage running for and winning the highest office in the land whose loose verbal stool seemed and continue only to embolden him and his supporters.
Elections may have consequences. Words or, for that matter truth, no longer seem to.
That all the king’s horse’s and all the king’s men take a tumble in A Face in the Crowd is no surprise—a necessary mythic/literary trope. Joey DePalma is already sinking his teeth into the next big thing, Mel Miller will move on to some other plastic pop cultural commodity as Worthington and his chums fade back into their lairs well-knowing that, sooner than later, another stooge will present himself as their foil. Only Marcia is left marooned—betrayer and betrayed—the wreckage of her life too shattered to ever fully repair. Her last gesture of redemption comes when she, unlike Ann in Meet John Doe, encourages Rhodes to fling himself from his penthouse apartment and put an end to the misery he can’t help but heap upon everyone and everything he touches.
Rhodes? We last see him howling at the heavens seeking his twisted notion of love wherever he can find it. And if his pathetic fall is gripping to witness, a nagging sense that he may well rise again inhabiting a new skin that can be shed but never truly able to conceal his black heart—something like trading that pointy white hood for a business suit with a little American flag pin prominently fastened to a lapel… David Duke style…
Kazan’s hand in A Face in the Crowd is worth a gab. Released as the power of the House Un-American Activities Committee was losing its sway and Kazan’s still-controversial decision to name names and, to many, participate in a betrayal, resonate with Marcia’s actions. She uncloaked a monster with a flip of a switch while Kazan no doubt felt and acted upon the same impulse in turning coat. Was A Face in the Crowd his way of defending himself and what he perceived as for the good of the country itself?
Budd Schulberg, the film’s screenwriter, was among the era’s best whose hard-edged stories and characters are primarily drawn mostly from the strata of 1950s urban America. His greatest anti-hero was Terry Malloy performed with tragic pathos by Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. Malloy, himself, famously dropped dimes in bringing down Hoboken, New Jersey’s brutal, mobbed-up union brass who not only killed Terry’s “connected” brother and ruined his own career in the ring but exerted a ruthless stranglehold on the scrappy, marginalized waterfront fringe labor. Again, a justification for defending the pointing of a finger is made with a real price to be paid.
And It should not be lost that Schulberg was a pioneer in television as it was becoming a ubiquitous cultural force, its reach extending to realms not merely cultural but economic and social as well with a disruption not dissimilar to the current impact of Silicon Valley. Because the television industry was initially centered in New York City, the nexus of show business briefly shifted back to the NYC as that was where the networks were initially moored.
Rhodes will rise again, rest assured. Don’t they all? Guys like that always do. Just like Dick Nixon, he’ll show up somewhere just so he can get kicked around some more, a tattered phoenix sure to adapt yet a new guise before you can say reptilian shape-shifter.
Like Meet John Doe, race is caricatured in A Face in the Crowd when Rhodes begs his all African-American wait staff—butlers, maids, cooks, etc.—to “love me!” Even in Network, with its more sophisticated view on matters of race, blacks, while incorporated as a lynchpin of the narrative, are imbued with a cartoonish glaze of radical chic. Here a cheap Symbionese Liberation Army-modeled knock-off, complete with Patty Hearst and Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze stand-ins to join a roster of off-the-reservation infotainment fare. That this radicalized, post-‘60s Civil Rights Movement version of African-American struggle are depicted at all is something of a novelty/revelation in and of itself. But the hyper-militant profile of the cult depicted in Network speaks to little more than an updated tokenism even as they gun the hero down in the film’s finale.
Class, the other third rail of U.S. discourse and its expression (or, more properly, nonexpression) in popular culture, diminishes in its place in these film’s narratives.
While relatively front-and-center in Meet John Doe (Willoughby is, after all, a kind of Dust Bowl refugee straight out of the pages of Steinbeck or songs of Guthrie), its display is increasingly muted in the films more temporally removed from economic hardships of the 1930s.
There is a section in A Face in the Crowd where deft cinematography and editing are employed that demonstrates the swirling sense of dislocation and disorientation new media always invites, where the real morphs into the surreal and truth is obfuscated and threatened by flash and filigree. Smoke and mirrors all in service of moving product off the shelves while enhancing the legitimacy of the carney barker and his suspect pitch.
This veneer of surrealism is utilized to longer and deeper effect in Network when entertainment and information merge in an unlikely alliance further numbing the jaded masses increasingly incapable to determine one from the other.
Of the triad of films highlighted here, Network remains the most iconic. This is in no small part due to its signature scene in which viewers of the evening news are encouraged by a national network anchor (Howard Beale portrayed with squirrelly fire-and-brimstone mania by Peter Finch) to open their windows and shout to all who have ears: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
The set-up in Network is both simple enough and fantastical. Howard Beale, while not exactly the American everyman depicted in the first two films, is the trusted if fading face of a national evening news program on the fictional UBS network whose evaporating ratings have put them dead last in popularity. He is also an alcoholic, childless widower at a spiritual crossroads. On the night after he learns that the curtain will soon drop on his respected job, he pounces off-teleprompter and speaks his own mind on the events of the day, promising to commit suicide on air the following night. This throws the network itself into, first controversy and, then, surprising and immense popularity. Beale does not off himself but he continues to use his position as a bully pulpit saving his job and reinventing himself as a modern Diogenes with high ratings…very high ratings.
At first, the august news department is aghast at Beale’s unscripted and unhinged antics while secondarily concerned with his mental health. Told primarily from the POV of the news division’s president and Beale’s trusted friend and worldweary colleague Max Schumacher (performed with poignant gravitas by an aged William Holden in his last major screen role), we see UBS transform into arguably the first portrayal of Reality TV before it was, pun intended, institutionalized.
One wonders if the famous Beale monologue couldn’t be used either for an inaugural address or resistance battle cry of the future… whichever comes first and should we be so lucky as to make it that far: “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 TVs 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 steelbelted 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!”
Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky, Network’s respective director and screenwriter, were best known for their hard-bitten urban fare—natural descendants of Kazan and Schulberg and the stark social realism they helped formalize. They all picked up on the European films addressing corruption and the plight of the little guy and gal. Think Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, Vittorio de Sici’s The Bicycle Thief and Akira Kurosawa’s early post-war Tokyo stuff for their hard-boiled, neorealist and un-sentimentalized view of the oppressed and the crushing forces of bureaucracy.
Ratings and the revenue they generate are, naturally, the driving force here but the catalyst in Network is the hyper-ambitious Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway in an icy update of the Stanwyck and Neal roles) and her megalomaniac turn as the television station’s program director. Piggybacking on Beale’s success, she spearheads a slate of programming that would fit comfortably in today’s oversaturated programming where there is something for everybody with shows like The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, Miss Mati Hari and Sybil the Soothsayer. And her loveless (though not exactly sexless) raison d’être prophesies the future of media as glimpsed from the mid-1970s when demographics, market share, profit margins and all that go with them first threatened to reduce humanity into algorithms and began a soul deadening march.
Schumacher underlines this sentiment with his farewell to words to Diana with whom he had engaged in a self-destructive affair tinged with a dollop of mid-life crisis: “You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”
The veiled hand behind the controls of Network’s network is revealed when Beale is summoned to the office of the corporation’s CEO, Arthur Jensen (played by a commanding, evangelical Ned Beatty) after learning that UBS is slated to be sold to a Saudi conglomerate. Jensen assumes the persona of Grand Inquisitor, striking the fear of God into Beale while warning the audience in whatever decade or century his words, to the ears of many then and now, are heard as a dark, uncompromising vision of corporate cosmology: “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 immune, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, 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 YOU WILL ATONE!
“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 A T & 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 by-laws 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 and 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.”
Beale adopts Jensen’s philosophy and begins to expound on its attributes on his nightly show. But when audiences quickly bore of his spiel and ratings plummet, his days walking the Earth are numbered.
With the acceleration and adoption of new technologies in the four decades since Network premiered (check out “Moore’s Law” which suggests that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits has doubled every two years since their inception more than a half century ago will, along with corresponding behavioral and social transformation, continue into the foreseeable future), everything and everyone is or can be media. Give some schmuck a smartphone, a Twitter account and acquire (often literally) a few million “followers” and a patch of the bandwidth can be yours (and it you) 140 characters at a time.
That technology is a double-edged sword is not news. The available and ever-changing tools are, right now, being utilized to advance innumerable agendas—visionary, benign or malignant. Culture traveling at the speed of a tweet all alternately enlivening or destroying context.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan informed us that the medium is the message. But in an age when all one needs is a smart phone and a social media account, do we all not have access to the controls and potentially able to create ripples from a virtual pebble we might toss into the digital pond? This democratization of content has created a fractionalization and de facto resulting, echo-chambered factionalization such a flattening of the accelerating and binary information landscape invites. The major corporate mainstream outlets are no longer (and have not been for some time) the only fodder of water cooler talk. Their former place of influence in shaping the hearts and minds of a nation dwindle by the moment. And if their monopoly on content creation, disbursement had and continue to have their flaws (when was the last time you saw environmentalist Bill McKibben or dissident linguist Noam Chomsky on Meet The Press or its clones?), they were, less than more, vetted. When Walter Cronkite spoke (or was that read?), we listened… and believed.
With the illusion of a national discourse in place, the power and messaging of the corporate state could be continued or, shall we say, at best, maintained. That stability, if never actual comfort, is quickly receding in the rearview mirror replaced by an opaque, seemingly infinite, ever-flowing, revolving and changing news or, more aptly, information deluge that no longer fits the definition of “cycle.” The dark hand behind John Willoughby spawned the monster of Lonesome Rhodes who beget Howard Beale’s disruptive emergence and deeper embedding in the popular culture masterminded behind the scenes by the narcissistic and selfish Ayn Randian vision of Diana Christensen and her bean-counting crew in the unleashing of the network itself as an amorphous, unconscious blob feasting on and being feasted upon by the voracious, untutored horde.
Charting the evolution or, more perhaps more accurately, the acceleration of media and the power structures wrought through the prism of these films remains tangible and not just a bit intimidating.
Doe is propelled by the newspaper and burgeoning radio culture of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rhodes by the explosion of television on the national landscape of the Eisenhower era and Beale by the cool medium’s entrenchment on the global mindset.
The sitting propagandist in chief and his lackeys point a finger at “the media” as if it is a unified entity with a clipboard and a to-do list, as if the waning but still near all-powerful grip of corporate communications were all the same. Sure, there is a difference between the New York Times and Fox, but run all the letters of the competing broadcast forces together and we might just call the alphabet soup scramble CBSNBCABCFOXCNNMSNBC—a swirl of white noise specializing in click bait with vanishing, chaotic substance but rife with hints of dark consequence. If the planet’s human collective unconscious lay as a patient etherized upon a table, the torrent of image and sound spewing forth may well be interpreted as its expression in the throes of a fevered delirium. Or, maybe, all the channels operate as a kind of dancing digital shiva destroying and creating all in its path and wake. “Fifty-six channels and nothing on” to quote The Boss—the omnipresent screen serving as an Orwellian opiate of the masses.
All of it obsolesces what has come before and all of it both paradoxically anesthetizes and engages both the individual and body politic to and with the human condition.
That scene at the end of Meet John Doe could and should be instructive to all still clinging to sanity and reason. No, not when Barbara Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell weeps at the feet of Cooper’s Willoughby but when those founders of a local John Doe Society step forth and admit they were bamboozled by the smear job (and those that did the smearing) that brought down their fallen hero. As they rescue Doe and leave the moguls standing in the midnight cold, we know their roots (real grass roots—not the phony “astro-turfing” in which the Koch Bros. and other .10 percenters have specialized) will dig deep and their will prevail.
When the Aristotelean paradigm of art imitating life did a one-eighty is nigh impossible to finger. Maybe it always has. But with characters from the three films profiled here finding some corporeal embodiment in an administration where D.B. Norton, Lonesome Rhodes, Diana Christensen, and Arthur Jensen would all feel quite at home (oh, just fill in the blanks), so, too, have those in dissent found key roles in the unfolding script that seems to writing itself under our feet. Sons and daughters, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.
Like it or not, virtual life is now real life. If a celebrity buffoon and fraud (mad genius though he, in his own, warped way, may be) can bluster and bluff his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and conjure “shock events” that threaten to do the republic in, so can a resistance. Like “The People” in Meet John Doe, the response to the regime (ham-handed as it has predictably proven to be early in its first act) has been swift, overwhelming and consequential, propelled by the same hand-held tools that engendered the current predicament. From the millions who marched across the globe as a counter statement to the previous day’s shabby coronation to the near near-instantaneous appearance of demonstrators clogging the country’s airports on the heels of the so-called ban on those traveling from select countries to the Uber CEO’s clumsy distancing himself from the Grand Formage after vast, still untold numbers unsubscribed to his ride-sharing app with a Teutonic sounding name to the video of Sen. McConnell’s silencing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren going viral on arrival (5 million views by the morning after!) to the ongoing, spontaneous protests (large numbers of concerned citizens showing up at local town hall meetings or the mass mooning of a Chicago hotel baring the chief executive’s name) erupting and being hatched as these words are read—solid, reasoned, righteous, and inspiring organizing—just like those John Doe Societies that spawned around John Willoughby’s message—is galvanizing, growing and not showing signs of going away any time soon.
But be sure that those in opposing factions and with different, equally disparate plaints and solutions are, the world over, advancing countervailing ideas and causes of their own. Trapped in our own networked silos though we may be, opportunities for mutually empathetic discourse and consciousness raising remain, be they through social media or, gasp (!), actual face-to-face human interaction. We have all the pieces to make the great mosaic of life a warm, unendingly delightful schematic of living. We have all the pieces to put things together, we just haven’t quite figured out how to do it… yet. Fixing good after we’ve broken bad, utopia may be our only way out.
If we are the medium, what then, is our message?
If dark and strange forces have been let loose upon the land (and were even before 11/9), so too have the children (and elders) of the light. The conversation that began with Occupy and coalesced with the Sanders campaign is now maturing with intelligence, wisdom, artistry and, most vital, humor.
The genie has long been loosed from the bottle. Pandora’s Box and the barn door remain wide open as the ominous twister approaches across Dorothy’s Kansas cornfields both metaphorical and real. King Midas is now the bull raging in the china shop. Something’s happening but we don’t know what it is. Stop, hey, what’s that sound? It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet? The future is here, we are it, we are on our own. Together… or else…