The Oscar-winning Film From 40 Years Ago Still Worth Watching

'Network' is the ideal film for TV viewing in the week of the biggest televised film event of them all.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

If you are keen on knowing, in real time, who got the Academy Award (a.k.a. the Oscar) for – for example – Best Sound Mixing (the only category this year with an Israeli nominee, Niv Adiri, and others, for “Gravity”), you will have to forego your beauty sleep on the night between Sunday, March 2 and Monday, March 3. The 86th Awards Ceremony will be broadcast live by ABC from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, and will reach the homes of Israeli cable subscribers (HOT and Yes) from 02.00 (red carpet) and 03.30 (the ceremony itself, hosted for the second consecutive year by Ellen DeGeneres).

In the disintegrating world of TV viewing – with networks, cable channels, satellite channels, live streaming, YouTube and all forms of VOD – live broadcasts such as The Oscars night, Super Bowl or Winter Olympics (Oscars night was pushed back this year until the end of the broadcasts from Sochi) still manage to uphold the image of a “global village” with many millions of viewers simultaneously watching the same show. Last year’s Oscars were seen by more than 40 million Americans, and many more millions all over the world.

Usually such events are eagerly awaited, since there is a quest that will reach its high point with the announcement of the winner in each of 24 categories (which makes the other nominees losers, although they will keep claiming it’s an honor to be nominated at all). The period between the announcement of the nominees and the awards ceremony is “money time.” The movies nominated (10 this year for Best Picture) are supposed to make viewers rush to the theaters. In that respect – writes Brooks Barnes in The New York Times (February 20) – this year, in contrast to previous years, most of the films nominated, especially the “independents” made with small budgets and not intended to be commercial hits to begin with, did not enjoy higher box 
office revenues following the nomination. Viewers did not rush to see them; they simply couldn’t care less.

Be that as it may, Oscar night on live TV is another example of the symbiosis between the big and the small screens. Television, instead of killing the movies off (just as movies were supposed to bring about the demise of books and reading, and did not) lives off them and does quite well. TV broadcasts films regularly on many channels; it serves as a last refuge for movies that were not lucky enough to be screened in theaters. Around Oscar night, television has the opportunity to broadcast Oscar winners and nominees of yesteryear and the current year (before they get old enough to be sold for TV). Both HOT and Yes broadcast a number of Oscar movies in recent days, with HOT offering a much larger and more varied choice.

So I spent many hours last week watching movies new (“Gravity,” 10 nominations) and old (“Network,” 10 nominations and 4 Oscars in 1976 – but not Best Picture: “Rocky” got that one). “Gravity” on TV, not on a huge 3-D screen, leaves much to be desired, even by a space-movies freak like me. But “Network” seems like the ideal film for TV viewing, as it’s a vicious satire of American television (and indirectly the American way of life) – especially as Israeli TV, and our way of life, are very much American style.

The other reason to watch “Network” (in my case for the umpteenth time) is a new book, “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in the Movies,” by Dave Itzkoff. The “angriest man in the movies” is screenwriter Paddy 
Chayefsky, a veteran of the movie, film and theater industry who, in 1976, wrote a screenplay about Howard Beale, a TV news anchor with the fictional UBS network (owned by the fictional CCI corporation), who starts to lose his ratings. When his contract is terminated abruptly (effective in two weeks) he “loses it” on the air, and urges his viewers: “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!’”

And they do, and his ratings soar again, and he is kept on the air not as a news anchor anymore, but as entertainment, until … well, I’m oversimplifying here, as there are few other important subplots in this movie, and I don’t want to spoil your viewing pleasure. You should really watch it, because it says the most pertinent things about TV, not as it was in 1976, but about the way it is today. Once, at least, there was “news” and there was “entertainment” as separate entities. Nowadays we have “infotainment,” without us even wincing at the way the entertainment taints the news we tune in to hear.

I would have loved to tell you a lot more about the movie (and the fact that both its leading men, Peter Finch and William Holden, were nominated for the Best Actor award, with Finch getting the Oscar posthumously, as he died a couple of days before the ceremony). But I think my point can best be made with a couple of additional quotes. For instance, here is Beale again: “Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”

And here is Chayefsky, Beales’ creator, in an article for Time, in 1976: “All family life is not as coarse and brutalized as it is presented to us on TV… Television coarsens all the complexities of human relationships, brutalizes them, makes them insensitive… We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition. This is the basic problem of television.”

And now you can spend the night between Sunday and Monday watching TV, and quote the Roman playwright Terence: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Does this hold true for movies about aliens (“E.T., call home”)?

Peter Finch in Network.