I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more

Recently this blog has focused on discussing films I’ve watched, rather than examining my writing process. That’s because I’m viewing a lot of films and thinking about how they work, or don’t work, and what I can learn from them.

I watch far more than I discuss; there isn’t enough time for me to detail everything I see on a daily basis.

For instance I finally got to see Good Night, and Good Luck, the black and white film directed by George Clooney, and co-written by him and Grant Heslov. As most of the readers will know it focuses on the legendary US reporter, Edward R. Murrow, and his investigations into the activities of Senator McCarthy at a time when it was dangerous to one’s career to appear unpatriotic.

I love the aesthetic of black and white films. I adore the use of shadows and light, and how they create ambiance and atmosphere, and add character and gravity to the faces of the actors. It is entirely appropriate for this period piece. In particular Clooney’s talent as a director shines through. His compositions are beautiful and often unusual. There is very little action in the film. All of the drama comes from the unseen, but pervasive, threat from Senator McCarthy’s office.

This is a film about ideas, and features a lot of speeches, but Clooney creates genuine tension in the film about the fate of the characters. All them live in fear. It is a low-level anxiety about what they say to each other, what they report in the news, and how others perceive them. This is an era of wiretaps and secret files. Nobody lives a perfect life, or has a perfect family, so there are many pressures that can be applied to make people conform.

Clooney displays a clever acumen in his choice of subject matter. The zeitgeist of today resonates with that of the1950s era. The film would not have had as much relevance 10 years ago as it does today. It’s an accomplished film that tackles issues about the television industry, the news, and how it is reported. All of which is eerily relevant to today.

After pondering this film I felt an urge to watch Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, Network, which examines similar territory. It is written by Paddy Chayefsky, and is a searing indictment of television culture and how it shapes our society.

Despite the fact that Network is now thirty years old it feels surprisingly modern. That’s because its themes remain relevant. The only weakness in the film is a confusion about who owns the central story. Initially it appears as if it is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the respected news anchor who runs out of bullshit and transforms into a raging messiah. Yet, there’s also the story of Max Schumacher (William Holden ), Beale’s friend and the head of the news department, and his affair with the career-obsessed Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).

This is a minor quibble because this is an amazing film that is full of fantastic dialogue, character exchanges, and acting. Lumet and Chayefsky make a wonderful pair: a talented director working with an accomplished writer.

I’d like to point screenwriters towards the script, which is a fantastic read. I love Chayefsky’s economical style: he knows where to place the emphasis in a scene. For instance, in an early scene his description is:

INT. A BAR – 3:00 A.M.
Any bar. Mostly empty. MAX and HOWARD in a booth, so sodden drunk they are sober.

Note, because it’s so early in the morning, the “Any bar. Mostly empty.” furnishes the images for us. The details are irrelevant. We’ve all been in a bar in the wee hours of the morning where only a few diehards are left brooding over their beers and scotch. The next line, “so sodden drunk they are sober” is entirely evocative. Alcohol has brought clarity, and bitterness. We know the scene, and the mood, so all that’s left is for the characters to talk.

Throughout the film I was struck by the lucidity, passion and truth that springs from the characters’ speeches. For instance the scene in which Max confesses his affair to his wife Louise (Beatrice Straight): she is justifiably angry but what she says does not appear scripted. The “angry wife” routine is an easy one to play in a predictable fashion, but this is written (and delivered) in a authentic and plausible fashion.

MAX
I’m in love with her.

LOUISE
(erupts)
Then get out, go to a hotel, go anywhere you want, go live withher, but don’t come back! Because after twenty-five years of building
a home and raising a family and all the senseless pain we’ve inflicted on each other, I’ll be damned if I’ll just stand here and let you tell me you love somebody else!
(now it’s she striding around, weeping, a caged lioness)

Because this isn’t just some convention weekend with your secretary, is it? Or some broad you picked up after three belts of booze. This is your great winter romance, isn’t it?, your last roar of passion before you sink into your emeritus years. Is that what’s left for me? Is that my share? She gets the great winter passion, and I get the dotage? Am I supposed to sit at home knitting and purling till you slink back like a penitent drunk? I’m your wife, damn it! If you can’t work up a winter passion for me, then the least I require is respect and allegiance! I’m hurt! Don’t you understand that? I’m hurt badly!

Louise does not have a major part to play in the film but from that one scene her character is completely memorable.

Even though Diane is selfish and scheming her dynamic enthusism makes her stand-out, and there is a touch of someone who is lost. I love the way she considers all interactions between people as “scripts”; Diane believes she is the central character in a film that is peopled by characters that she can write in and out of her life whenever she wants.

The farewell scene between Diane and Max is another excellent sequence that bears examination. (Max has a long speech so I’m cutting in towards the end.)

MAX
You are 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. 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 are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you. Well, not me! Not while I can still feel pleasureand pain and love!

He turns back to his valise and buckles it. DIANA finds
a chair, sits in it. A moment later, MAX comes out of the bedroom, lugging a raincoat as well as the valise. He lugs his way across the living room, then pauses for a moment, reflects —

MAX
It’s a happy ending, Diana. Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife with whom he has built a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell. Final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.

I haven’t even discussed Beale’s amazing prophetic speeches, or the incredible scene where the bad-ass commie Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield) argues with the members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army about how they will divvy up the revenue from the reality TV show they are creating for Diane.

Despite its few flaws Network‘s commentary on our televised lives remains timely and relevant. It deserves a wider audience and appreciation for its craft and finesse.