Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A movie about Fox before Fox

I finally saw Network yesterday evening, a movie I was spurred on to watch from being a loyal Digby reader. It was a good movie. I quite liked Dunaway's quirky performance, and even though Holden is a bit too annoying in his "crusty, old, but honest reporter" routine (which yes, is I assume on purpose, but still, annoying), overall the performances were superb. It is a movie about a news anchor (Howard Beale) who gets fired, goes insane, gets mad, gets his job back, and stays mad (in both senses) while making gobs of money for the corporate ownership.

Of course, after Rush Limbaugh and Fox News this movie can seem a bit quaint. I mean, Shocking! Some media guy who gets angry! However, it is prescient in describing how even this, even media criticism will become just another product of the media. After all, Beale is only able to have his O'Reilly show because the corporate lackeys at the station realize the commercial possibilities of his anti-corporate message. It really is surprising how many miss this point in their complaints about the liberal slant of the media. After all, isn't Rush Limbaugh part of the media? In fact a very, very influential part of the media? Or Bill O'Reilly? Or the rest of the Fox crowd? So why is that we only count the so-called liberal media as "media"? Well, it is because we want to be angry. We want to blame someone for the problems we see in the world at large or in our own lives. And why not blame the messenger?

A more general point here about satire. For some reason, many people last year, even respectable movie critics became confused and claimed that Borat was both a really good movie and an interesting satire of American society. Both claims are false. It was funny at points, but it had the same faults that almost every movie based on sketch comedy has--there was no real plot. These movies over and over do the same thing: they take some funny character developed on a comedy show (usually SNL), and for two hours put him through a bunch of loosely connected gags. Look, SNL is sometimes funny, but it is of a different kind than a movie. It is not the short story to a movie's novel.

But more importantly, it was not an interesting satire. Network is a satirical movie. It takes a somewhat ordinary situation and by exaggerating certain characteristics highlights some of the absurdities of human society. Dunaway's talking about media shares while having sex is funny and absurd. Beale's reincarnation as a latter-day prophet is absurd and amusing. This is not what Borat did. There is nothing absurd about stupid or drunk frat boys acting like they're stupid and/or drunk frat kids. You say nothing about the state of feminism when feminists are predictably offended by some guy telling them they are naturally stupid. Pretending to not understand the function of a toilet says nothing to us about Southern civility. Don't get me wrong. These things can be amusing to some. But that is all. The comedy comes because we can't quite believe that someone would really do the things Mr. Cohen does. It is basically just another form of reality television.

Which shows us once again how Network is right in its description of television. When Beale finally loses it on the evening news and starts yelling about how angry he is, he tells the audience that they are confused, that they are what is actually real, and that it is the television that is false. But he has to say this because that is what is being sold by the television: an alternate version of reality, a more exciting and structured reality where everything makes sense by the end of the hour. So it is no surprise at all that in their efforts to give their consumers what they want, an even more convincing illusion of reality, that the corporate owners of the television networks have given us the creative nightmare that is reality television.

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