Replay: Network (1976)

‘Ratings don’t last. Good journalism does’ said CBS News veteran Dan Rather. The problem is power within a news network is with the producers and the producers are businessmen not journalists; ratings is all they have. Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 news media satire Network tells the story of when the quest for ratings goes down a macabre path, and how anger and outrage will always sell.

Network revolves around the chaotic demise, or some might argue rebirth, of long time newsman Howard Beale, played by an excellent Peter Finch, who after finding out about his imminent forced ‘retirement’ due to declining ratings goes on the air to announce that he plans to take lifes ultimate bow live on television. What follows is a plethora of shock, scandal and the uncomfortable, inhumane and greed ridden morality of a national television network who have stumbled into an unexpected Holy Grail of ratings.

The cast in Network is simply brilliant. Faye Dunaway plays the relentless Diana Christensen, a woman with a outlandish knack for finding television that sells, even terrorism gets a rather humourous showcase. Alongside Diana is Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) a cold, hard money man with one eye on the books and one hand on the chopping block. Meanwhile, Howard’s long time friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) watches on helplessly at the chaos and exploitation of his one true friend, a solitary voice of sanity and the audiences only ally.

Paddy Chayefsky meticulously researched the news media network business and competition in anticipation of writing Network and it certainly shows. Some of the network boardroom discussions are poetic and intricately devious, with great intention it feels like they are speaking a foreign language at times. A wonderful linguistic barrier between the alien business and the raw humanity they choose to exploit.

Indeed raw humanity is what gives Howard his kick and the mantra that revolutionises his audience who he has rescuef from their culture of disenchantment, in his own words ‘I’m a human being God damn it! My life has meaning!’ He throws his very essence and sanity into his passionate performance, literally to the point of exhaustion. Some very clear parallels with the social freak show nature of contemporary reality TV bilge.

It’s important to remember that the setting of this film was post-Watergate, people really were ‘mad as hell’, it’s understandable the raw world-weary emotion of Howard’s booming tirades hold such appeal to an audience sick of the people in power’s scandalous behaviour; of course the sad irony is that is just another power grab scandal they are buying into, and Howard, unwillingly, another commodity to sell.

It’s a film where fundamental revolutionary anger and rebellious values of the disillusioned many overcoming the rich and powerful few just becomes another marketing gimmick, the ‘revolution’ is politely seated in studio chairs and told when to clap and when to shout; all the while the market profit grows. This is perfectly encapsulated in Howard’s invitation to ‘Valhalla’ by CCA Chairman Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty) in which as if in the presence of a God he is reminded that ‘the world is a business’.

Just simply wonderful satire. A fantastic film that takes the viewer into that relentless world behind the camera and pushes some uncomfortable boundaries of how far down the rabbit hole television might go in the quest for ratings.

‘The world is a business’ 
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Replay: Münchhausen (1943) Joseph Goebbels’ Wartime Distraction

In 1943 it was becoming very clear to a lot of German citizens that perhaps this war wouldn’t be won so decisively and it was starting to become more apparent that there was a very real danger that the war could work its way back to German soil. Their army had just lost the grueling battle of Stalingrad, meanwhile the Axis were losing control of North Africa, and all the while British and American bombing raids in Germany began to grow and intensify.

Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda machine saw that the people needed a welcome distraction and a reminder of past German heroics, all be it fictional ones, and as such he pumped millions of Reichsmarks into supporting the Universum Film AG (UFA) production of Münchhausen; a film telling the iconic folklore tale of the aristocratic German adventurer Baron Münchhausen. It was also a fine opportunity to celebrate 25 years of the UFA studio.

baron-munchausen-1943-girl

Now maybe I shouldn’t say this about a film that was funded by the Nazis but I think there is certainly a lot of charm to this film, it is quite fun to watch, well aside from the rather uncomfortable references to slavery. Hans Albers is also brilliant in the titular role and brings with him a very warm humour and a great theatricality to the role. I think it’s also very fair to say that the film had an influence on Terry Gilliam’s great 1988 film  The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

It was a full ‘Agfacolour’ production, which was the German answer to ‘Technicolor’, and as such comes with a lot of vibrancy and, although it looks archaic now, did have some clever visual effects for the 1940s. Goebbels saw the huge success of 1940s Wizard of Oz as a challenge to Germany and this film was his retort to show the Germany could do one better.

The film also made clear to avoid any direct references to contemporary politics or the war effort, which is surprising  given that Goebbels himself gave it the green light. Perhaps he saw the value in giving their increasingly anxious audience a bit of escapism and fantasy, but I think more likely was that he wanted a film that showed the achievements of German industry to the outside world as if to say, yes we can fight this long war on multiple fronts and still churn out technically marvels that your own audiences can enjoy.

It’s because of this political freedom and extravagant financial backing that this film came with a lot of creative freedom and I can only imagine was a very welcome relief to the artistic freedom-starved film writers and directors of the time; many of whom had been heavily censored or drafted into writing pure propaganda.

On the other hand, this avoidance of political framing was much to Adolf Hitlers great displeasure. Since his party was pumping so much money into the film, money that he would have prefered to pump into ships and planes, he wanted a film that was written to rally his people behind the Nazi banner and march them forward, not distract them with fanciful tales and folklore. As such Munchhausen is believed to be one of the reasons Goebbels’ and Hitler’s relationship became very strained in later years.

So as I hope this fun clip demonstrates Münchhausen was a bright film that came from a very dark place…

Replay: Eraserhead (1977)

eraserhead_hair‘In heaven everything is fine’ sings the lady behind the radiator but for Henry in David Lynch’s outstanding feature length debut Eraserhead life is the opposite of heaven and everything is certainly not fine.

Eraserhead follows the struggles of electric-haired Henry (Jack Nance) as he comes to terms with love, lust, marriage, parenthood and above all anxiety all from within his claustrophobic bedsit apartment in an unnamed grim dystopian industrial town.

I want to say little of this film’s plot for the sake of not wanting to ruin any of it’s many surprises to those who have never tasted it, only to say that the journey this film takes you on is quite unforgettable and very, very disturbing. If you have seen Blue Velvet or Mullholand Drive you will know all about Lynch’s dream-like way of telling a story and how you can never quite expect what is around the corner; it is both thrilling and unsettling and Eraserhead is certainly seminal in this aspect.

Analysts could talk all day about what the vast amounts of symbolism and allusions in this film but at it’s very heart this film is in essence a nightmare. Indeed I would argue that no other film portrays the true essence of a nightmare quite like Eraserhead.  

So often when writers and film-makers attempt to recount true nightmares or dreams they do so through tinted eyes with crystal clear dialogue and focused plot but nightmares are never so straightforward and conveniently structured. What Lynch offers instead is a very real interpretation of a nightmare.

Nightmares showcase our subconscious and its deepest fears and anxieties but they very rarely do this in convenient ways we can interpret; they take you completely out of your comfort zone, they put you in outlandish situations that oddly seem familiar, and they make you feel powerless with your actions and very voice out of your own control.

What makes the nightmare of Eraserhead feel so real is just how everything seems so constantly disjointed and off-key and yet oddly relatable; it is a familiar unfamiliarity. For example, Henry’s fatherhood struggles stem from an extremely outlandish source but holds at it’s heart an absolutely true to life discomfort and parental fear.

The consistent drone of the apartment’s plumbing and the industrial machinery outside his window provides an uneasy soundtrack to the whole film and there is a foreboding, overpowering and ever-present tension stemming from this. Only the sweet tune of the ‘radiator’ gives us any respite from this.

Even the dialogue adds to this audio tension, conversations are disjointed and muted. Much like I see myself doing in dreams and nightmares Henry seems at odds and uneasy with his own responses and reactions. The conversation he has at the dinner table with ‘Mr X’ is a prime example of this, look at Henry’s motions and unease at the bizarre situation and hearing his own jaded speech; not to mention how the unstoppable mess he makes of the ‘food’ will be an anxiety often explored by many.

For me not only is Henry the star of the show but I feel he plays a major part of the audience as well. Sometimes he is in control of his own destiny but occasionally he is stuck helplessly alongside us on the outside looking in, anxious and paralysed. My interpretation of this is that this is Henry’s nightmare whoever ‘Henry’ is, could be me, you or maybe even Lynch himself.

As an audience we are trespassing on Henry’s subconscious and if indeed Henry represents Lynch himself then that is such an amazingly brave and humble thing to do as Henry’s subconscious certainly has some serious troubles and anxieties; but then again so do we all in one manner or another when we truly take a look inside ourselves.

Lynch has always been very cryptic about what this film represents and encourages viewers to develop their own interpretations whilst revealing next to nothing of his own. If you have never seen this film and enjoy the style of Lynch’s other work I would absolutely encourage you to go out and watch this, there is so much that can be taken from this film and I haven’t even scratched the surface with this post!

In my opinion this truly is an absolute masterpiece of the horror genre.

Replay: Brighton Rock (1947)

Brighton Rock - Pinky and Rose
Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! There’s nothing like a nice summer’s day at the British seaside; the packed beaches, the sticks of rock, the sounds of amusements and laughter, and the mob killings. Well maybe not that last bit, thankfully the most dangerous thug I’ve ever encountered on the coast is a rather nasty donkey who decided to nibble on my hand! John Boulting’s simply brilliant 1947 crime thriller Brighton Rock paints a very different picture of the merry seaside town.

The image of a newspaper competition and a photo of a man starts the film of innocently enough, but things soon start to spiral out of hand in a plot full of violence, paranoia and coincidence. The film is centered around the sinister young, baby-faced gang leader Pinky Brown, played wonderfully by a very young Richard Attenborough. He and his small mob run a protection racket with pier side businesses and horse racing bookies, his gang has started to lose power due to being over shadowed by the much larger and better organized Colleoni mob. Things go a stray when an old face comes into town who’s appearance set in motion a series of unfortunate events that threaten the paranoid Pinky and engulf the sweet, love-sick and naive young waitress Rose into the dark world of the 1930’s Brighton underground with only the cheerful, bold and inquisitive performer Ida Arnold being able to help her.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is one of the greatest crime thrillers ever made and it owes all this to the character of Pinky. He’s not like a Tony Soprano or a Michael Corleone, there is no family love or false sense of honour that motivates Pinky, he simply wants power and doesn’t care who he uses to get it. He’s a very sinister young man and early on you see how full of hate he is, showcased in the early scenes when he is angered by the joyful singing in the pub. Like the crocodile in a Punch and Judy show there is no complexity to him; he is no misunderstood lost soul who is trying to do right, he simply is a villain. This makes it all the more heart-wrenchingly tragic when the sweet and beautiful Rose enters into his life, if your heart strings aren’t moving by the films conclusion then you probably don’t have any!

It’s a film with very little respite to it’s suspense, it has a lot of humour, mostly from the good-natured Ida, but is often wonderfully counter-balanced by the menace of Pinky. What you want from a good film noir is a sense of foreboding tension and intrigue and this film as it in buckets and spades… OK maybe I’ll stop now with the seaside puns! You should particularly watch the chase scene at the start of the film one of my personal favourites, it teaches you to exercise great amounts of caution when riding the haunted house!

In many senses I feel this is a film that is fueled by juxtaposition. This is especially true with it’s setting; on the one hand you have a thriving, loud and joyous Brighton promenade full of flamboyance and excitement, whilst hidden in the cracks behind the scenes is the seedy underbelly full of run-down damp buildings and thuggish people; the real tragic connection between the two is that the Brighton underworld that Pinky inhabits is one that leeches onto and is fueled by the joy of the piers and amusements. It’s a history that people often choose not to think about when they look back at the ‘good old days of the British seaside’.

Ida: "Now listen, dear. I'm human, I've loved a boy or two in my time. It's natural, like breathin. Not one of them's worth it, let alone this fellow you've got hold of."
Ida: “Now listen, dear. I’m human, I’ve loved a boy or two in my time. It’s natural, like breathing. Not one of them’s worth it, let alone this fellow you’ve got hold of”

Another great contrast is the characters of Ida and Rose;

Ida is a very independent, headstrong and street smart woman she has a confidence and fire that surpasses most others and an insatiable sense of justice. Like all good detectives she uses some very creative thinking to follow the clues. In fact she is one of my favourite female heroines from any film. Considering this film was made in the 1940’s when there wasn’t many strong and confident female leads, especially those that were unmarried and self-reliant, her character represents a bold new outlook on attitudes towards women in cinema. It’s still true that there are not enough women like Ida in contemporary films sadly.

Whereas on the opposite end of the scale from Ida you have Rose who is naive, submissive and weak-willed, she is easy seduced by Pinky’s charm and through her ideals on Romance and Catholic upbringing feels she must be fiercely loyal to him despite knowing his many, many wrongs. Rose is a symbol of innocence and virginity and characterizes a much more old-fashioned, fairytale-like view on the role of woman. She feels obliged to go along with the patriarchy of the world.

Rose lacks the courage and boldness that Ida is constantly trying to give her to confront that which she knows is wrong. When the two are on the screen together there is a great sense of opposition, you really see how the two characters repel in personality and outlooks. The interaction between the three main characters is masterful!

This is a brilliant film noir and certainly one of the finest British films ever made. It holds up very well for the contemporary viewer and has a lot to say about gender, morality, ambition, appearances and deception. You should certainly track down a copy of this film and also the book it is based off… just try to avoid the terrible remake!

I’ll leave you with a clip from the film;