As the old adage goes, life imitates art, and one of the best (and most depressing) examples of that is the classic movie Network. Released in 1976, the film predicted with eerie accuracy the advent of shock-value news, reality TV and many other deplorable trends in our consumption of news.
So who better to talk about the movie and the legacy of its screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, than arts reporter Dave Itzkoff – whose book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies was released this month – and The Newsroom scribe Aaron Sorkin. At their chat at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills last night, Sorkin said he was more than happy to speak with the “only other person who cares as much as [he does]” about the film.]
The night was about two writers geeking out over their favorite movie. Itzkoff shared gems about its creation. Fun facts: Peter Finch only shot a take and a half of the famous “I'm mad as hell” scene. And Chayefsky was partly inspired by a moment when he, Mel Brooks and Bob Fosse were out to lunch, and Brooks called up a network executive, pretending to be the long-dead Bertolt Brecht. Brooks pitched a pilot for the network executive, and the absurdity of the situation helped inform Chayefsky's approach to Faye Dunaway's character, Diana Christensen, and the movie's fictional Mao Tse-Tung Hour.
There was also plenty of discussion about the film's cast, and those who weren't cast in the film. Paul Newman was offered any part he wanted to play, but he did not accept, possibly because, as Itzkoff pointed out, there was already a sense in Hollywood that this would be a controversial movie. The pair also discussed how Roberts Blossom, who is perhaps best known as the elderly neighbor in Home Alone, was originally cast as the network executive who appears to Finch's Howard Beale and explains that the world is a business. Chayefsky didn't agree with Blossom's interpretation, however, and Ned Beatty was cast instead.
The night took a somber turn during the discussion the death of Peter Finch, who died in 1977, just before his performance won him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Actor. He died of a heart attack while musing on a George Carlin routine about the sudden nature of death – it was in a manner very similar to the way his character's collapses on stage in the movie.
Offset by clips from the movie, Itzkoff and Sorkin were happy to show off their knowledge, particularly in front of an appreciative audience (the film's producer, Howard Gottfried, and editor, Alan Heim, were in attendance as well). Perhaps most interesting, though, were the connections made between the world the film was made in and today's culture. The night's most impassioned moment came when Sorkin decried Twitter. While outrage on Twitter is the closest parallel that can be drawn to leaning out the window and screaming “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore,” Sorkin lamented how digital communication has hurt interpersonal relations. As he explained, when you see someone standing on their balcony screaming, you immediately have a fleeting feeling for who they are as a person, but when their rage is constrained to 140 characters next to a 48×48 pixel avatar, that connection is lost.
After an hour, the discussion opened up to questions from the audience. One audience member brought up the idea that younger generations are starting to view Network less as a satire, and more as a straight drama, given that the movie depicts the world the way that they've always known it. But Itzkoff was adamant that there is no “wrong generation” for the film.
Inevitably, the focus shifted to the audience's interest in Sorkin and his works. In response to Sorkin wishing that Chayefsky were still around to write The Internet, a Network-style take on the World Wide Web, one audience member told him that that movie exists, and it's called The Social Network, which was written by Sorkin.
Though the night was designed to promote Itzkoff's book, he gracefully accepted that the audience had more questions for Sorkin, bringing to mind a moment from the film when Howard Beale asks the God-like Arthur Jensen, “Why me?” and Jensen responds, “Because you're on television, dummy.”
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