Network / Brazil
(1976 / 1985)
by Jon Bastian
Two films that were originally wild satires have become documentaries — just another reason they’re both worth repeat viewing.
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Lenny Bruce once said, “Satire is tragedy plus time.” Karl Marx is often paraphrased as saying, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Both comments pertain in reverse to two classic films that have only grown in importance and predictive power in the years since their release. One, Network, a prestige picture written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, won four major Oscars. The other, Brazil, was almost destroyed by its own studio, which had no idea what writer-director Terry Gilliam and co-scribes Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown had wrought. Both films were instant classics. Both films were satires — emphasis on “were.”
A decade or more after their releases, these movies have become documentaries. Far from blunting their power now, that just amps up their brilliance. What were impossibly ridiculous extensions of the trends of their respective times proved to be prophecies.
Network is a deceptively straightforward story. UBS, mythical “fourth” network (back when there were only three) is having problems with its news division. Or, rather, UBS’s corporate owners are having problems, because the news isn’t making them any money. Never mind that the news isn’t supposed to make money. The suits above want to crank a profit out of it, so they do the unthinkable and tear down the sacred wall between the news and entertainment divisions.
Unthinkable? It was at the time, as were the results shown in the film. While old-skool network news president Max Schumacher (William Holden, Sunset Boulevard) is the lone voice crying against the insanity, entertainment vice president Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, Chinatown) is brought in to spice up the news. When insane and alcoholic reporter Howard Beale (Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday) loses it on the air, Christensen’s wheels start turning. Soon, Beale becomes The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves and Christensen’s news show becomes… well, turn on the news nowadays, and you’ll hardly notice a difference.
Against this backdrop, we have what appears to be a side story, older Schumacher’s affair with younger Christensen, which destroys his marriage. But this is no mere digression. It’s an emotional metaphor for what’s happening at the network. When News and Entertainment hop into bed together, it’s the viewer who gets screwed, as trust and commitment go out the window in exchange for the lure of the flashy and profitable. Schumacher momentarily succumbs to one even while fighting the other, but winds up suffering for the sins of both.
The film nabbed Oscars for Chayefsky, Holden and Dunaway, as well as a posthumous award for Finch, who died before the ceremonies that year. Seeing them on screen, there’s no doubt that each of them deserved the awards. Many moments in Network stand out, but perhaps the most chilling for its accuracy is UBS owner Arthur Jensen’s (Ned Beatty, Deliverance) “come to Jesus” meeting with a suddenly reluctant Beale. “There is no America. There is no democracy,” he informs the newsman. “There is only IBM and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.” Think it hasn’t become true? Almost every major media outlet that spews its newsertainment at you is owned by one of three big companies: AOL/Time-Warner, Disney or Viacom. ABC, CBS, the WB and UPN, along with MTV, HBO, Showtime, VH-1, Comedy Central and on and on, all fall under one of those three corporate umbrellas. Only Fox and NBC, among the networks, aren’t part of the big three (yet), but one is owned by a major film studio and the other is still owned by General Electric. When Chayefsky wrote Beatty’s speech, cable didn’t really exist yet, and the three and only networks were each owned by different companies, none of them affiliated with film studios. In comparison, it would seem to be an era of no diversity on the airwaves, but the “diversity” we have now is merely an illusion, smoke and mirrors designed for one simple purpose: gluing asses to chairs and sucking money out of them. Keep this in mind next time you see, say, a glowing review of a Disney movie on ABC.
Network ultimately stretches its premise to great lengths, but with each passing day, the extremes to which Christensen goes to get higher and higher ratings seem less and less outrageous. Ratings are all she lives for and, in fact, literally give her orgasms. True, no network has yet made a deal with a group of revolutionaries to document their crimes — but no news station around will pass up the opportunity to show the same thing, over and over, on surveillance video, and no network in existence wouldn’t jump through hoops for an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden. Remember — they’ve already done that with Charles Manson. Short of the ghost of Hitler and prior to September 11th, who was higher on the Hated by America list?
The finale of the film (and of Beale) is abrupt, disturbing and violent, and brings UBS the highest ratings ever, implying that there is no point at which corporate avarice will stop in the desperate hunt for more, more, more.
Once upon a time, the network news was simple, straight-forward and full of information. It was usually two mature talking-head anchors reading the important events of the day. It may have been dull by today’s standards, but it was loaded with content. Watch Network now, and its satirized versions of Christensen’s news show will look very familiar, with their parade of madmen, psychics and criminals. Where Network missed the mark, ultimately, is in not quite going far enough. Maybe, for all their cynicism, they were still a bit naive about certain things, as we have not a whit of the news functioning as just an advertising arm for other corporate interests. Still, it’s a dead-accurate picture of the decline of TV news. Twenty-six years ago, it was a warning. Now, it’s become an explanation.
* * *
Seventeen years ago, Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam unleashed a visionary film that many describe as the best version of 1984 ever made. It has many of the elements of Orwell’s classic — a repressive, paranoid society; forbidden love; doublethink and torture. It has one element Orwell lacks — jet black humor. It also seemed, at the time and for a long time after, one of the least likely films to ever become true. All of that changed very quickly and, in the course of a few months, Brazil has made the same jump from outrageous satire to stark reality as did Network.
In the world of Brazil, all of the mechanisms of repression and investigation are aimed at one thing: stopping the never-seen terrorists who have been bombing at random. We get the first of several such explosions right at the top of the film. Taken at face value, our characters do seem to be living in a world under siege, with the gigantic bureaucracy benevolently stifling them for their own protection. But watch carefully, and one thing becomes obvious. There are no terrorists. There may never have been any terrorists. All of the mayhem may well be the result of gross incompetence on the part of the overseers. And yet, nobody in the film ever questions the existence of the unseen evil doers.
The spark for Gilliam’s film was London of the 1970s and 80s, a time when IRA bombs were going off willy nilly. It was also inspired by the supercilious and highly inefficient world of British bureaucracy. To emphasize the universality of his satire, the film begins with a title telling us that it’s “Some Time in the 20th Century.” In fact, the design of the film comes from all times in that century, but the warning implied is coming true in the twenty-first.
Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, Evita), a petty bureaucrat who likes it that way. He has no desire to rise through the ranks, quite content to be the right hand man to another minor functionary, the ineffectual Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm, Lord of the Rings). Meanwhile, Sam has incredible flights of fancy in his dreams, where he is a winged and armored warrior saving his ideal love from the Forces of Evil that try to enslave her. When Sam sees his dream woman in real life and realizes advancement is the only way to gain access to the information to find her again, he accepts a promotion offered by an old friend of his father. But, thanks to the computer error that opens the film, Sam gets caught up in bureaucratic ass-covering as everyone tries to deny the existence of a case of mistaken identity that sent an innocent man to his death. It’s a not unfamiliar pattern acting itself out in the news now, as the CIA, FBI and Administration all play the mutual blame game over who should have known what when, and who should have been able to stop those planes. Compare this line from the movie, delivered by government interrogator Jack Lint (Michael Palin, Monty Python): “Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?” Actually, yes, but as long as a man like Lint can deliver his convoluted excuses with a straight face, he can shift the blame elsewhere.
The end result of all this responsibility dodging, though, is that both Sam and his unrequited love, Jill Layton (Kim Greist, C.H.U.D.), are assumed to be terrorists themselves and the full force of the great government machine comes crashing down on them. Sam, the only innocent character in the entire film, becomes another victim of the culture of paranoia and fear.
Dancing around the edges of this story, Gilliam embodies the societal attitude that allows our servants, the government, to become our masters, in the characters of Sam’s mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond, Time Bandits) and her friend, Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks, Up at the Villa). Both women are obsessed with surface and image, going to extremes with plastic surgery to induce arthritis in the creeping hand of time. If they believe their world is crawling with terrorists, they mostly ignore it. A bomb going off mere feet from them at a fancy restaurant merits nary a blink. This is not to say, though, that they aren’t as paranoid as everyone else. When Sam shows up at his mother’s place for a party, liveried security men toss him against the wall and frisk him, same as everyone else.
Gilliam’s point is that the imagination is the only escape from a world where the real terrorists are the people in charge. Quite a lot more of the story than at first seems apparent takes place in Sam’s head, a place that apparently ultimately becomes his sole residence. But there’s danger even in dreams, especially when one mistakes their own great feats of Morphic heroics for what is possible in real life.
Stylistically, Brazil is unique, though often copied. Its design combines everything from pre-WWI fantasy duchy opera costuming to the future as envisioned by Popular Mechanics of the 1930s, and tosses in crazed touches, like the incongruous “Evil Baby” masks, left and right. The males here go about in suits and fedoras like so many carbon copies of the 1950’s The Organization Man, while the women always seem to be dressed in gowns and furs suitable for a night at the theatre in a Preston Sturges comedy. On top of all that, the film is just amazingly shot, frequently in disorienting extreme wide angle, but without the usual distortion. Highlights abound. A frenetic tracking shot brings us from a single piece of paper through the hectic world of Sam’s office and right up to Mr. Kurtzmann’s face, all the while as seemingly hundreds of extras buzz about at breakneck speed. Gigantic concrete columns burst from a bucolic landscape in Sam’s dream with the full weight and majesty of what they purport to be. The mysterious Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro, Bad Company) pulls a rappelling exit that is a sheer insane joy to watch. Jack Lint brings his young daughter to work, giving the discussion he has with Lowry in front of her even more sinister implications than the text provides. All this, and Gilliam tosses in a devastatingly funny parody of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin that (unlike Brian DiPalma’s lame Untouchables attempt) manages to be right on the nose and entirely organic to the scene.
I highly recommend both Network and Brazil. Satire become reality issues aside, they’re both damn good movies. The former sizzles and crackles with excellent actors delivering blistering dialogue under the hand of a master. The latter is the dazzling work of a visionary at the height of his powers.
Brazil also offers a weird bonus, if you happen to get your hands on the beautifully designed Criterion Collection three DVD set, which includes a disk with the so-called “Love Conquers All” version. The sordid saga of the birth of this bastardization is told on the DVDs in “The Battle for Brazil,” but (only) after you watch Gilliam’s cut of the film, observe what the clueless hack Sid Sheinberg did to it. Although this butchering is unwatchable, it provides an object lesson in the point of both films — commerce and integrity do not mix, and the power of imagination is our only weapon against oppression. After all, Gilliam managed to get his vision released, despite all the best efforts of Sheinberg and the suits in Universal’s black tower to come crashing down on it.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce — but accurate satire repeats itself as reality.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter living in his native Los Angeles who longs for the days when every film released can be half as good as either of the above.
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