Revisiting Network – The Best Film of the 1970’s

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So 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!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale

The 1970’s – what is there left to say?  I mean, damn, this was it, right?  This was the defining decade for modern cinema.  In the words of Robert Duvall’s character from Network, this was the decade of “big-titted hits.”

If the 2000’s were where my generation came of age with film, the 1970’s were where my father’s generation came of age with film.  I arrived just in the nick of time to be able to claim I was born in this decade of wonder and transformation where the first generation of film school graduates took cinema by storm.

Here is where many of my favorite directors working today first made a name for themselves – visionaries like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.  This was the decade where the prolific Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet reached their pinnacles with Manhattan and NetworkContinue reading

Sidney Lumet Dead at 86

Legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet (1924-2011), whose cinematic depiction of his hometown of New York is rivaled only by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in terms of lasting and prolific impressions, passed away in Manhattan on Saturday, April 9th, at age 86 from lymphoma.

You can’t say the man didn’t have a long and fruitful life, as he directed films for over half a century from the 1950’s all the way through the 2000’s, with successful stints directing stage and TV as well.  I had feared for a while Lumet might be near the end as the workaholic who never turned down a job had no projects in the works since 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I initially named as the second best film of that amazing year behind only There Will be Blood.

For me, Lumet will always be remembered for directing one of my top five favorite films of all time – Network. Continue reading

The Neo-Noir Renaissance

Thanks to the slow, cold burn of  Winter’s Bone and the mass-appeal of Inception, 2010 has become the year of the Neo-Noir Renaissance.       

An Idea not spinning out of control...

 

The seeds for this renaissance were planted in 2007 when films that could not be categorized outright as neo-noir but were still “dark as hell” in theme and style (i.e. the dueling banjos that were There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men) left the most indelible impressions, if not on mass audiences, then on fellow filmmakers lurking in the shadows.  In my yearly wrap-up, I specifically looked at the grim melodramas not nominated for Best Picture when I said, “Flicks like Zodiac, Eastern Promises, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Gone Baby Gone point towards a film movement not unlike the film noir of the 1940′s that mirrors America’s anxiety towards the chaotic outside world inward against the intimate settings of neighborhoods and families in stylish and unsettling ways.”  But it wasn’t until 2010 that those seeds planted in 2007 bloomed.       

It started in February, the coldest and most obscure of months — a time of year that is usually an artistic black-hole for film.  Yet it was on the same weekend when two of filmdom’s greatest living masters delivered what appeared to be larks Continue reading

Being There, Done That

BEING THERE:

I recently watched for the first time Hal Ashby’s 1979 satire, Being There, which I found amusingly prophetic.  Satire is so hard to do, and Ashby’s film does it fairly well, though it never achieves the scathing brilliance of Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film made just three years prior.  In Being There, Peter Sellers plays a TV-obsessed idiot savant gardener who through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings becomes the toast of Washington D. C.  For the most part, Ashby plays the satire light and bubbly, until the eerie closing scenes that become rich with overt symbolism and end with Sellers literally walking on water not knowing yet that he has been handpicked by the Masonic cabal to become the nation’s next political wunderkind.

Whereas Network envisioned a society in which reality TV runs amok, corporate fascism rules supreme, and Saudi Arabian oil money holds a controlling interest in American media and politics–sound familiar?– Being There paints a picture of America in the midst of an economic meltdown where a bumbling idiot is gifted the Presidency by the ruling class–wow, that could never happen.  One of the funniest bits in Being There is when the media falls in love with Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner and considers him a breath of fresh air because he doesn’t read any newspapers.  In fact, he doesn’t even know how to read or write.  The public sees him as brilliant because he boils down the economic crisis to a simpleton’s terms by using a gardening metaphor.  There’s also a great bit where his former caretaker (an elderly African-American maid) sees him on TV and proclaims, “That boy is as dumb as a jack-ass.  This proves all you have to be is White in America and you get what you want.”  In 1979 that was spot on, but, wait, have things actually changed?

Well, as we now have one idiot who didn’t read newspapers leaving office after eight horrendous years that produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and another idiot who failed to get into Washington D. C. after being advertised as a breath of fresh air sweeping down from Alaska, we are about to inaugurate an eloquent African-American as our next President who has proven hard work can trump nepotism in a renewed America.  It seems the era Being There warned of has already come to pass and it was even more horrifically funny than the film that prophesized it.

__________________________________________________________________________________

DONE THAT:

In the “done that” category, I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  You know, The Road is one of those books everyone you know who reads has read and has been telling you, “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS”, but you didn’t read it until you heard it was being made into a movie.  The Road is a grim tale of a father and son roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland trying to survive.  In this dark future, ash covers everything, charred bodies litter the landscape, most animals have become extinct, and marauding groups of cannibals pick off survivors one by one.

McCarthy crafts the novel in a stark, lean style meant to mirror the savage existence he describes.  I found the fragmented sentences and unmarked dialogue hard to get used to, but the book moves at such a quick and horrific clip that it soon becomes easy to overlook the stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Much of the storyline is repetitive:  father and son search for food, father and son find food, father and sun run out of food, father and son search for more food, they stumble upon a cannibal here, a terrifying scene there, they find an idyllic shelter they only have to leave too soon out of fear–and many readers will find it frustrating that the apocalypse is never explained and the ending arrives all too conveniently.  I also found the religious underpinnings to be overly simplistic.

Despite these flaws, The Road held me mysteriously captivated.  It was the fist time since I was a child that I raced through a book in only two days.  I don’t know if that speaks to the style in which the book is written or the power of its story.  When I was a teenager, I was more inclined to enjoy these post-apocalyptic-sci-fi-horror-infused tales, and this would’ve been just the type of thing my immature mind would’ve loved.  Now, I’m a bit more cynical and tied to the real world, and The Road seems like the relic of a juvenile past.  I give credit to McCarthy, however, for delivering something that is completely unlike anything I’ve read in the past five years.  It will be awhile before I fully digest his vision.

The film adaptation of The Road is set for an early 2009 release.  It is directed by John Hillcoat, who was responsible for the grim Aussie Western The Proposition, and stars Viggo Mortensen.

Written by David H. Schleicher

A Review of Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Do you Mind if I Call you Chico?, 5 November 2007
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Two dysfunctional brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) get tired of competing for who is the bigger f***-up and who Daddy (Albert Finney) loves more, so they hatch a hair-brained scheme to rob Mommy and Daddy’s jewelry store so that they can clear their debts and start fresh. Sounds like a great plan except that this is a suspenseful 1970’s style melodrama about a heist gone wrong, and boy, do things really go wrong here for our hapless duo and everyone involved. Lasciviously concocted by screenwriter Kelly Masterson and classically executed by director Sidney Lumet, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” uses the heist as its McGuffin to delve deep into family drama.

Contrary to popular belief, Sidney Lumet is not dead. At age 83, he has apparently made a deal with the Devil to deliver one last great film. Lumet was at his zenith in the 1970’s with films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and one of my favorite films of all time, “Network”.  He has somehow managed to make a film that bears all the hallmarks of his classics while intertwining some more modern elements (graphic sexuality, violence, and playing with time-frames and POV’s) into a crackling, vibrant, lean, mean, and provocative melodrama. One can only hope that some of the modern greats (like Scorsese or Spielberg) who emerged during the same decade Lumet was at the top of his game will have this much chutzpah left when they reach that age.

Lumet is a master at directing people walking through spaces to create tension and develop characters. As the cast waltzes through finely appointed Manhattan offices and apartments his slowly moving camera creates a palpable sense of anxiety as we never know who might be around the next corner or what this person might do in the next room. Also amazing is how Lumet utilizes the multiple POV and shifting time-frame approach. The coherent and classical presentation he uses makes the similarly structured films of wunderkinds Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seem like amateur hour.

Of course, what Lumet is best at is directing amazing ensemble casts and tricking them into acting within an inch of their lives. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never been, and most likely never will be, better than he is here. Albert Finney’s quietly searing portrayal of a father betrayed and at the end of his rope is a masterpiece to watch unfold. Ethan Hawke, normally a nondescript pretty boy, is perfect as the emotionally crippled younger brother who has skated by far too long on his charms and looks. The coup-de-grace, however, is the series of scenes between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, eerily on point as his flighty trophy wife. Lumet runs them through the gamut of emotions that culminate in a scene that is the best of its kind since William Holden taunted Beatrice Straight right into a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “Network.”

The Devil of any great film is in the details, from Albert Finney’s tap of his car’s trunk that won’t close due to a fender bender, to the look Amy Ryan (fresh off her amazing turn in “Gone Baby Gone”) gives her ex-husband Ethan Hawke at his mawkish promise to his little girl all three of them knows he won’t keep, to the systematic unraveling of a family on the skids, to the dialog begging for cultists to quote it (my favorite line being the hilariously threatening “Do you mind if I call you Chico?”) to the excellent Carter Burwell score. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the film of the year. If something emerges to best it, then we know a few other deals must’ve been brokered with Old Scratch.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0292963/usercomments-12