Film: Network :(
The way I figure it, I don't have to love something to respect it. After all, am a subjective human and just because something is good, significant, influential, doesn't mean it appeals to my taste. There's a lot of undoubtedly great work of art that I don't like very much: 19 century Russian writers, Virginia Wolf, Rauschenberg, most of Orson Wells, Fazbinder; I admit that I don't understand poetry; I am not crazy about pre-renaissance painting; I have many objections toward theater, when compared to film; those are all things that I greatly respect but they won't inspire me to sit for several hours, writing a blog entry about them, just to share what I like about them with someone.
There are, of course, other highly respected things that I think are overestimated and don't have the greatness that is attached to them: Marques; 20 century realism; Alexander Dumas (but of course - is he really that respected, or is he just popular?) Many today's
There are, as I said, many great directors who never really, well, moved me, inspired me, made me experience the film instead of just watching it: Cecil de Mill; Capra; Wells; and then, also, Sideny Lumet.
What bothers me with Lumet, even though I enjoyed "Dog Day Afternoon" and, at the moments, "Serpico", is that his films all seem like well-oiled constructions for critic-pleasing. But of course, there are not only crowd-pleasers but also critic-pleasers; I know, in theory, critics should be the ones to pat the good film on shoulder and to praise the great film or whatever their scales are set to. In reality critics will give four stars to a film that has nothing bad in it. However, lack of bad doesn't always equal good. And there I am, feeling strange as, while the most people see critics as vicious author-eaters, I say that they should actually be harsher?
No, I'm just saying that there is a model to which you can make a film that critics will love, with not much personal inspiration, with no risk going by numbers.
For one thing, satire or social engagement never fails and it somehow doesn't surprise me that Lumet's films always start from such premises; See, critics like films that aren't shallow (duh!) The easiest way to not be shallow is to send a social message; You can strugle with existential, ethical matters, wider problems of humanity, but you might or might not struggle successfully with those and your point might or might not be registered. With level-headed social engagement there's no risk: you're as good as you're merciful when you give money to charity. Even if you're pathetic, if you're too direct and lack subtlety, if you fail to make conclusions, you will be forgiven because of good intentions.
Lumet does that: he often finds a real event that is intriguing on a social level and films it.
Next: good actors. Unlike with books where author is left all by himself to do characterization, with film, actors help you very much, specially if they're from the top shelf (like Pacino, whom Lumet worked with several times), they'll make a good character if only you give them plausible lines and enough screen time.
Next thing you need is to film it in a good, but conventional way. Lumet's film language is always competent but conventional, good but uninspired, it unmistakably tells the given story without holdup, but it doesn't add to a story. And I think it should, point of film is that through specifics of it's narration, you can do a lot more than just retelling what's written in scripts; It's not just surrounding yourself with good actors, good set-designer, good cameraman - it is also moving a viewer through pure camerawork and editing; Lumet doesn't do that, not to me, at least. He's too straightforward, too concentrated to the script he has in front of him.
See what's my beef, he never risks - Not when it comes to critics approval, of course he dealt with risky themes but those are themes that critics love - and usually, the best results, the most moving, the most original, craziest, memorable moments in film come from risking, from going out of usual ways, trying something you're not sure will work, hiring the ex mental patient to play a lead role, for instance (like Herzog did). Lumet does none of those, he was the safe, paved road and he does that with not much mistaking, but somehow I find that not enough; I find that making him no more than a good craftsman.
Now I said that I enjoyed some of his films but the film I found irritating was the one he got most of praises for: "Network". Of course, he got a bunch of Oscars, which doesn't mean much; I stopped caring about Oscars long ago, to ask me whether "Network" deserved six Oscars, my answer would be: probably; Ask me if it deserved six major American film awards (assuming that it's a serious award) and I'll say "Only if it was a really, really bad year."
Well, the most irritating thing about "Network" was terrible overacting, which is surprising since other Lumet's films shown a good, leveled handling of actors. Here, actors act if they are making a theatre play, not a film. In theatre, actor is on stage, far and above the audience. To get emotionally to audience, he has to exaggerate his acting, to fill the entire hall with it, so make his waves so strong that they reach the guy in the last row; heck, they have to talk very loud for everyone to hear them. Film has other means of getting actor closer to audience: first and foremost, closer cuts (when I was younger, asked why I didn't like theatre, I was answering: "because it doesn't nave close cut"); also, lighting, camerawork, music, can all be a backup for actor. So there's a basic difference in approach to acting, and theatre actors who translate to film learn that on first day of the set. After all, when you're looking at someone's face on screen, three meters tall, you don't want it yelling on top - you hear him just fine. Actors in "Network" seem to act as if they think they're on stage. So it's not bad acting, in fact it's very passionate, it's just that it's not appropriate for film; In film, it seems too exaggerated to be taken as true. On stage, it'd might be perfect.
There's something about the entire story a film is based on that makes me go: what's the fuss all about? It looks like a story much more appropriate for a low-cost TV film, than a major, Oscar-winner film. The whole story seems like a rather benign anecdote that isn't ever particularly memorable. To rehash, it is a story of a news anchorman Beal (Peter Finch) who is to get sacked, so in his last news, he says to hell with good manners and announces his suicide and yo momma last night. He shocks everybody which turns him into a novelty, which makes the station not only not to sack him, but to give him a prime time and his own show in which he'll be able to tell whatever he want. They basically turn him into a clown. But as I said, it all seems like a good story to tell at dinners, but a major satire? Yet, Lumet (and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky who, actually, shows more competence than usual) decides that this is a perfect metaphor of cruelty of modern society and makes the show going. As if he feels that his main story is feeble, he makes Beale basically a supporting character with very little screen time and turns the attention to a vicious young program planner Diana (Faye Dunaway) and elderly executive William (Max Schumacher) who have an affaire. And as if to show how cruel the world is, Diana leaves good-natured, old-fashioned William right after he left his wife for her. All this would seem like a soap opera and Diana would have a lot in common with Blake Carington if it weren't for Beale’s storyline to give it a certain air of unusual, dare I say, of inspiration; and yet, it's the same story that Lumet and Chayevsky willfully pushed in second plane, probably because they realized that inicial idea wouldn't have enough material for a feature; Grating result, Beale, the most interesting character, appears very little apart for the very beginning of the film, and seems like just an excuse to get the melodrama going. He is brought back into the focus only to be killed onstage, which is where Lumet decided to finish this, open by nature, story.
And he ends it right where he began. And left me with the feeling: a lot of fuss after nothing. I said that most of Lumet's work passes as nice, pleasurable for looking, craftwork. Perhaps even more than that, in "Dog day afternoon", he managed to see a comical potential of one tragic event, and to exploit it rather good. "Network" is... Well, just grating. Why did it, of all films, got so much compliments? Perhaps because back in 76’, its content wasn’t so ordinary like today is. Perhaps because we see things shown in “Network” all around us – and guess what, world still exists. Perhaps “Network” is just a bit dated film that fails to shock nowadays, and hasn’t got very muck to offer appart from that.