Sidney Lumet's Classic "Network"

Network

1976
Essay by Greg Ng

Senses of Cinema

The 1970s in Hollywood were a fertile time. The emergence of the director, as a legitimate artist in his or her own right, shifted focus from the studios, which by the ’60s had grown formulaic and unadventurous in their output, to a new generation of writers and directors, whose concerns and experience were markedly different from the conservative voice of the movie industry at that point.

Due in part to falling profits and the rise of television, a vacuum arose in the industry that opened the door for fresh ideas. Hollywood was redirected and, as a result, American cinema entered a new age – an age when box-office success did not necessarily preclude sophisticated content in a movie, an age when political discourse was not relegated to non-existence or tokenism, or a niche-market. The period between 1969 and the beginning of the 1980s saw American cinema, inspired as it was by international filmmaking (such as the French New Wave), offering critical, ambiguous and highly artful movies.

At its most ambitious, the New Hollywood was a movement intended to cut film free of its evil twin, commerce, by enabling it to fly high through the thin air of art. The filmmakers of the ’70s hoped to overthrow the studio system, or at least render it irrelevant, by democratising filmmaking, putting it in the hands of anyone with talent and determination. (1)

However, as the decade passed, the promise of real change receded; the status quo prevailed. As Peter Biskind puts it, in his book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,

although the decade of the 70s contains shining monuments to its great directors, the cultural revolution of that decade, like the political revolution of the 60s, ultimately failed. (2)

Robin Wood, in Hollywood: from Vietnam to Reagan, argues that the Vietnam War, among other things, focussed Western society’s dissenting voices, simultaneously discrediting ‘the system’ and emboldening the dissenters. However, like Biskind, Wood acknowledges “this generalized crisis in ideological confidence never issued in revolution. No coherent social/economic program emerged.” (3)

Commercial imperatives once more came to play their part in shaping the output of the industry, as previously fêted directors suffered box office losses and investment money turned to more secure propositions. Thus, a central tenet of political economy – i.e., the inherent censorship of the mass market – prevailed. Ironically, one of the films that stands as a testament to ’70s Hollywood’s freedom and ambition, Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), depicts precisely this phenomenon.

Network is an example of a hugely successful and critically acclaimed feature film that offers a critique of television, ideology, radical chic and the consequences of American-led post-war capitalism, whilst being funny – no mean feat, and something only barely achieved in the current day by the likes of Michael Moore, et al.

Lumet’s direction and Paddy Chayefsky’s script lambaste the ills of the modern world (couched within the fast-paced soliloquies delivered by the stellar cast of Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and William Holden) and are oft times prescient, predicting the rise of ‘reality television’, and the subsequent decline of both production and social values.

One of the central themes of Network – the decay of society and of love, concurrent with a plunge in standards and morality of the audience, which represents the world (in keeping with the mindset of both the film and its characters) – proves salutary in explaining what happened to Hollywood after the ’70s. Just as the collapse of the old studio system in the ’60s was precipitated by a change in demography and values, so too has a drift toward social conservatism and the continuing project of marketising everything affected our age.

When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the ageing news anchor for Union Broadcasting System, is fired due to poor ratings, he announces to his friend and network executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he intends to “blow my brains out, right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o’clock news” (4).

Schumacher replies, “You’ll get a hell of a rating. I’ll guarantee you that. 50 share, easy.” He facetiously begins to run with the idea: “We could make a series out of it. ‘Suicide of the Week.’ Oh, hell, why limit ourselves: ‘Execution of the week.’” Continue reading Sidney Lumet's Classic "Network"

Nothing Sucks Worse Than The Post Office — Except for Kinko's

NATE SILVER IN FIVE THIRTY-EIGHT

Paul Krguman compares his experience at the Post Office to that at FedEx and UPS:

Art Laffer (why is he, of all people, on my TV?) asks what it will be like when the government runs Medicare and Medicaid.

But I’d raise a further question: he warns that when the government takes over these, um, government programs, they’ll be like the Post Office and the DMV. Why, exactly, are these public functions unquestioned bywords for “something bad”?

Maybe I’m living a sheltered life here in central New Jersey, but I don’t find the Post Office a terrible experience — no worse than Fedex or UPS. (Full disclosure: I worked as a temp mailman when in college.) And nobody likes going to the DMV, but the one on Rt. 1 I go to always seems fairly well managed.

Maybe things are different in New Jersey, but my couple of experiences at the Post Office since moving to Brooklyn a few months ago have been really awful. The first time I went, to mail out my tax forms on April 15th, I had to stand in line for the better part of 20 minutes to buy a couple of stamps. The second time, when I had to mail out some forms for a passport renewal, the clerk “serving” me decided literally without warning or apology half-way through processing my forms that it was time for her break; it took a good 15 minutes, with most of my personal documents slid conspicuously under her window, before someone came to relieve her. The third time, when I had to send some corporate documents to Albany for my consulting business, things were going smoothly enough — until I actually had to fill out the shipping receipt, and discovered that there were literally no working pens available in the entire building. I had to go across the street and buy one.

There’s probably only one customer service experience that is routinely as bad as the Post Office: FedEx Kinko’s.

The last time I went to FedEx Kinko’s, the black & white printer was broken, the fax machine was broken, and the “high-speed” Internet connection — which I was being charged for by the minute — was about as fast as a dial-up line in Ulan Bator. And then I had to stand in line for 15 minutes to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege of having my time wasted. The clerks at the Court Street Kinko’s are actually quite sweet — but the location is chronically understaffed and undermaintained on one of the busier commercial thoroughfares in the Five Boroughs. There are also the simple things that FedEx Kinko’s doesn’t get right: why do I have to fill out shipping forms by hand — invariably transposing the ZIP+4 or something and having to start over again — instead of by computer, when the clerk has to key in everything I’ve written down anyway? This is the nineties 21st Century, damnit. FedEx does an admirable job of delivering packages — but the retail experience is a real black eye for the company.

And apparently, I’m not alone in these experiences. Yelp.com has compiled 237 ratings for a total of 67 distinct USPS locations throughout the New York City area. The average rating, on a scale of 1 to 5, is a 2.29. As Yelp raters tend to be fairly generous with most things, this is really bad. But the ratings for FedEx Kinko’s are even worse: an average rating of 2.07 (n=78). The UPS Store, at least, gets somewhat more decent marks (an avergae rating of 2.70), which matches my experiences, although UPS has a somewhat hipper brand and Yelp is notorious for having a pro-hipster bias.

All kidding aside, I do think the Post Office creates some small, residual level of disdain for the idea of government-run services. The level of funding seems manifestly suboptimal and probably ought to be increased. But if every private-sector business were run as badly as FedEx Kinko’s, we’d all be frickin’ Communists in no time.

FreedomWorks President Admits it Urges People to be "Agressive" at Health Care Town Halls

Republicans Propagating Falsehoods in Attacks on Health-Care Reform

WASHINGTON POST

doughy pantload

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, August 7, 2009

As a columnist who regularly dishes out sharp criticism, I try not to question the motives of people with whom I don’t agree. Today, I’m going to step over that line.

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they’ve given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They’ve become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress — I’ve made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation.

Under any plan likely to emerge from Congress, the vast majority of Americans who are not old or poor will continue to buy health insurance from private companies, continue to get their health care from doctors in private practice and continue to be treated at privately owned hospitals.

The centerpiece of all the plans is a new health insurance exchange set up by the government where individuals, small businesses and eventually larger businesses will be able to purchase insurance from private insurers at lower rates than are now generally available under rules that require insurers to offer coverage to anyone regardless of health condition. Low-income workers buying insurance through the exchange — along with their employers — would be eligible for government subsidies. While the government will take a more active role in regulating the insurance market and increase its spending for health care, that hardly amounts to the kind of government-run system that critics conjure up when they trot out that oh-so-clever line about the Department of Motor Vehicles being in charge of your colonoscopy.

There is still a vigorous debate as to whether one of the insurance options offered through those exchanges would be a government-run insurance company of some sort. There are now less-than-even odds that such a public option will survive in the Senate, while even House leaders have agreed that the public plan won’t be able to piggy-back on Medicare. So the probability that a public-run insurance plan is about to drive every private insurer out of business — the Republican nightmare scenario — is approximately zero.

By now, you’ve probably also heard that health reform will cost taxpayers at least a trillion dollars. Another lie.

First of all, that’s not a trillion every year, as most people assume — it’s a trillion over 10 years, which is the silly way that people in Washington talk about federal budgets. On an annual basis, that translates to about $140 billion, when things are up and running.

Even that, however, grossly overstates the net cost to the government of providing universal coverage. Other parts of the reform plan would result in offsetting savings for Medicare: reductions in unnecessary subsidies to private insurers, in annual increases in payments rates for doctors and in payments to hospitals for providing free care to the uninsured. The net increase in government spending for health care would likely be about $100 billion a year, a one-time increase equal to less than 1 percent of a national income that grows at an average rate of 2.5 percent every year.

The Republican lies about the economics of health reform are also heavily laced with hypocrisy.

While holding themselves out as paragons of fiscal rectitude, Republicans grandstand against just about every idea to reduce the amount of health care people consume or the prices paid to health-care providers — the only two ways I can think of to credibly bring health spending under control.

When Democrats, for example, propose to fund research to give doctors, patients and health plans better information on what works and what doesn’t, Republicans sense a sinister plot to have the government decide what treatments you will get. By the same wacko-logic, a proposal that Medicare pay for counseling on end-of-life care is transformed into a secret plan for mass euthanasia of the elderly.

Government negotiation on drug prices? The end of medical innovation as we know it, according to the GOP’s Dr. No. Reduce Medicare payments to overpriced specialists and inefficient hospitals? The first step on the slippery slope toward rationing.

Can there be anyone more two-faced than the Republican leaders who in one breath rail against the evils of government-run health care and in another propose a government-subsidized high-risk pool for people with chronic illness, government-subsidized community health centers for the uninsured, and opening up Medicare to people at age 55?

Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society — whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.

If health reform is to be anyone’s Waterloo, let it be theirs.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at pearlsteins@washpost.com.