Friday, February 24, 2006

OSCARS.....the Friday before the Friday before





Sidney Lumet remembers ‘Network’ Film is an interesting companion to this year’s ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’

NEW YORK - While George Clooney’s Oscar-nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck” looks back at a halcyon era of broadcast journalism, 1976’s “Network” saw a future that three decades later makes the film seem eerily prophetic.

The story about newscaster Howard Beale — “the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings” — remains the pre-eminent satire about the encroachment of entertainment values into TV news.

Sidney Lumet, who directed Paddy Chayefsky’s legendary script, believes that every absurdity, every sacrifice of ethics for the sake of a “50 share” depicted in “Network” has come to pass — save for the airing of Beale’s murder.

That’s the only part of ‘Network’ that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s on its way,” the 81-year-old Lumet says, fidgeting behind the desk of his Manhattan office, perched seven stories above the din of Broadway theaters.

The occasion of the director’s reminiscence is the 30th anniversary of “Network,” celebrated with a two-disc special edition DVD coming out Tuesday along with Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Too much information
Lumet’s feelings about TV today might be explained simply by the large, dusty, antiquated television set sitting beside him.

I think everybody’s got much more information, and is much less intelligent,” he says.

Nowadays, he says, there are few people who aren’t “television babies” who “learned life from Bugs Bunny,” as William Holden’s pre-TV era newsman judged Faye Dunaway’s bloodless network exec in “Network.”

Lumet’s career began in television, notably directing CBS’ “You Are There,” anchored by Walter Cronkite. (The show, offered re-enactments of historical events, thus blending show-biz with news.) On the “Network” DVD, Cronkite, a good friend of Lumet’s, remembers first watching the film with his CBS cohorts.

We howled with laughter, rolled over on the floor with the depiction of [TV news],” he says.
But Cronkite says he considered “Network” an exaggeration and recalls being concerned people would think it represented the truth about TV news.

Today, some would say it does.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel wrote, “The goal of the traditional broadcast networks now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then to cater to them.”

Lumet says his main regret is that Chayefsky, who died of cancer in 1981, isn’t around to see how right he was.

He was prescient. What can I tell you? He was a Jewish soothsayer,” Lumet says. “One of the things I admire stylistically is how he was able to give you the bitter pill with such good laughs.”

Of course, in the iconic scene of “Network,” Beale (Peter Finch, the first posthumous best-actor Oscar winner) infuses one phrase permanently into the vernacular: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

His vein-popping shout, as he urged viewers to do likewise, is movie magic. Lumet didn’t know it would have the effect it did, but witnessed it catching on immediately. At the movie’s very first showing, he says, the audience answered Beale’s call, yelling back at the screen.

Moviegoers might remember Clooney doing an impression of the line in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” Obviously the film has influenced Clooney — in October, he said he was planning on a live TV update of “Network.” (The actor also executive-produced a live TV version of Lumet’s 1964 Cold War drama “Fail Safe” in 2000.)

When you’ve got a piece of good dramatic literature, it should have as many lives as possible,” says Lumet, who directed big screen versions of the plays “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Sea Gull.” “I think [Clooney] is conducting a very honorable career.”

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” which chronicles Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is nominated for six Oscars including best picture. Though “Network” was nominated for 10 Oscars and took home four, it lost best picture.

‘I never think I'm going to win’
Lumet helped actors win 17 Oscars for performances in his films (including Finch, Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in “Network”). But The director always was shut out.

I’m not a fantasist and I never think I’m going to win,” he says. “And I’m also not a competitive man, but on two occasions I got so pissed off about what beat us. With ‘Network,’ we were beaten out by ‘Rocky,’ for Christ’s sake.” (Lumet also admits to being “a little contemptuous” about “The Verdict” losing in 1983 to “Gandhi.”)

Last year, though, Lumet finally got his Oscar — a lifetime achievement award. His acceptance speech was hailed for its eloquence: “I guess I’d like to thank the movies.”

“There’s a continuum here,” he explains. “None of us are working alone and that continuum is now 100 years old; people don’t realize that.”

Lumet has no qualms with the amount of recognition he’s received: “God knows I’ve got no complaints about my career. I’ve had a very good time and gotten some good work done.”

As he often does, he stresses the word “work” — not “art” or even “films” — but simple, unpretentious “work.”

He’s never been an overt, ostentatious stylist. One of the pleasures of his commentary on the “Network” DVD is hearing him trace the subtle, slow “corrupting” of the camera as it moves from naturalistic to “like a Ford commercial.”

In Lumet’s 1995 book, “Making Movies,” he offers a no-nonsense guide to the topic — as well as this description of “Network”:
“To borrow from the NRA, TV doesn’t corrupt people; people corrupt people.”

Lumet is still firmly wedged behind the camera. Next month, his latest film, “Find Me Guilty,” hits theaters. It stars Vin Diesel as a mobster who successfully defended himself in a two-year trial.

Meanwhile, Lumet is working on another picture — retirement is not for him.

I’m just not geared for that. I get so much from work,” he says. “[Making movies] is physically hard, and I’m getting old now, so it’s going to be harder. But I don’t think I want to stop. I can’t imagine stopping.”


Robert Altman's Long Goodbye
Robert Altman, who just turned 81, will receive his very first Oscar in a couple of weeks: an honorary one, of the sort the academy so often employs to ease the bitterness of a veteran nonwinner's declining years. (And, of course, to square historical accounts and deflect the outrage of future generations of movie lovers, who might feel that the failure to honor an important filmmaker reflects sort of poorly on the awards' credibility.) Like King Vidor, who had to hang in for 85 years to cop a thanks-for-the memories statuette, Mr. Altman has five best-director nominations and zero Oscars to show for a long and prolific career, so he pretty emphatically qualifies as overdue. He has been overdue for 30 years.

Hollywood has in fact never known quite what to make of Mr. Altman, who seemed to come out of nowhere with "M*A*S*H" in 1970 and, despite the industry's best efforts to send him back there, wouldn't go away. With the kind of weird, inexplicable gambler's instinct he would explore, hilariously, in "California Split" (1974), Mr. Altman parlayed his winnings from "M*A*S*H" — which remains by far the biggest hit of his career — into an exhilarating half-decade run of high-stakes moviemaking: seven pictures in the next five years, of which five are, like "M*A*S*H," at least arguably masterpieces.

Those great films — "M*A*S*H," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "The Long Goodbye"(1973), "Thieves Like Us" (1974), "California Split" and "Nashville" (1975) — still look like the core of his achievement: to paraphrase Raymond Carver (whose work Mr. Altman adapted in his 1992 film "Short Cuts"), they are what we talk about when we talk about Robert Altman. That's not to say that the two dozen feature films he has managed to direct in the last 30 years are
negligible (though there isn't a power on earth, or beyond, that could persuade me to sit through "Quintet," "Health," "Prêt-à-Porter" or "The Company" again), or that Mr. Altman's skill has in any way diminished with age: the silky command of "Gosford Park" (2001) is ample proof that it hasn't. EDITOR'S NOTE: IN FACT, I WOULD SAY "GOSFORD PARK" IS PROOF THAT ALTMAN IS STILL PEAKING.

It's just that in the early 70's the conditions were right for Mr. Altman's loose-jointed, intuitive, risk-courting approach to making movies, and the planets over Hollywood haven't aligned themselves in that way since. The wondrous opportunity those years afforded adventurous filmmakers like him was that studio executives, for once in their ignoble history, actually knew that they had no idea what they were doing: a man who could deliver the elusive, mysterious (to them) youth market, as the 45-year-old director of "M*A*S*H" somehow did, became a mighty valuable commodity.

Mr. Altman, who had spent the previous couple of decades directing industrial films, episodic television ("Bonanza," "Combat") and the odd low-budget picture, seized his moment and set about the task of reimagining, with a little help from his friends, how American movies should look and sound and feel. The anti-authoritarian spirit, the caught-on-the-fly dialogue and the invigoratingly original blend of slapstick and casual naturalism that had made "M*A*S*H" seem so new mutated into something even stranger and headier in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" a year later.

That film, a western of an unusually lyrical kind, puts the controlled-chaos techniques of "M*A*S*H" to entirely different use: in "McCabe," the buzzing vitality of the frontier mining settlement called Presbyterian Church serves as counterpoint to an eccentric American tragedy. It's the only movie I know of in which you can watch a community come into existence, changing and growing before your eyes, and Mr. Altman's camera, seeming to catch the whole complex process unawares, is miraculously alert to both the pleasures and the melancholy ironies of growth.

It's among the greatest movies of its time, up there with Sam Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch" (1969) and the first two "Godfather" pictures (1972 and 1974). And like them it's the product of an era in which the nature of the American democratic experiment was being questioned constantly and, in the best of our films, unconventionally celebrated — celebrated, that is, not for our collective military and economic power but for our individual vigor and orneriness and goofy optimism. This was a cultural moment made for Mr. Altman, whose hopeful approach to making movies has always been to get a bunch of lively, interesting-looking actors together and watch what happens, see if they can make something grow.

Mr. Altman had, in the early 70's, assembled an unofficial repertory company around him, a group of performers he trusted to supply the quick jolts of energy — the funky humor and the wayward poignance — his lightning-in-a-bottle moviemaking required. Elliott Gould, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, John Schuck, Gwen Welles, Michael Murphy and Henry Gibson were, in shifting combinations, the faces of an Altman movie, people who seemed to exist (or, in the case of Mr. Gould, to exist vividly) only in his fictional world. And he gathered them all, along with a few more of their unpredictable ilk, for his epic "Nashville," a movie whose multiple threads of stray narrative are held together by nothing more than a spirit, a sensibility: the weird buoyancy of Mr. Altman's take-it-as-it-comes fatalism.

What strikes you, in fact, when you watch "Nashville" or its three immediate predecessors, "The Long Goodbye," "Thieves Like Us" and "California Split," is how fundamentally grim Mr. Altman's vision of American life is — and how little that persistent, deep-seated, unshakable disillusion actually affects the tone of the movies. All the characters in those pictures are in one way or another disappointed, but disappointment doesn't appear to be a big deal for Mr. Altman. Maybe because he had to wait so long to fulfill his artistic ambitions, because he arrived so late to the Hollywood party, he seems to know (every one of his movies says it) that disappointment never killed anybody. "It's O.K. with me" is the dopey mantra of Mr. Gould's Phillip Marlowe in "The Long Goodbye"; the crowd at the end of "Nashville," shocked by an act of sudden violence, gets over its horror by singing along to a tune called "It Don't Worry Me." And although in both pictures the effect is ironic, in neither case is it wholly ironic. On some level, Mr. Altman shrugs along with his characters. EDITOR'S NOTE: SHARE THE MEDS, SHARE THE MEDS.

He would need, as it turned out, every bit of that world-weary insouciance in the years that followed "Nashville," when it gradually became clear that the moment for his sort of exploratory filmmaking was passing, and then simply past. His stock company slowly dispersed, his college-age audience grew up and entered the so-called real world (which proved to be rather like the prosperous, company-run town that in the end no longer needs beautiful dreamers like John McCabe), and the studios became, I think it's fair to say, less tolerant of box-office failure.

You could almost feel the air leaking out of Mr. Altman's balloon in the late 70's. And by the 80's this profoundly American filmmaker had moved to Europe and largely reinvented himself as a less ambitious sort of artist: a master craftsman and a miniaturist, not a fresco painter dangling perilously from cathedral ceilings. He found work directing operas, plays and, television dramas, and for the big screen contented himself with a series of filmed theater pieces, most of which involved just one set and a limited number of characters. (The most memorable of them, 1984's "Secret Honor," is a one-man show about Nixon.)

In a way, the Robert Altman of this period is like one of the aging outlaws of "The Wild Bunch": "It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do." And although his 80's movies are less exciting, their very smallness allows you to appreciate the beauty and resourcefulness of Mr. Altman's technique: the slow zooms, the fluid tracking shots, the elegantly timed cuts (usually on movement), the extraordinary assurance with which he explores the confined spaces and controls the dramatic rhythm, are immensely satisfying even when his material is second-rate.

He kept his instrument in tune, and when a terrific script finally came his way — Julian Mitchell's "Vincent & Theo," about the van Gogh brothers — he was more than ready. The movie he made, which was released in 1990 as an art-house picture (and is now available, in a gorgeous transfer, on DVD), seems to me the best of his post-"Nashville" films: moving, powerful, scary and in love with light. Mr. Altman's direction is somber and almost classical, which may partly explain why the picture is so good: he's often at his sharpest when he's doing something he hasn't done before.

The movie that put him, briefly, back on the Hollywood map, though, was familiar territory — the darkly comic ensemble piece "The Player" (1992), whose setting is Hollywood itself and whose rampaging energy seems to derive from the glee of consummating a long-nursed revenge fantasy. "The Player" is his funniest movie, and, in the end, a prime example of the O.K.-with-me attitude that has enabled Mr. Altman to get by, and occasionally thrive, in the funhouse-mirror culture of studio filmmaking.

He seized that moment, too, to try to recapture a bit of the early-70's exuberance. But he couldn't quite locate it, either in "Short Cuts" (which is brilliant but sour-spirited) or in the 1996 "Kansas City" (in which the cast let him down). What got his juices flowing again, peculiarly enough, was the elaborate English murder-mystery trifle "Gosford Park," which revealed, to his evident delight, that there was a whole new world of Altman actors waiting for him in the old world.

If honorary Oscars are to some degree awards for longevity and brute persistence, then Mr. Altman qualifies on that score, too: he's the unlikeliest imaginable survivor of the Hollywood system.

When he steps onto the stage of the Kodak Theater on March 5 as this year's distinguished geezer, he might feel a twinge of is-this-all-there-is? disappointment, but his movies tell us that he'll get over it. He might even reflect that Sam Peckinpah — his junior by one day, and 20 years dead — blew out his heart fighting the studios, and never got his vindication.

And Robert Altman, I expect, will accept his statuette with (perhaps slightly mordant) good grace, because it'll do. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND HERE'S HOPING THAT ALTMAN'S GOT AT LEAST ONE OR TWO MORE GOSFORDS OR MCCABES IN HIM!


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