Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Over the weekend, the wife and I watched "Network," Sidney Lumet's film from Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay. We hadn't seen it in years, and never together, so this was a fresh viewing of sorts. And man, I'd forgotten just how prescient "Network" was and how powerful it remains. And as politically sharp as Chayefsky's script is, it is a pure acting vehicle. Every main character is given a speech, which in less-able hands would be intolerable, but here is simply mesmerizing. Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway (years before she was reduced to projects like "Honk If You're Horny" with Pauly Shore), William Holden, Robert Duvall, and esp Beatrice Straight, blaze beautifully. "Network" is one of the best, if not the best, films to accurately depict late-20th century corporate capitalism and that system's ability to commodify and sell pretty much anything -- including anti-capitalism.

(An SLA-type terrorist group gets its own weekly show, "The Mao Tse-Tung Hour." Today, "Osama's Commandos"?)

The wife and I differ over one scene -- where corporate boss Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty, delivers a fire and brimstone sermon about the nature of global corporate rule to Finch's Howard Beale, TV newscaster turned primetime prophet. I think Beatty's wonderful in this scene, but the wife doesn't believe that Beatty pulled it off. We tossed around names of those who might've played a better, more intimidating Jensen, so long as they were working in the mid-70s (no time travel casting). I finally came up with Orson Welles.

"Yes!" the wife responded. "Welles would've been perfect! Especially with the sermonizing and the fluctuation of tones."

"Yeah, he would be great," I said, "but probably impossible to direct. I can hear him telling Lumet, 'I'm sorry Sidney, but this speech makes no sense! I wouldn't direct an actor in Shakespeare with a speech like this!' It would take them three months to film that scene with Welles."

Still, I think Beatty hit it right.

What follows is Jensen's speech, and a sound file so you may sermonize along.

At this point in the film, Beale has gotten his mass of viewers to stop a business deal his network's parent company has with the Saudis, which causes major problems for the parent company. So Jensen gently guides Beale into a large, darkened boardroom to explain the facts of nature.

(Listen here.)

Jensen: 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 immane, 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 AT&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.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Beale: Why me?

Jensen: Because you're on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.

Beale: I have seen the face of God.

Jensen: You just might be right, Mr. Beale.