Each of us Dies on Screen
Crishanti Jayawardene traces the demise of the individual through some of the world’s most important films.
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In the single most stylised scene in Sydney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece, Network, the President of the Communication Corporation of America, Arthur Jensen, hovers in an ether of dim, votive light and pseudo-religious proximity to the UBS news anchorman Howard Beale and gives him a piece of his mind. ‘You are an old man,’ he says, ‘who thinks in terms of nations, and peoples. There are no nations, there are no peoples, there are no Russians, there are no Arabs, there are no Third Worlds; there is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems. One vast and interwoven, interacting, multi-variant, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rubles, pounds and shekels. There is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T. And Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.’ To which Beale replies without implied irony ‘I have heard the voice of God.’
The conflict between the individual and the Corporate world is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ever since Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell announced in the 1950s that the end of ideology would attenuate the traditional role nation states played in the political and economic arena, the individual found himself at the mercy of a power he could not circumscribe.
Hitherto, the faces of power were easily located and iconic – Lenin, Churchill, Mussolini. The face of power today is featureless, bland, and complicatedly dispersed. If there have been culprits in the corporate halls of power – the boys from Enron come to mind – these seem merely representational of a power that is much more elusive and greater than they. Their demise may dent the corporate image but it cannot destroy it. Stalin’s death marked the end of Stalinism, the Nazi era died with Hitler, but professional ruin for the likes of Kennet Lay and Jeffrey Skilling does not correspond to the downfall of capitalism.
In the wake of this elusive corporate power, a volte-face in the way the individual was traditionally represented came into effect in virtually all cultural, linguistic, social and psychoanalytical disciplines in the West. Accordingly, the individual, as an active, free, dynamic agent within society, with real and commanding ethical choices that allow him to fashion society in turn, was dead. Frederic Jameson traces two perspectives – one cites the extinction of the bourgeois individual in an age of corporate capitalism, and a second, more radical view of the post-structuralist, belies the whole concept of the individual altogether by claiming it had always been a mere social and cultural construct. Either way, the bulk of critical western theories have taken this in their stride – the notion of the death of the individual is a mainstay that cannot be easily brushed aside without falling prey to self-deception or illusions about how much freedom the individual does have in the world we inhabit.
After straightening the facts for him, Arthur Jensen commands Howard Beale to go back on his show, pick up the mantle of ‘latter-day prophet’ vested in him by the network, and spread the word. ‘Why me?’ Beale enquires with trepidation. To which Jensen replies ‘because you’re on television dummy.’ Beale acquiesces and gives his last great jeremiad, ‘what is finished is the idea that this country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It is the single solitary individual that is finished. For this is no longer a nation of independent individuals, it’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorised, deodorised, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally necessary as human beings.’ The audience, which in previous episodes had been roused by Beale to anger and theatrical action against the powers that be (he first goads them to go to their windows and shout out ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ and then later to send millions of telegrams to the White House in order to sabotage the purchase of his own network by another) is not pleased to be told they are ‘mass-produced, programmed, numbered’…in short ‘humanoid.’ As the ratings take a plunge, the network bosses finally dispatch an ultra left sect, the Ecumenical Liberation Army to deliver the speedy, televised assassination of Howard Beale.
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Ever since socio-cultural and linguistic disciplines have advanced their theories on the emaciation, if not downright illusion of the individual, Hollywood has been prolific in the production of films, of which Network is only one, that capitalise precisely on the conflict between the individual and the corporate entity. But unlike Network, in others such as the The Insider, Erin Brockovich, The Firm, The Constant Gardener, and most recently Michael Clayton, the individual, as a pivot of willpower and action in these films, beleaguered or dwarfed as he or she may be by the greater power, has not diminished.
Network was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and while it may come as no surprise to cynics that it lost out to Rocky for Best Picture, it has continued to attract attention from both critics and academics alike. The film is regarded as a satire and what is most often stressed is its prescience and relevance today, ‘predicting,’ in the words of Greg Ng, ‘the rise of reality television and the subsequent decline of both production and social values.’ There is a strong sense that this critique itself has become trite, much like Howard Beale’s diatribes which failed to restore authentic autonomy and apostatic power to the audience. (When he incites them to switch off that most formidable of propaganda machines, namely their own TV sets, his ratings are not compromised). What is odd about this critique, which by becoming familiar has become jaded, is the fact that it has not lost its relevance. Its piquancy has been compromised by overstatement, but anyone who makes a survey of the cultural industry today could hardly fail to draw broadly the same conclusions. Critical theories from the Frankfurt School in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution to Jean Baudrillard have not altered the status quo one iota by mobilising any insurgencies or student movements. Critical theories remain stuck in a strange state of inertia.
On the opposite spectrum is the cultural industry where this critique – of corporate capitalism, of the vulnerability of the individual, of media saturation – has been subsumed by the industry itself. Tony Gilroy’s 2007 film, Michael Clayton opens with a voiceover of Arthur Edens, a repentant corporate lawyer who, in a way similar to Howard Beale, comes close to insanity the moment he faces up to his own guilt. Beale declares he is going to commit suicide because he ‘just ran out of bullshit.’ Edens confesses he has been ‘coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the sting of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo.’ And undo it he does, for he manages to atone for his ethical failing and ultimately outwit what his colleague Michael Clayton calls ‘one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world.’ ‘You are a legend,’ he adds, and the viewer is reassured that Edens does in fact die a legend, not because he honoured his position as a senior litigating partner, but because he acted against the interests of the firm in favour of what the audience regards as the right thing to do. As if one act of martyrdom were not sufficient to quell the viewer’s moral outrage over U-North, the evil agri-giant, whose pesticide has led to the death of countless people, Clayton himself, a ‘fixer,’ cleaning up the messes of his wealthy clients, must also exit with his moral autonomy intact. ‘You’re fucked,’ he exclaims with relish to U-North’s ambitious and unscrupulous Karen Crowder, brandishing the evidence that will incriminate them.
In Michael Mann’s Insider, Jeffrey Wigand is a whistle-blower who, while eschewing madness, loses his family, his job, and risks incarceration in order to tell the truth about Big Tobacco. He ultimately wins the lawsuit and obtains monetary compensation with the help of Lowell Bergman, from ‘60 Minutes.’ Bergman is a staunch investigative journalist working under the ethical auspices of Edward Murrow. At a board meeting with a lawyer from CBS corporate, Bergman expresses outrage when he discovers CBS corporate is going to cut the interview with Jeffrey Wigand for fear of legal action. On closer inspection such incredulity seems suspect given Bergman’s long experience within CBS. Mann also gives a foretaste of Bergman’s stalwart nature at the beginning of the film for instance, when we see him brokering a deal for an interview with Hezbollah. The naivety Mann projects on Bergman is not Bergman’s but rather Mann’s estimation of what is required for the viewer to feel disconcerted. For a man of Bergman’s calibre and position would be more seasoned with regards to the ways of the world. But this naivety lends greater weight to the drama and tension of course. Bergman’s resignation from CBS is on the grounds that he would not be able to win the trust of a source again knowing that he almost failed Jeffrey Wigand. Once again, Bergman wields his independence from the system in large, clear strokes, without even the smallest hint of weakness, doubt or uncertainty. At the slightest detection of foul play by the network, Bergman pulls out – and only after clearing the mess.
All this makes for a satisfying denouement. Yes, the corporate world is evil, but the individual can fathom what is wrong and can act decisively against it. He can make concrete ethical choices which will allow him to atone for his complicity within the system. Moreover, these choices will force the hand of the very society that ostracised him in the first place to ultimately recognize or reward him. Hollywood is averse to dumping its heroes into obscurity.
[singlepic id=74 w=460 h=300 float=left]Compare this to the way Sydney Lumet ‘mishandles’ the so-called heroes in Network. Max Schumacher actually worked alongside Edward Murrow in the 50s. Twice fired, he embarks on a doomed affair with the VP of Programming, Diana Christensen, and begins to write his memoirs. ‘I’m tired of pretending to write this dumb book about my maverick days in the great early years of television!’ he says to Diana shortly before he leaves her, finally realizing that any attempt to resurrect the past or inject the present with love, pleasure or joy are equally doomed. ‘You’re one of Howard’s humanoids,’ he tells her. ‘If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed, like Howard, like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensible to joy. All life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.’
In Michael Clayton, insanity is a liberation, a deep and radical cleansing. Edens acquires a rare lucidity that allows him to see where he stands in relation to his environment, and most importantly understands how to translate his deep-felt insight into concrete action. Beale’s madness confers a similar if not greater lucidity – to the extent that it allows him to see through the fabric of society. But unlike Eden’s, Beale’s madness is exploited by the very network Beale’s invectives are directed against. In turning Beale’s presumed madness into spectacle, into kitsch, we have come a long way from a traditional perception of insanity. In considering Antonin Artaud, Susan Sontag remarks, ‘What is called insane denotes that which in the determination of a particular society must not be thought. Madness is a concept that fixes limits; the frontiers of madness define what is “other”. A mad person is someone whose society doesn’t want to listen to, whose behaviour is intolerable, who ought to be suppressed.’ Beale on the other hand, is embraced by the network precisely because he is deemed mad. As a poised news anchorman, his ratings had dipped, resulting in a 33 million deficit, and the network had resolved to get rid of him.
Network is a satire in numerous ways, not least in its portraying how a society reincorporates what it regards as insanity – the one thing which has stood at the furthest remove from the law, even more so than crime, because insanity, unlike crime, always contains within it the element of incomprehensibility – and turns it into a commodity like any other. A society that does this, and whose profits are boosted as a result, has effectively reduced reality in all its original complexity and as a primary source for engagement or disengagement, acceptance or insurrection to a coterie of interchangeable spectacles. Reality TV is a close approximation of just such a reductionism. Many of the figures selected for Jerry Springer or Big Brother are paraded for public consumption specifically because they are grotesque and carnivalesque. They fill a vacuum in the human psyche in which the drama of difference or contrariness can be lived and exhausted from a safe distance.
[singlepic id=75 w=630 h=480 float=center]The run-of-the-mill Hollywood film may vilify the corporate capitalist world, it may portray the extent to which the solitary individual is threatened by it or is at odds with it, but its survey is insincere and perhaps even manipulative. Like the audience in Network, the film consumer does not like to be reminded that resignation and homogeneity are part and parcel of everyday existence. It does not like to be told that it cannot be heroic. It does not like to be told that its choices are merely pseudo-choices or its small victories inconsequential. Jeffrey Wigand may have been financially compensated and had his reputation restored, but such a victory is a minor glitch for Big Tobacco – the social, cultural and economic reverberations of corporate power remain intact.
According to the critical theorist, Terry Eagleton, ‘Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink. For us to act effectively the mind must buckle itself austerely to the actual in the belief that knowing the situation for what it is is the source of all moral and political wisdom.’ Hollywood offers the mirage of individualistic deliberation and action in order for the viewer to experience the victory or vindication of the individual by proxy. The viewer is falsely assuaged in his faith in the extent of his personal freedom – for the Hollywood film gives the impression that personal freedom exists in absolute terms and can ultimately vanquish anything, no matter how severely tried it may be from the outset. The implicit sense of frustration and doom a film like Network produces on the other hand evinces more radically Eagleton’s injunction for the mind to ‘buckle itself austerely to the actual’ – for it forces the individual to face up to, with much greater honesty, his own dissolving realm of habitation – that of individuality itself.