Published on: May 31, 2019
Been on a bit of a theater run recently. You may remember that a few weeks back I saw and reviewed - rhapsodically - the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” by the peerless Aaron Sorkin, starring Jeff Daniels. This new version, while faithful to the plot and spirit of the original, infused what essentially is a period piece with the hot charge of currency, helped along by what seem to be deepening tides of bigotry in this country. “Mockingbird,” while originally written in the early sixties and written about the thirties, managed to be highly relevant to 2019.
Last weekend, we saw “Network,” a stage production based on the 1976 movie written by the great Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet - a film that is a biting satire of a television-centric culture, a condemnation of lowered standards, and an enormously accurate, as it turns out, prognostication of where “reality TV” would take us as a culture. (Which is to say, nowhere good.)
More than four decades later, “Network” would seem to be ripe for revival … but instead of updating the premise and the plot to allow for the fact that almost everything Chayefsky foretold came true, and moving on from there, “Network” just revisits the plot with some snappy production values (that I liked but that Mrs. Content Guy found to be distracting, gimmicky and largely gratuitous) and one legitimately amazing performance - Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in an Oscar-winning turn in the movie, who is transformed from a Cronkite-like TV anchorman into an ultimately tragic “mad prophet of the airwaves,” propelled by his network’s lust for ratings and profits.
The staged “Network” is still set in the mid-seventies, but the satire loses its bite because we know how much came true - we’re meant to be dazzled by staging and performance, not by ideas and insights, which is a shame, because Chayefsky was very much a writer obsessed with ideas and provocations, not easy shots.
In “Mockingbird,” I’d bet every line or every scene was thought about in terms of what we know now and how far we’ve come - and how far we have not come - since the events of the play. Not so “Network,” I’m afraid. I enjoyed our evening at the theater - I love going to plays and musicals, and if I could afford it, I’d go a couple of times a month - but in this case the result was disappointing because it didn’t bring much new to the table.
There is a good business lesson in this, I think. (Not about how to succeed on Broadway. To be fair, “Network” has enjoyed a sold-out limited run, and got a lot of Tony nominations. By those measures, it was a hit.) But I do think that retailers ought to be more in the business of saying to themselves with every new store, “What fresh insight about customer needs does this store provide? What idea are we communicating here that we’ve never communicated so well before?”
I think that without asking those questions - and then answering them - retailers end up depending on the effectiveness of staging, not on the vitality of ideas and insights. Me, I prefer the latter, even if I can enjoy the former.
Two quick “Network”-related stories, if I may.
In 1976, I was the film reviewer for The Loyolan
the campus newspaper at Loyola Marymount University, where I was then a senior studying film. (Not journalism, and not business, and certainly not retailing. I’ve never taken a class in any of those things, which some of you will say explains a lot. But I digress…)
Anyway, in the fall of 1976, I was one of a number of college film reviewers invited to MGM studios in Culver City for a preview screening of the original Network
, and then attend a press conference there with Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, Peter Finch (who died a short time later, in January 1977, at age 60), and Faye Dunaway, who played the female lead. I remember it being one of those totally cool days, and especially impressed by Chayefsky’s intellect and force of personality. Forty-three years later, I still am.
A year or two later, I’d moved back from Los Angeles to the east coast, and one Sunday I found myself in New York’s Central Park. (I have no idea why … though I may well have been going to see a Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte Theater there.) But I do vividly remember seeing Paddy Chayefsky striding through the park, bearded and serious, dressed all in black except for a khaki jacket, clutching the Sunday editions of the New York Times
, New York Daily News
and the New York Post
as if they were the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. And I remember thinking to myself, that’s what a writer looks like - a little outraged by what he sees around him, but ready to tilt at windmills with nothing but ideas and words and a well-turned sentence that might actually change the world.
Chayefsky died in August 1981 at age 58. I have to think that if he were around today, he’d be disgusted, alarmed and ready to once again do battle … and he would not settle for revisiting old victories.
One of the great pleasures of the coming summer arrived the other day - the 2017 Carlton Cellars Yamhill-Carlton Auxerrois, which is crisp and refreshing and best served nice and cold. There aren’t a lot of versions of Auxerrois out there, but I love this one, especially because it is from of my favorite Oregon wineries
… great with seafood, or just for sipping at 5 o’clock … or even at 4 o’clock. (It is almost summer. What the hell.)
Back Monday. Have a great weekend.