“Network” is my favorite movie, so it was with great relish that I gobbled up “Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” by Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times. That angriest man is screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who is the biggest influence on my own writing — by which I mean that I idolize and plagiarize him (sometimes in spirit, sometimes in actuality). He wrote densely. His vocabulary strutted. His work was satirical, hysterical, contrarian, furious, idealistic, despairing. “Network” showed me, when I first watched the VHS at 14 years old, that screenwriting is an art form and language is a weapon.
In my 12th-grade English class, my teacher asked us to share a piece of art or entertainment that we loved and to explain why. I chose the break-up scene between William Holden and Faye Dunaway in the last 20 minutes of “Network.” Why? I was in love with the language, the dialogue. Its razor-sharpness. Its grenade-like quality. Its elegance and violence.
Impugn! Cocksmanship! Menopausal decay and death! Shrieking nothingness! The common rubble of banality! Virile madness! Arctic desolation! I don’t remember much about my presentation, other than I acknowledged to the class that real people don’t talk like Chayefsky’s characters. But that wasn’t the point. Or maybe it was the point. “Network” was great entertainment because the writing was great art. Nevermind that its story and ideas and direction and performances were also masterful. This movie had a script that loved the way it sounded.
I know the movie by heart but I knew nothing about its making. Itzkoff’s book, which publishes today, is a breezy read that fills in the blanks, mostly through Chayefsky’s papers, the surviving crew members (the principals are dead, save for Faye Dunaway and producer Howard Gottfried) and the crucial crutch of Shaun Considine’s biography of Chayefsky, also called “Mad as Hell” (which might be a deeper read, if Itzkoff’s citations are any indication). It was a treat to hear from supporting actors like Marlene Warfield, Arthur Burghardt and Kathy Cronkite, who played Laureen “Don’t f— with my distribution costs” Hobbs, the Great Ahmed “Man, give her the f—ing overhead clause” Khan and Mary Ann “You f—ing fascist!” Gifford (this hilarious scene includes all three, and shows how aerobic Chayefsky’s dialogue is). I was disappointed but not surprised that Itzkoff was unable to secure Dunaway’s participation (Mark Harris couldn’t get her for “Pictures at a Revolution” either ), and I grieve for the quotes and the dirt and the insight and the memories and the mania that she will eventually take to the grave.
Anyway, the book contains some choice Chayefskyisms on writing:
If you can get in four good hours a day, you’re in terrific shape. … You have to be disciplined. You have to get up early in the morning, every morning, and just sit in front of the page until something comes out. Write one word, if that’s all you can do in one day. And just keep doing it until things start pouring out. … A writer is what he writes, and I would like to be remembered as a good writer. I would like the stuff I write to be done and read for many generations. I just hope the world last that long.
“Mad as Hell” is not a biography of a man as much as it’s a paint-by-numbers of a man’s uncompromising vision. Chayefsky had something to say about television, and he used a competing medium to say it. “Mad as Hell” is not much more than a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the realization of this vision, and that’s okay. I can’t imagine non-fans would find it interesting, but I blazed right through it. It’s the story of a confluence of brilliance, and the resulting magic.
Itzkoff wrote one particular paragraph of strong cultural synthesis, which I check-marked because I wanted more of it:
There is no longer one holistic system of news for audiences of every stripe, size, color, and creed: there is news for early morning risers and news for late-night insomniacs; news for liberals and news for conservatives; sports news for men and feel-good news for women; news delivered in comedic voices and even, for a time, news for viewers who preferred to receive it from a Spanish-speaking puppet. Information is instantaneous and perilously subjective in an era when every man or woman can potentially be his or her own broadcaster. But when this array of apparently endless choice is untangled, and every cable wire and satellite beam is followed back to its source, what is revealed is a decidedly finite roster of media companies with the power to decide what is said and who is saying it: a college of corporations providing all necessities, tranquilizing all anxieties, amusing all boredoms.
Itzkoff uses Chayefskian grammar (bolded by me) to nail the true nature of the film’s prescience: Not that programming is universally reptilian and base, but that such programming seems wildly populist when, in fact, it’s controlled by an oligarchy of corporations. Over the past 35 years, much has been written about the prescience of “Network,” and Itzkoff’s final chapter serves up a buffet of celebrities who reflect on the topic: Ben Affleck, Keith Olbermann, Gwen Ifill, Anderson Cooper. Most bracing is Bill O’Reilly, who tells Itzkoff that today’s TV anchor — in order to distinguish himself in a limitless and fractured media landscape — must “raise the level of urgency” and give “the folks” what they want. “I think Syria’s an important story, but I can’t cover it,” O’Reilly said to Itzkoff. “Nobody’s going to watch, and I know that.” I was reminded of something jarring that Megyn Kelly told me in December:
People feel validated when they hear their own emotions accurately described by someone on television. And I think when you ignore their genuine heartfelt feelings, they feel diminished. And I think it’s like scratching an itch, to hear someone in a position of power — somebody with a big microphone at least — give voice to what you’re feeling.
Dunaway’s character wants programming that “articulates the popular rage,” and she gives us Howard Beale. Nearly four decades later, as many have written, we’re a civilization of Howard Beales looking for validation from the tube. If only we spoke in Chayefsky’s epic language instead of the clumsy, bowdlerized parlance of 24-hour, Web-fueled news, where the scooplet is king. No matter. To quote Chayefsky, as well as Itzkoff’s final chapter title: “It’s all going to happen.” Which means that we’ll eventually witness the on-air assassination of a news anchor because he has lousy ratings. Piers: Keep an eye out.
A final note, or request. While reading “Mad as Hell,” I wondered why a modern-day Chayefsky hasn’t written a companion screenplay for the Web 3.0 generation, the one raised on Instagram and BuzzFeed and Upworthy and Snapchat. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” is the closest thing we have, but it’s not satire, so it already feels time-stamped instead of timeless. I want a guns-blazing farce, set in the Cloud, that denounces the hypocrisies of our time. I want characters like a brash young new-media mogul whose snake oil is “content management,” a low-level bureaucrat who blows open a government agency’s surveillance tactics and becomes a mad prophet, a sexist/racist publicist seeking total control over the ensuing media narrative that threatens to implicate the tech sector in the erosion of our civil rights. I want Ned Beatty to make a cameo as the head of a media conglomerate whose reach into our lives has metastasized into a way of life, into a legitimate philosophy. I want a sequence wherein our mad prophet implores his Twitter followers to go to the windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” and instead those followers merely retweet his tweet and pop over to the next browser window, where “Game of Thrones” is paused. Then they press play to stave off the arctic desolation.