Bright Lights Film Journal

All the World’s a Stage and Every Revolutionary a Commodity: Network and Its Progeny

Network

The challenge is to convince the suits who kept recycling dramas about state-legitimized violence to get on board with the notion that counterculture or revolutionary violence can also sell. When Diana mandates “I want anti-establishment,” she is underscoring a new paradigm: the image of being anti-establishment is now an establishment cash cow.

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 “And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, – melt itself into the sea!”
King Henry IV, Part 2, Act III. Scene I

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The revolution of our times is a sales pitch. It is trying to seduce us from every screen, billboard, and website. Big brother of the society of spectacle resides in the corners of our hearts, and in the public “dream life of the culture.”1 We have learned to love revolution.

The Rubicon of the age of revolution-as-entertainment can be traced to the film Network (1976), which set a template for the world we still live in. That is, the upheaval we either feared or longed for – the metaphorical leveling of mountains that King Henry saw coming – has been defanged and made into a commodity. That revolutionary object of desire has been converted into a can’t-lose cash cow. But let’s start in the present and work our way back to that visionary cinema, Reality TV 1.0.

While working this past year as an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, every day I saw a T-Mobile billboard facing the Medalla brewery. It featured a black man shouting into a megaphone, with the message: “Rompe las reglas. Libérate.”

That translates as “Break the rules: free yourself.” The man’s pose evoked free speech or civil rights protests of the 1960s. Mario Savio calling on students to throw themselves against the gears of the machine. . . . Or Malcolm X declaiming “by any means necessary.” But the machine now was just another corporation, and revolution had been reduced to consumer choice.

“Liberation has begun”

T-Mobile’s Puerto Rico campaign was introduced with the slogan “Liberation has begun,” and the admonition to “break the rules” – that is, free yourself from the bondage of other corporations. As of mid-2015, the slogan has shifted to “The liberation continues.” By breaking other corporate rules, the “freedom” that T-Mobile promises can be achieved. The ads feature young people striking “fighter” poses, jumping, shouting into megaphones, raising fists rebelliously, and in general looking casually hip, while performing a revolutionary smackdown of other corporations that, unlike T-Mobile, were not “un-carriers.”

My instincts told me that it was important that the giant ad in Mayagüez featured an African American (or perhaps Afro-Caribbean) man. But as can be seen above on a Los Angeles billboard and below on a Puerto Rican web ad, the message of “freedom” achieved through a corporate-directed “rebellion” against other corporations is clearly pictured as transcultural.

It is impossible to overstate how dominant the word/concept “revolutionary” has become in contemporary commercial culture. While sitting with an espresso from Mesón, Puerto Rico’s home-grown fast-food chain, just outside Caribbean Cinema, I saw a TV ad for “Revolution Suits.” “Revoluciónate con estilo,” it said. Revolutionize yourself with style.

As research for my courses on the film and literature of revolutions, I recently watched Divergent. It is a poor film, but an instructive look at how “revolutionary” is being marketed to teens. That is, “they” want to force you into a box, a factional straitjacket. But those who break free can create a new world – if they are photogenic and able to use assault weapons, martial arts, and other items in an arsenal ranging from computer programming to knives or arrows.

In Catching Fire from the Hunger Games franchise, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is described as the “beacon of hope for the rebellion” who therefore must be eliminated (as the Divergents must be eliminated). The movie ends with Katniss being told by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after being lifted into a hovercraft: “This is the revolution . . . and you are the Mockingjay.” The cringes induced by Hoffman’s monotone cliché multiply as that premise is developed in the third film, now employing a computer-generated “late Hoffman.”2 But however bad Mockingjay may be as credible cinema, it expresses our era’s understanding of revolution: it is performed on screen. If it is not seen (both by “oppressors and the oppressed”), then it has no meaning. Katniss performs a stage-managed role as the face of the underground rebellion: she is revolutionized with style. The people being destroyed around her are just backdrop to the spectacle being beamed back into The Capitol. Both those in the decadent head of the empire and the rebels resisting The Capitol seem entranced by images of romantic bravery. Both are doing versions of Wag the Dog – manipulating reality via digital stagecraft.

If the young have their screen versions of “uniting the factions and fomenting revolution” (Tron: Legacy), so do those who can remember when putting bodies on the line to be a “counter-friction against the machine” (Thoreau) was something more than an entertainment spectacle. One example is Robert Redford’s version of The Friends You Keep (2013). A minor movie, but a good novel that is part of the emergent “Coming in from the Cold” genre.3

The real-life references are getting harder to uncover, buried under all the merchandising. But occasionally that repressed revolutionary past resurfaces. In May 2013, the news was full of reports about Joanne Chesimard, neé Byron, aka Assanta Shakur, as the first woman to be added to the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list. Chesimard (godmother of slain rap legend Tupac Shakur) was a former “mother hen” of the Black Liberation Army. After escaping from prison in 1979, she went underground, and has lived in exile in Cuba since 1984.

Assanta Shakur: Image from New Jersey Dept. of Corrections

Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs in Network

Shakur could be Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield) in Network (1976), the Sidney Lumet-directed Paddy Chayefsky-scripted classic that satirizes the conquest of the “society of spectacle.” All of human affairs are now (in the mid-1970s film’s vantage) weighed only for their capacity to get higher ratings. Network foresaw how the entertainment industry would co-opt and commodify all forms of dissent, including supposedly anti-systemic radicals like the Black Liberation Army.

NETWORK REDUX

I show excerpts of Network to students, to help them visualize how 1970s oppositional figures as diverse as Daniel Ellsberg, the Weather Underground, and Patty Hearst helped usher in the era of a “mediacracy”4 in which “counterculture became cool,”5 and gestures of opposition to the “mainstream” were quickly repackaged as lucrative commodities.

Although the cultural and political references of Network are very mid-1970s, the film has remained remarkably contemporary. My students who blogged about Network were surprised at how relevant it remains. Like enduring works of art (say a Bob Marley song, or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea), it reveals something new on every viewing, listen, or reading.6

When I rewatched Network recently, I was struck by how Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), two characters from different generations who are supposedly in conflict about the purpose of TV news, essentially share the same vision. They have no disagreement on the desirability of violence and mayhem as the best way to drive up ratings. “Terrorist of the Week” is what Howard Beale (Peter Finch) offers as the theme of a weekly program, after he is sacked for declining ratings, gets drunk with his boss Max, and contemplates blowing his brains out on the evening news. “I love it,” Max says, and offers this soliloquy: “Suicides. Assassinations. Mad bombers. Mafia hit men. Automobile smashups. The Death Hour. Great Sunday night show for the whole family.” Family fare that will “wipe . . . Disney right off the air,” he fantasizes.

It’s just that Diana (the new generation) imagines that this well-entrenched reliance on violence to drive up/sustain ratings must now wear the clothes of the counterculture, “the revolutionary underground,” and specifically, black revolutionaries.

In the mid-1970s, King Henry’s continent-melting “revolution” was everywhere evident. Let me pause to acknowledge that, historically, Shakespeare’s use of “revolution of the times,” or the “fine revolution” of Hamlet’s dialogue with a gravedigger, likely refers to “the wheel of fortune or the whirligig of time,” as Kiernan Ryan writes in Shakespeare’s Universality (2015). Yet the language seems prophetic. “Shakespeare at times seems to ‘hear’ inside a word or phrase the history of its future echoes.”7

The UBS war room

Network’s first scene in the UBS newsroom – a “War Room” in which a sort of set list is written, determining the order and emphasis of the evening news – reveals the true priorities of network news. Even old-school newsmen and women have internalized a news-as-spectacle model. They are following the lead of a culture in which violence is pervasive and the posturing of would-be revolutionaries has become routine. Once viewers glimpse the context that these newspeople work in, their obsessive focus on revolution and violence is understandable.

As the cameras zoom in on the UBS news brain trust, we hear that the lead story will be Sara Jane Moore’s assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford (with only 10 seconds devoted to the shooting itself). There was a follow-up on Squeaky Fromme, the Charles Manson devotee who tried to assassinate Ford only 17 days earlier. The other content of that evening’s news is: “Gun control. Patty Hearst affidavit. Guerrillas in Chad. OPEC in Vienna.”

Violence rules, revolutionaries are coming out of the woodwork, and talk of controlling guns is cheap, as always, and hopeless. Sara Jane Moore had been obsessed with Patti Hearst. She seems to have been smitten by the romance of revolution, even sympathizing with Manson.8 In short, Moore suffered from certain delusions that seemed characteristic of the era. She is a fitting real-life backdrop to the fictional melodrama that unfolds in the UBS studios.

The faces have changed, but the song remains the same. At the top of the news, President Ford decries “those who want to undercut all that is good in America.” Clearly, political rhetoric is no match for the routine lunacy of U.S. life, as staged for the mass media, or as performed in popular culture. As soon as he is on camera, Howard Beale announces that he is going to blow his brains out on the show the following Tuesday. This will give the PR department, he notes, ample time to hype the spectacle. “We ought to get a hell of a rating out of that.”

Peter Finch as Howard Beale

Back to the future, and my claim that Network set a template we still follow: Katniss’ minders are all about using violence, or the rhetoric of “real revolutionaries,” to cut through “regularly scheduled programming” in order to redirect viewers to a different spectacle. In this sense, Hunger Games is progeny of the Patty Hearst saga – as prefigured by Network. The Hearst story, so central to Network’s Rubicon moment, has developed its own afterlife in American film and literature, as in Robert Stone’s brilliant documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.9

In Network, the old-school news division is not pulling its weight. The new corporate owners of UBS swoop in. Diana Christensen is their point woman in the changing of the guard. The day after the Beale announcement, Diana is in a screening room with Max, where they see footage of an “Ecumenical Liberation Army,” who not only robbed a bank, à la the SLA, but “took movies of the rip-off while they were ripping it off,” as Diana says.

Christensen has an epiphany about the commercial potential of what she sees as “authentic stuff.” “Maybe they’ll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, hijacking 747s, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors.” She improvises the TV version of events – each week of the series will open with a section of the “authentic” footage, and a couple of writers will be hired to dramatize the story behind the footage. Voilà. Reality TV 1.0.

Diana’s producers are skeptical, but she sees how her brainchild would fit with existing programming: “They’ve got Strike Force, Task Force, S.W.A.T. Why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?” The challenge is to convince the suits who kept recycling dramas about state-legitimized violence to get on board with the notion that counterculture or revolutionary violence can also sell. When Diana mandates “I want anti-establishment,” she is underscoring a new paradigm: the image of being anti-establishment is now an establishment cash cow.

Faye Dunaway as Diane Christensen

“This is the revolution,” indeed. The myth of news as a prestige division was still in play in 1976, but news-as-entertainment, featuring violence and rebellion, was already the norm. I am reminded of a scene in Bug’s Life: some fat bugs have wandered into a traveling insect circus; they are about to leave when pyrotechnics produced by a box of matches causes them to exclaim “wow!” and to return wide-eyed to their seats.10 Such was Diana’s reaction on seeing the footage of black revolutionaries and an heiress robbing a bank: Wow! This will grab people’s attention!

THE ROMANCE OF REVOLUTION, NETWORK STYLE

Diana, the beautiful program director on Network, is an entrepreneur with a new script: “The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, depression, they’ve turned off, shot up and fucked themselves limp and nothing helps . . . the American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.”

Network is most famous for the rage articulated by Howard Beale: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” This becomes the mantra of a profitable entertainment hour that replaces “the news.” Beale, the mad prophet, “inveighs against the hypocrisies of our time,” then “passes out” live, on cue. But the film’s more biting satire is about the role of black revolutionaries in creating a prime-time version of the “romance of revolution.”

“I want a show developed based on the activities of a terrorist group,” Diana instructs her underlings. They start with Laureen Hobbs, who Diana had just seen in the screening room. Laureen is cut from the cloth of Angela Davis, and perhaps Assanta Shakur – a striking, stylish, Afro-adorned female black revolutionary. The “clip” that introduces her, fittingly, shows Hobbs on David Susskind, droning on about the “consolidation of revolutionary, radical, and democratic movements.” Such Marxist-speak is not fit for prime time. But the footage of the Black Liberation Army robbing a bank, aided by the blond heiress Mary Ann Gifford (Kathy Kronite)?

This is not to be confused with Patty Hearst and the SLA, Diana’s California liaison Bill Herron (Darryl Hickman) notes. Then when Herron remarks, “There’s a hell of a lot of liberation armies in the revolutionary underground,”11 a light goes on in Diana’s head. The revolutionary underground is ready-made for programming that demands a ransom from advertisers!

In Hollywood, Diana meets Hobbs, who is escorted by lawyers. Hobbs responds to Diana’s tongue-in-cheek self-description as “a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles” by calling herself “a bad-ass commie nigger.” That is “the basis of a firm friendship,” Diana says – anticipating President Obama’s self-deprecating humor to skewer the delusions of the hard right: “I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”12 Being styled as a commie nigger or a foreign Muslim socialist may feed conspiracy theories amongst conservative whites, yet it is also grist for the mill for the entertainment industry. Both the romance of revolution and the hallucinatory hatred of hardcore American nativists can be milked.

Diana’s sell to Laureen – as mediator between the mass media and black revolutionaries – is not so different from her sell to Max. After promising Laureen a hands-off attitude toward the politics of their reality show, she observes that a prime-time TV soapbox sure beats “handing out pamphlets on street corners.” Laureen gets it. So do the underground black revolutionaries, as is evident in a hilarious scene in which network representatives, black revolutionaries, and lawyers all sit down to hash out the percentages of profit they will each get from their hit show.

But Max is a Quixotic figure who believes his fantasies about the “sanctity” of his news division. When Diana comes to him at night in his office, proposing to be partners in a makeover of his news show (while bedding him), he is so sanctimonious that she has to set him straight:

I watched your 6 O’clock news show today – it’s straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park. On the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crimes, sports. . . . So I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you’re right down in the street soliciting audiences like the rest of us.

William Holden as Max Schumacher

It’s not hard to read Max as the most delusional figure in the film (Beale aside), whereas “marginal” characters like black communists and black revolutionaries immediately “get it.” By contrast, while Diana may be in thrall to an “insane script,” her “delusions” are entirely in sync with the zeitgeist – the symbiotic relationship between mass media and society, which feed off of (and successfully market) the appearance of difference, resistance, and revolution.

The film’s satire of the mainstreaming of the romance of revolution reaches a level of delicious delirium when Max and Diana escape to a seaside motel. Diana’s monologue about the Ecumenical Liberation Army heightens her peculiar auto-eroticism. This is easy to miss, since the visuals may lead us to focus on the satire of Diana’s male-like tendency to self-absorption and premature ejaculation. But Diana’s words (and Max says not a word) are in fact a metanarrative about how the media and the political structure clash over how to deal with/represent non-state purveyors of violence. This triangular relationship forms a sort of soundtrack, and maybe a reigning script, for how we experience romance in our era.

The power that comes with higher ratings is a force that Diana believes can trump the power of law. As they undress, Diana reframes the “pain in the ass”: they are paying “those nuts from the ELA $10,000 a week in order to turn authentic film footage of their revolutionary activities.” That is a minor expense, compared to the potentially bigger hit they would take for being charged with being an “inducement to a crime” (they may “all wind up in federal prison”).

As her sexual passion increases, so does Diana’s rhetorical conviction that her prime-time revolution is unstoppable. As they finish undressing and lay down, she exclaims: “Let the federal government sue us, we’ll take them to the Supreme Court.” Then as they kiss, she names the press that would cover their battle against the political and legal establishment: the “counterculture terrorist” show will be “front page news for months.”

The interplay between sexual passion and media/political rhetoric escalates as she mounts Max. As Diana moves toward climax, her vision of entertainment news also achieves its glory: “We’ll have more press than Watergate.” She winds her hips, and at the thought of beating the feds and winning the ratings race in one fell swoop, she comes.

In addition to burlesquing the romance of revolution in the entertainment industry, this scene also skewers white liberals. Diana’s view that the audience “is hungry for someone to articulate their rage” reveals the degree to which revolutionaries in general and black radicals in particular have penetrated the psychosexual fantasy life of white liberals during this era. That dynamic spread out into a more multiethnic fantasy life in subsequent generations.

THE NEW EVANGEL: THE MARKET AS GOD

The “face of God” speech by CEO Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) converts Beale – fatally, as it turns out – to a belief in the quasi-religious power of multinational corporations. After Beale had gotten wind of a bigger story – how a Saudi conglomerate is buying out the Communication Corporation of America, which converted the news hour at UBS into a ratings bonanza – Jensen takes Beale into the boardroom to sell him the “new evangel.” The sanctuary-like setting, and Jensen’s churchical words, corroborate Laura Marks’ observation of how “without a shred of the beauty of religion, a certain transcendentalism animates contemporary corporate-futurist understandings” of how new media functions.13

“You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples,” Jensen tells Beale. But “there are no nations. . . . There is only one holistic system of systems. . . . One multinational dominion of dollars.” The market “determines the totality of life on this planet” and is “the natural order of things today,” Jensen says. Within that context of the market-as-god,14 Beale has “meddled with the primal forces of nature,” and so he must do penance.

In Jensen’s “evangel,” the “howling” of the mass media about America and democracy is entirely irrelevant. “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T,” etc. Positing corporations as the true “nations of the world today,” Jensen arrives at a luminous vision that is eerily similar to fundamentalist visions of the rapture and the end of days. Rather than famine and war, the corporate takeover of the world will ensure that citizens are replaced by consumers, who take their place, in Jensen’s words, in “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 the stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

Beale, who has felt that he is “connected to some great living, unseen force – what I think the Hindus call Prana” (as he tells Max), imagines with Jensen looming over him in this corporate Valhalla that he has “seen the face of God.” And Jensen encourages him in this belief.

In the end, there are forces (a revolutionary spirit?) that corporations, media magnates, and politicians cannot control. When Beale preaches the new corporate gospel, audiences flee in boredom or horror. This is not entertainment. The CCA brain trust arranges for Beale to be shot on live TV – contracting with the gunmen of the Ecumenical Liberation Army. (Note that both the black revolutionaries and the corporate CEOs aspire to be ecumenical.) This ending brings to mind a line from Vicente Aranda’s Spanish Civil War film Libertarias (1998), of needing to come to understand “how many ways there are to kill.” The oppositional spirit of Beale may have been co-opted, and his body killed, but clearly the hunger for “revolutionary rage” (or revolutionary fashion) lives on.

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Note: Above clips are reposted from public YouTube videos. Images, unless otherwise indicated, are screenshots from Network.

  1. “Advertising is the dream life of the culture.” from “The Ad and the Ego.” Quote by Sut Jhally, author of The Codes of Advertising, in The Ad and the Ego (Parallax Films, 1997). Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle. First published in French in 1967; translation by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Black & Red, 1970); translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone, 1994). A 2002 translation by Ken Knabb, later published in England by Rebel Press in 2005, is available online/ []
  2. Adam Wernick, “When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died, Hunger Games was not finished. Enter his computer double.” PRI (March 13, 2014). []
  3. The “Coming in from the Cold” designation is from my own, yet-unpublished studies of Bob Dylan’s documentary Eat the Document and Hari Kunzru’s novel My Revolutions. Adam Kelly places Eat the Document within this emergent genre, without naming it, in “‘Who Is Responsible?’ Revisiting the Radical Years,” in Forever Young – The Changing Images of America, ed. by Philip Coleman and Stephen Matterson (Heidelberg: EAAS, 2012), pp. 219-230. []
  4. A first mainstream use of “mediacracy” appeared a year before Network: Kevin P. Phillips, Mediacracy: American Parties and Politics in the Communications Age (Doubleday, 1975). []
  5. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago Press, 1997). []
  6. Gregory Stephens with Janice Cools, “‘Out Too Far’”: Half-Fish, Beaten Men, and the Tenor of Masculine Grace in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway Review (Spring 2013). []
  7. Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution. Bloomsbury Arden, 2015. This is a non-paginated, pre-release version of the book online. The quote about Shakespeare “hearing . . . future echoes” is from George Steiner’s book After Babel, and is cited by Ryan. []
  8. Geri Spieler, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). []
  9. Robert Stone, dir., Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Docurama/Magnolia, 2005). For an excellent analysis of the Hearst saga as a Rubicon-like transition, see William Graebner, Patty’s Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America (University of Chicago Press, 2008). []
  10. John Lasseter and Sharon Calahan, dirs., Bug’s Life (Pixar, 1998). The film is based loosely on the Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” []
  11. Paddy Chayefsky, The Screenplays: The Hospital, Network, and Altered States (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2000), 135. I use Warner Brothers’ 2006 “Special Edition” of Network. []
  12. The quote is from Obama’s speech at the Correspondents’ Dinner in May 2013. See Ben Yagoda, “The Comic Stylings of POTUS,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 6, 2013). []
  13. Laura U. Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Geneaology of New Media Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), p. 18. []
  14. Harvey Cox, “The Market as God: Living in the New Dispensation,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1999). []