Arts feature

Death by television

10 November 2016

3:00 PM

10 November 2016

3:00 PM

Forty years ago this month a film appeared, so prescient I wonder if its author, Paddy Chayefsky, saw the 2016 American presidential election campaign in a crystal ball. It was called Network and it foretold the rise of Donald Trump.

The plot is King Lear appears on Newsnight: a newsman run mad. The protagonist is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an anchorman at a failing network. The year is 1976, and America is embattled with inflation, depression and the end of the Vietnam war. It is not a time for American heroes, to paraphrase Chayefsky’s acolyte Aaron Sorkin writing in The West Wing.

Beale’s ratings are low. He is fired. He announces that he will kill himself, live on air.

‘I just run out of bullshit,’ he says. ‘Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living.’ There is ‘the God bullshit’ and also ‘the noble man bullshit …if there is anybody out there who 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’. Beale is right, and his viewers know it. He speaks their anger, but they can do nothing. They are stupefied by toasters and television. It is already too late.

But something can be done: Beale’s despair can be monetised for profit. The head of drama, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), takes the Beale show from the news division — news is explicitly drama now, for who cares for fact? She does not put Beale in a hospital, but back on television. He is a prophet, she says, articulating ‘the hypocrisies of our times’. If this is not dark enough, Christensen hires terrorists to shoot footage of themselves committing crimes so she can ‘base a movie of the week around it’. She turns communists into capitalists.

So, an hour into Network and Chayefsky has invented reality TV, the IS propaganda channel and foretold the degradation of the modern left. Mental illness is not a tragedy, but a spectacle to tempt viewers. Privacy is dead; news is entertainment; op-ed (shouting) is more fun than fact. (This is a newsroom the Sky reporter Kay Burley would enjoy.) Beale broadcasts in his pyjamas and delivers the famous ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more’ speech. He begs his viewers to turn off the television, but they cannot. They are numb, and can only feel through television. ‘You dress like the tube [the TV],’ he screams. ‘You eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion!’

‘I’m a human being!’ he screams. ‘My life has value!’ It does not of course, not of itself, and not when the ratings fall. When the ratings slump — the novelty is gone, the public want another soul to feast on — the network executives murder him, live on air. It gets ‘a hell of a rating’ and, by this time, the viewer is not surprised. Anything becomes possible.

The doubter is Max Schumacher. He is played by William Holden, that great interpreter of American mediocrity, the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard, which eviscerated cinema in the way that Network does television. Both exposed the destructive power — the narcissism — of the forms they dealt with. Schumacher is head of the news division, where he presides over an annual$32 million deficit. This is his catchphrase: an annual $32 million deficit, which follows him around the executive floor. There cannot be a journalist alive who does not know this cry. Of anything else pertaining to the news division, we hear little. What matters is what rises to fill the gap, which is simply a drug to stop us from hearing — from even wanting — the real news. For when you take the drug, the cognitive dissonance with reality is too much to bear. His pleas to save his friend Beale from ‘grave robbers’ is drowned in the emerging future. Schumacher recognises that television is a charnel house preparing to overwhelm civilisation. He fantasises about the news shows of the future: suicide of the week. Execution of the week. The Death Hour. He tells his lover Christensen: ‘You are television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy.’

I do not know why Chayefsky did not write a Donald Trump character in Network: perhaps he thought no one would believe in him? Even satire must have limits. It must be plausible.

Now, it is. Network is a film designed for Donald Trump: a dystopia marketed at an audience that has ‘shot up, fucked itself limp and nothing helps’. As TV dictated what the world would be like, of course a TV star would rise to rule it. It was logically inevitable.

And he would be a businessman. News, in Network, is a business; and facts will bend to it. This is told, explicitly, in the climactic scene, when the head of the network’s parent company, Arthur Jensen, speaks to Beale. ‘There are no nations,’ Jensen tells Beale. ‘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.’ Everything is now determined by television; it can dictate geography. He looks into Beale’s bewildered face and tells him: ‘The world …is a business.’

Pauline Kael, then the most famous film critic in America, hated Network. Perhaps she recognised a superior stylist in Chayefsky? ‘The screen,’ she wrote, ‘seems to be plastered with bumper stickers.’ It was a ‘ventriloquial harangue’. But Kael lived through the last golden age of cinema, and Network, to her, was only one possible future. She didn’t live to see Ed Balls dancing for a political second act — from shadow chancellor to, literally, a dancing monkey — or a reality TV star become the president of the USA.

Chayefsky died, burnt out, at 58, and we live in his prophecy. That would be a fine obituary, if it didn’t belong to us all.

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