WEIRDLAND: Mad as Hell: Christine Chubbock and The Making of 'Network' (Paddy Chayefsky's Masterpiece)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mad as Hell: Christine Chubbock and The Making of 'Network' (Paddy Chayefsky's Masterpiece)


Christine Chubbuck’s sad exit is said to have partly inspired Paddy Chayefsky during the writing of his screenplay for the 1976 film Network, famous for its own deeply troubled anchor. She certainly hates many of the same things as Howard Beale, especially the sensation-driven “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality then emerging in TV news. Rebecca Hall draws a richly detailed portrait of Chubbuck, and isn’t afraid to make her unlikable. She’s kind of a hard-ass, intimidating and hard to reach, so it’s a miracle, and a credit to Hall, that we find ourselves on her side. If we don’t come away with a complete explanation of what drove Chubbuck to her tragic personal apocalypse, thanks to Rebecca Hall’s expertise and control, we do at least feel like we know and understand her. Source: www.theguardian.com

Christine Chubbock's younger brother Greg told People magazine his sister suffered from bipolar disorder, a mood disorder characterised by bouts of manic highs and periods of depression: “She had no greys in her life. Everything was black and white. Chrissie just didn’t have a compromise button.” Greg also claims that his concerned parents had spent over 40.000 dollars per year during over 20 years on doctors fees, psychiatrists and psychologists to “help Chrissie find peace.” But aged 16, Christine received a devastating blow when her 23-year-old boyfriend was killed in a car accident, losing the man that Greg believes was “the love of her life”. As her mother, Peg, told the Washington Post in 1974: “she just couldn’t connect with people”. Mental illness may have driven her to suicide, but she didn’t want her death to be meaningless. “That salacious part of television, Chris detested,” Greg says. “Was her final action a raging statement against that sort of television? Yes, clearly it was.”

Bob Keehn, the WXLT-TV anchor man for the evening news, liked Christine Chubbuck: “She had a protective coloration, what might appear to be no need for friends. I felt she was someone with very deep feelings. Someone who seemed more involved with her job and with her emotions than most people seem to be. She had a little more depth than most people. What seemed to concern her was her involvement with the human condition. She would express a negative reaction to people and the way they treated each other.” Whether her last act should subsequently have been dramatised is up for debateher brother has accused the filmmakers of "cash[ing] in on a family tragedy"but 43 years after, Christine Chubbuck is still making the news. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who is more depressed than Max Schumacher (William Holden) realizes, announces on the air the next day that, in one week’s time, he is going to commit suicide on his show. This scenario eerily paralleled a tragic real-life incident that occurred while Paddy Chayefsky worked on the screenplay of Network (1976). On the morning of July 15, 1974, viewers of WXLT-TV 40 in Sarasota, Florida, watched as Christine Chubbuck, the host of Suncoast Digest, looked into the camera and said, “In keeping with the WXLT policy, presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local "blood and guts", in living color, TV 40 presents what is believed to be a television first. an attempted suicide.” She then shot herself behind the right ear and died hours later. Months later, Chayefsky wrote a line for Beale in which the anchor declares he will “blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news, like that girl in Florida,” then he deleted it from the script. 

“Television is democracy at its ugliest,” said Chayefsky: “The conception of Network is a farce, but once the idea is there, it’s all real, every bit. I don’t attack; I just tell the truth. Television will do anything for a rating.” “The American tradition of journalism is objectivity,” Chayefsky said to Time magazine: “There is nothing valuable about a journalist comicalizing the news. The news should not—must not—become part of the entertainment scheduling. To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” Though the story of Howard Beale’s breakdown might contain “a fanciful, Frank Capra nuttiness that could be appealing,” Pauline Kael wrote that “Chayefsky is such a manic bard that I’m not sure whether Howard Beale’s epiphanies were the result of a nervous breakdown or were actually inspired by God.” 

“Let’s at least show the country to ourselves for what it really is,” Chayefsky wrote: I think the American people deserve some truth instead of pure entertainment or pure addiction. Life is not as coarse and brutalized as it is presented to us on TV. There is an America with a very complicated, pluralistic society that is worth honest presentation. Television coarsens all the complexities of human relationships, brutalizes them, makes them insensitive. The point about violence is not so much that it breeds violence but that it desensitizes viciousness, brutality, so that we no longer actively feel the pains of the victim or feel their grief.… We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition. This is the basic problem of television. We’ve lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity.” 

Desperate as these words sounded, Chayefsky had not yet given up entirely on his fellow man. Speaking to an interviewer at his New York office some months after he quit Altered States, Chayefsky said, “I feel almost totally alienated from what’s going on today,” adding that he now lived “kind of a reclusive life almost. I take it the American people are becoming as alienated as I am.” Speaking from his office at 850 Seventh Avenue in the spring of 1981, Paddy Chayefsky offered his vision for what he expected the network news would look like someday—not as it might be depicted in Network, but as he believed it would appear on actual television as watched by people across the country. Chayefsky asserted: “Network wasn’t even a satire. I wrote a realistic drama. The industry satirizes itself.” Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote: “Chayefsky’s warning was made to people who knew everything he said was true, but they felt powerless to stop it.” Writer Aaron Sorkin affirmed: “No predictor of the future—not even Orwell—has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.” —"Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies" (2014) by Dave Itzkoff

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