Good art sheds light on the human condition. Great art shows that the human condition never really changes. It’s why Sophocles’ dramas, when they’re still taught and performed, still make sense to audiences thousands of years later, and why in Melbourne later this year an Aboriginal drama company will stage an adaptation of King Lear: across culture, across time, human nature never changes. It’s also why a film like Paddy Chayefsky’s Network is required viewing, or re-viewing, for anyone shaking their head at the current and utterly depressing state of America’s politics, economy, and so-called mainstream media.
Network was made in 1976 with the action taking place against the background of a corrupt and decadent media; a disaffected, down-in-the-dumps America; cynicism about corporate control of just about everything; and a general fear that things were going to get lot worse before they got any better.
Which, from the perspective of this American abroad, sounds a lot like the US of 2012.
I was thinking about this in the hours after a lunch at Masuya, a nondescript Japanese diner in O’Connell Street in the CBD. Several years ago I worked just around the corner from the place, but had little idea it was there. The entrance is discrete, and diners have to descend a flight of stairs that’s tucked around a corner. From the outside it looks like the currency of the realm might just be “Dancer Dollars”. Never mind, it’s worth a visit – indeed, becoming a regular. The sushi is fresh, luscious, and diverse; my companion’s tempura chicken bento box almost gave me a case of menu envy. Service was friendly, brisk, and efficient with an eye towards keeping tables turning over and getting the Salarymen back to work.
That’s the other thing: it’s a great place for a business lunch, because the acoustics are such that while there’s a substantial ambient rumble of voices that makes it all but impossible to eavesdrop, the placement of pillars means you can always hear the person across the table.
Would that the conversation, with an Australian deeply concerned about the state of the US and indeed the state of the world, was so cheery. Over the course of the hour we dissected in minute detail all the things that could happen between now and November – at this point the news that the US Ambassador to Libya was killed by Islamist nutters had not yet broken, though the storming of the Cairo embassy was front-of-mind – and just what Obama’s people might do to keep power in a close race. We talked a lot about how similar things felt to the ‘70s: the Oil Crisis, the Tehran embassy siege, the feckless, apologetic foreign policy, the bankrupt cities (back then it was New York, not Chicago), the comparisons went on and on.
It was sobering, and not just because the only tipple was green tea.
But on reflection, life goes on. Human nature goes on. America went through the 1970s and survived. In fact, out of that slummy miasma of a decade, of which Network provides a damn fine time capsule, emerged Ronald Reagan.
Back then the news was deeply corrupt: as Faye Dunaway’s anti-hero character, network executive Diane Christensen put it, “I watched your 6 o’clock news today; it’s straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park; on the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So, I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you’re right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us.”
All Christensen missed were the journalists who coordinate their questions to cover for the president and she’d have a pretty good picture of the news media today. (Christensen, in one hilarious scene, introduces herself to a group of black liberation separatists with whom she’s trying to ink a reality TV deal – in the days before anyone had invented the phrase, “reality TV” – as “a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.” Replace “black liberation separatists” with “Muslim brotherhood Islamists” and, well, you see the parallels.)
Culturally, we’ve been here before. The train wreck that is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is exactly the sort of program that would have gotten the green light from Christiansen, who muses at one point in the film, ‘I’m thinking of doing a homosexual soap opera, “The Dykes”: The heart-rending saga of a woman hopelessly in love with her husband’s mistress.’
And of course there’s Howard Beale’s famous mad-as-hell speech:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy …
Back then, there was little to do but yell out your window. There was no internet, there were no blogs or alternatives to the MSM. There was no Tea Party. Four more years of Obama is not inevitable, nor is American decline. The world came out of the torpor of the Seventies and a decade later the Soviets, who were supposed to bury as all, were finished. China, in its present form, is likely headed for a similar fate as its own bubbles unwind: freer societies, on balance and over time, prevail, even if there may be a lot of chaos and structural adjustment in the meantime.