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Connection: director (Sidney Lumet)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight
121 minutes, R
I’ve been sitting on this entry for many, many months. Mostly because my rewatch of this film– my first viewing in more than a decade– revealed that this film doesn’t resonate with me as it once did. I haven’t– through numerous stops and starts on the subject– really found anything written-word worthy to say. I don’t have a memory that I can share about a person I might have seen it with or an anecdote about an event in my life that I am reminded of when I watch it. It just is. Nothing more than an acclaimed film that I once thought I really loved, but have grown indifferent to over time.
I can tell you that I saw it for the first time in that same first-level screenwriting class where the professor accused me of plagiarising Three O’ Clock High. I saw it a second time in a film appreciation class two semesters later– the highlighted example for a week spent discussing screenplay. I can tell you that I saw it once in a movie theatre, as a double-feature with Dog Day Afternoon, another classic film that 1) is also directed by Sidney Lumet and 2) did legitimately kick me square in the feels the first time I saw it. I have a very vague memory of it playing in the background while Sara and I smoked pot with Dave, but we weren’t really paying attention to it. We had only put it on as stoner background noise because Dave was constantly saying that he “was mad as hell and not gonna take this anymore” whenever he wanted to pretend that something had made him upset and he was sick to death of Sara not having any idea what he was talking about. I own the film on DVD, but the full disclosure there is that, when I went to watch it again in order to prepare for writing about it, I had to cut the plastic open. This movie that I loved enough to want to own still had a Circuit City price tag on it and had never been opened. Circuit City has been closed since 2009.
When I watched this film in order to prepare for this entry (the first time, I mean), I was in a Quality Inn in Centralia, WA. I had been sent halfway across the country on a work assignment. We were in the midst of a pandemic, however, and so anything outside of going to work and vegetating in our hotel was out of the question. I had brought several movies with me on the trip, hoping to find time to write entries while I was sheltered-in-place. Among them was Three Mules For Sister Sara (which I did as part of the ongoing Eastwood series) and the next three films in the ongoing labyrinth. The first of those films I watched– Network– made my progress on the blog come to a screaming halt. I knew before I had even finished the screening that I was going to have to revamp the entire trajectory of the labyrinth if I was going to maintain the advertised intention of the blog. Network was not inspiring me to write anything of value.
This failed attempt to make the creative juices flow happened six months ago in July. I have made more than a couple of attempts to write about this film, attempting to rejuvenate the conceit that makes my blog, in my opinion, unique among an internet full of credible movie blogs, but those attempts were never up to the standards that I have set for myself when even considering whether a written piece is appropriate for public consumption. These repeated attempts to force this film to be of value to me were only serving to make me second guess why I ever liked the film in the first place. Strangely, it was making me second guess why I have ever liked any film I have ever loved. There are movies that I genuinely do not like that I was finding merit in far beyond any merit I was finding in Network. At some point through all of this second guessing my taste in film and my abilities to write about them, my constant questioning of a film that I have held in such regard for such a long time, I began to realize that it wasn’t the film itself that I related to. It was never about the film. It was never about its message. It had nothing to do with characters I could relate to or a situation with which I could empathize. I was drawn– completely and wholly– to an expertly-delivered line of dialogue, a line of dialogue that in and of itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s narrative and themes. A line of dialogue that perfectly encapsulated how I felt about myself and my life one hundred percent of every day that passed. A line of dialogue that expressed, without the slightest margin of error, a sad fact that I was unable to admit about myself.
I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.
We’ll come back to this line of dialogue. We’ll come back to that anger, an anger that defined me for the first thirty-some years of my life. This entry is, make no question, about anger, and it will not, in the end, paint me in the most positive of lights, but if writing is not sometimes catharsis, then I’m not always sure what purpose it serves.
First, let’s briefly describe and discuss the film. The film centers around a fictitious television news network that is trying to save itself in the ratings by hiring a younger news anchor to appeal to a younger demographic. This comes as shocking news to their current anchor Howard Beale (played by an incredible Peter Finch), who derails the network’s plan by announcing on the air that he will be committing suicide at the end of an upcoming broadcast. Seeing the potential for a ratings goldmine, the relatively new vice-president of programming (played by Faye Dunaway), decides to use Howard’s depression and lunatic ravings to further her own career.
Network was nominated for ten Academy Awards. It won four (Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay). The Best Supporting Actress award went to Beatrice Straight, who took home an Oscar with only five minutes of screen time. With just that information alone, it should be obvious why the film is so highly-regarded and taken so seriously. On paper, it certainly seems like it has some pedigree. I had certainly spent a large portion of my movie-going life quite enamored of it.
I was actually somewhat excited to be watching it again when I sat down in my hotel room to revisit it. It had, after all, been a long time since I had seen it. I struggled with it, however; I found myself checking my phone to read the news. The notes I was taking in my notebook were all remarkably negative. This movie I was so excited to be viewing was revealing itself to be poorly-paced, melodramatically-executed, and actually somewhat boring. It was easy in the first third of the movie to praise Peter Finch’s performance, but none of the other characters were likable by any stretch of the imagination. Shortly after Howard Beale gives his iconic speech where he urges a national television audience to open their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell” into the night, I was beginning to check out. I was beginning to question why I had ever really liked this movie in the first place. I was forced to admit to myself that, first thirty minutes or so aside, Network was very much an uneventful slog.
On a certain level, I think that’s okay. I believe that each of us probably has movies that we once loved that turn out to not be what we remembered them to be. This comes as a result of aging, maturing in our tastes and what we recognize as good art. It comes from a shift in our priorities and an acknowledgement that what we are personally interested in over time becomes more and more refined. The problem here, in this situation, is that I needed to find something worthwhile to write about and I was definitely struggling with that. For seven months, I’ve been struggling with that.
In the interim time, while I pondered what it was about Network that had been such an attraction for all those years, I began writing about movies in general. I began selecting random films to write about, mostly picking films that made me happy as a form of therapy to keep the ongoing pandemic from getting me down. There was a dark era of the past seven months where I was definitely depressed and sinking deeply into old habits to cope. I was actively needing to work harder and harder to avoid being angry at the entire world. I am self-aware enough to realize that no good ever comes from letting my anger win.
I have spent most of my life being angry. It started at a young age, a direct result of being forced too young to maintain a household and care for a younger brother while my parents sorted out whatever it was they were going through. There is a distinct moment when I stopped being a kid, a distinct span of time where I was no longer allowed to be a kid. I had stretches in middle school where my anger, an emotion that I was too immature to deal with rationally, manifested itself in violence, destruction to personal property and violence toward others. I got in a lot of fights when I was younger, spent a lot of time in suspension.
Things in this regard changed when my mother remarried and moved the family to Gibson City. Our circumstances improved. My mother was no longer working multiple jobs to make ends meet. We had a father figure to carry the brunt of the real-world calamity, and I was suddenly (and gladly) no longer solely responsible for the daily ins and outs of keeping a household functional. It seemed to me that I no longer had much reason to be angry, and so, to my mind, I wasn’t. Retrospect has taught me, however, that I was still very angry. I just hadn’t properly addressed it.
By the time I got to 2002, when something happened that made me fully aware of the damage my anger could do to myself and others, I was a ticking time bomb. In the eight years since I had graduated high school, I had been kicked out of Columbia College because my parents could no longer foot the bill for me to live in Chicago. I had been married and divorced. A second attempt at college had been nullified by my inability to cope with reality after said divorce. My saving grace at that time was Sara, and we had crashed and burned in a continuing spiral of deception and drug addiction. My reaction to that had pretty well destroyed the friendships that meant the most to me. I had plenty of reason to be angry and pissed off by the time I met Elizabeth in early 2001. But again, I had not done the work necessary to really handle it, to really know how to cope with it. I wasn’t adequately equipped to do much for myself other than pretend that I wasn’t a wreck, if even only outwardly.
Elizabeth was a girl that I had met in a production of Kiss Me, Kate that I was participating in for one of our local community theatre troupes. I had only agreed to do the show as a way to get myself in good with the company, figuring that if I served enough time in the chorus and made enough connections that they would one day allow me to direct. Directing would mean an extra source of income while I was still struggling with finances, too unfocused to maintain a real job or career, and unable to admit to myself that I was completely incapable of functioning without some means of alternating my reality. In the end, Kiss Me, Kate turned out to be a very meaningful theatre experience that led to bigger and better things in the local scene. I certainly made a lot of friends. I had, however, also traded my recreational drug use for abuse of prescription drugs after breaking my knee in an irresponsible stunt on stage during the weekly improv show that I was currently directing.
Things were not good. I certainly did not have my ducks in any sort of ordered and responsible row, but I managed to make it work. I was doing theatre that made me proud, surrounded by people who seemed to appreciate my skill, and well seasoned at pretending that I knew what I was doing on a most basic level of real-world responsibility. I had essentially traded all the friendships I had left in my self-destructive wake since the divorce– relationships with people that could see through my shit– for new friendships with people who didn’t know any better than not to trust me as a person who wouldn’t let them down. Among them was Elizabeth.
I won’t go into the dirty, nasty details of the year I spent dating Elizabeth. Suffice it to say that we were a bad match from the beginning. Self-loathing narcissists always seem to manage a way to find each other, and we were both textbook personifications of exactly that. She was an incoming Freshman at the University of Illinois when I met her, much younger than me. I think, in hindsight, I latched on to what I perceived in her as a need for me to take care of her. The problem with this agenda is that she was far more equipped, due to her structured and more well-to-do upbringing, to deal with the real world than I was. The year we spent together was nothing if not tumultuous.
By the time, Elizabeth and I had officially broken up, in the spring of 2002, we were a squirming mess of co-dependency. At one point, I could have made a justifiable defense that she was stalking me. She attempted suicide, and I saw it as less a cry for help and more of another excuse to keep me entrenched in her, as I perceived it, psychosis. There was an intense and angry argument that now amounts to little more than an ongoing misery Olympics over which one of us had the bigger right to be mad at the world. There was a friend of mine involved that she began making the moves on. There was a scuffle that resulted in me getting pushed down the stairs of a local bar. There was some police interaction over the public ruckus we were creating. Finally, there was a drunken phone call around 2:00 am where I left a completely irrational voice message where I informed her, in no uncertain terms, that, if I saw her again, I was going to break her neck. The police came and arrested me two days later.
I was not in jail long, only for the few hours that it took for my roommate to scrounge up $250 in bail money. The damage, though, of what I had done was already settling in. Friends that I had made in the last year saw her as the victim, a suicidal damsel in distress. Her reports to them were that I was a serial psychological abuser who kept her constantly in fear of my anger. This explanation of our undoing certainly held water when held against my track record of how I handled trouble in the past.
Eventually, I agreed to a restraining order and anger-management therapy in exchange for getting the charges against me dropped. There was no mention of a need for drug or alcohol rehabilitation– the issue wasn’t my addictions, it was my anger– so I managed to avoid that course of punishment. I went to my state-mandated therapy and checked off all the boxes, getting the charges dropped in time to start dating Trish by the end of the year. To be sure, I was still angry, probably more angry than ever, but I, at least, knew how to suppress it better, another weapon in my arsenal to convince the world at large that I was reliably and rationally sane. With a new relationship beginning, it was even easier to feign happiness.
It was around this time that I began to legitimately write professionally. A stage play that I had written was selected for a festival, and the production thereafter was enough of a success to secure me some commissions for stage plays at other festivals. I had a weekly column in a now-defunct internet entertainment magazine. In addition, I was becoming well-known and appreciated locally as a diverse actor and skilled director. Eventually, by the end of that year, I would be partnered with an old friend in the refurbishing of a single-screen movie theatre that showed art and foreign films. I had a considerable catalog of accomplishments of which to be proud.
Then, why wasn’t I happy?
I was, I think, to a certain extent, but there was no question that I wasn’t happy enough. Not enough, at any rate, to temper the fits of ire that frequently consumed me. There was never an in-between; I was either happy and proud of myself or I was punching holes in the drywall. Trish later confessed to being afraid of me most of the time because I would fly off the handle with even the slightest of provocations. That time that I got sued by a credit card company for a debt that belonged, technically, to my ex-wife, forcing Trish to wipe out her savings? I tore the shower door completely out of its running track. That time that a critic in Boston destroyed my stage play with the words “slight” and “hateful”? I threw a bookend through the glass of our front door. When a TV producer that I was working with fired me from a film we were working on? The police almost got involved that time, too.
I was increasingly more and more erratic and unreliable. Obviously, my abuse of painkillers and alcohol wasn’t helping matters much, but this wasn’t even something that Trish wanted to mention, even casually, for fear of how I would react. Instead, she just kept her distance, moving into a separate bedroom. We shared a house, but we were, essentially, over. There was an attempt at counseling together, but it was too little, too late, our mutual resentments of each other so ingrained into our routine that neither one was willing to budge.
Halfway through 2006, I finally decided that I needed help with what was clearly beginning to be an untenable mental-health situation. Things had been going well on a career level: I had another play in rotation at festivals, an opportunity which led to my employment with a major television network as a script consultant, which, in turn, led to the opportunity to create my own television series. I was happy, in a sense, but I wasn’t changing my behavior. With no reason to be angry, I failed to see how my “extra-curriculars” (ie., use of drugs and alcohol) were part of my problem. To wit, to my mind, since I was irrationally angry before I began abusing, I was having trouble connecting the two in my mind.
Soon, though, I was forced to accept that the two things were hand in hand. Soon, though, it became clear that the anger and fits of rage were a symptom of the other disease. My work was getting sloppy. My temper was getting short. I was becoming argumentative about the integrity about the work being produced. This all culminated with an unjustified and heated exchange with an actress over an improvised line Ultimately, the network decided that they liked my work more than they liked me and, by request of an established director, I was banned from the set.
The television show never came to fruition. I was reluctant to proceed without involvement, but was also not willing to concede that this situation as it stood was a direct result of my own actions. More appropriately, it was a result of my inaction, my failure to address an issue that had, so far, destroyed everything important to me.
The network agreed to pay me for the work I had completed. In exchange, I would accept a “created by” credit and hand the work I had already done– approximately 13 hours of television– over to a staff of network writers. I was not willing to do this, and was advised by my attorney that, to avoid further litigation over who owned what, I could sign the dotted line or not accept payment and head to another network with my scripts. I chose badly. My final contract for termination of services included a ten-year “no contest” clause which prevented me from doing anything for any other network until 2016.
All that I have just described made me angry. I was angry that I had chosen poorly. I was angry that I had been “screwed”. I was angry that I had a year’s worth of work sitting idle on a shelf. I was angry that I was somewhat been a rock and a drunk place. Again, accepting no responsibility for my part in any of this, I left out some important details of my experience with the networks when I returned home from New York with my tail between my legs. I moved back into my room at Trish’s house, agreeing to pay a small rent for use of the space, and started working when I could through a temp agency. Writing was out of the question; the network “screwing me over” had drained the creativity out of me. Don’t get me wrong . . . I tried writing, but I mostly wrote in bars to avoid home, downing pint after pint as I composed. Most of it would never be finished. A lot of it, if I happened to be writing by hand, was borderline illegible.
By September of 2016, my self-destructive behavior finally made my best friend Stephen decide that what I needed was a good old-fashioned intervention. I was too exhausted by this point to fight my inner demons, so I agreed to everything that the small circle of friends I had left were asking me to do. Chief among their demands: therapy and a prescription for anti-depressants. Secondary was treatment for my addiction to Vicodin. My doctor had long stopped prescribing it, and it was getting harder to legally obtain (which only served to infuriate me and force me to drink more), so I accepted their terms without much argument. I was, however, sick for weeks from detoxification.
I was almost one month clean from Vicodin when Stephen had his car accident and died. Without the crutch of him as my defacto sponsor, I had a struggle not to relapse, but I had other friends who assured me that what Stephen would have wanted was for me to continue my road to freedom from the chains of drug addiction. Admitting that they were on to something when I realized that my anger and sadness while sober was not causing me to break things or self-destruct, I persisted in my self-regulated treatment. I substituted Vicodin with counseling sessions twice a week instead of once. By April of 2007, I was seven months clean and directing stage plays again. I have, as I write this, been clean from prescription painkillers for fourteen-and-a-half years.
I’m still angry. For the first several months of the pandemic, I was dangerously angry a vast majority of the time. I was beginning to pick up old habits, turning back into my former self, and– I am embarrassed now to say this– had let things become so dank and terrible between my wife and I that a divorce seemed inevitable if cooler heads were unwilling to prevail. I learned something during that time: My wife has a much firmer grasp of my history and where I’ve been than I have ever given her credit for. She isn’t afraid of it. I am, though, and I am grateful that she understands me enough to know how best to talk me off the ledge.
And now . . . if you’re still with me . . . I’ve certainly taken up a lot of my reader’s time this week . . . we come back to that quote. I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. A quote from a movie that I used to tout as a favorite, but turns out to mean very little to me whatsoever. I mean, it’s an okay movie if you just watch Peter Finch chew the scenery for forty minutes. After that, it’s kind of a mess. After that, the only real takeaway for me is shame that I ever allowed that quote to define my existence, define how I handled things, define who I am. There are certainly better quotes from better movies that don’t incite such a devastating trip down memory lane. Tomorrow is another day, for example. How about Get busy living or get busy dying? What about I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd? Take that last quote out of context from the cinematic scene the dialogue originally appears in and I think we have a better representation of where my mind and heart should have been for the six years before the last fourteen.
Like I said, I’m still mad. Sometimes, I’m even mad as hell. But I find comfort in the knowledge that I am surrounded by ways to soothe myself safely and quietly. At this point in my life, I find far more solace in the crossword in The New York Times than I ever did in the litany of painkillers that I made excuses to abuse. I own more comic books than I could ever logically read in my lifetime. This movie collection that I’ve been hoarding is nothing if it’s not out of control. I have good friends to rely on– Matt and Marlene– for both the serious and silly. Often, the road to checking myself is just as simple as turning off the news and not paying attention to it for a day or two.
I’m still mad, but the decision to stay mad is a choice. I know this now. I didn’t for a long time. Anger and division in myself has the capability to consume me. I am my own worst enemy, and I’m not going to take it anymore.