Viewer Guide: Network and Jack, Jules, Esther & Me with Richard Peña

April 13, 2018 | Chris Mather

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Peter Finch in Network

This week’s classic is the 1976 satire Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet.

Howard Beale is having a meltdown. As portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Peter Finch, Howard’s once illustrious career as the esteemed news anchor at the “Union Broadcasting System” is in steep decline. Informed that UBS is taking him off the air in two weeks due to low ratings by news division president Max Schumacher, played by William Holden, Howard enters a psychological free fall. Telling Max over drinks that he’s going to “blow his brains out right in the middle of the seven o’clock news,” Max imagines “The Death Hour,” a new hit show that will “wipe Disney right off the air.”

Howard, however, is not kidding. The next night at the end of his newscast, Howard not only makes an unplanned announcement that he’s retiring because of “poor ratings,” but that he will kill himself on-air in one week to give “the public relations people enough time to promote the show.” And with that, Network takes off on a wild rollercoaster ride through the cut-throat world of network television, a surreal creep show of upside-down morality where nothing is out of bounds so long as it pulls a big rating. Leading the pack of UBS jackals exploiting Howard’s personal crisis for profit are Faye Dunaway as the head of programming, Robert Duvall as a network chief, and Ned Beatty as an ominous corporate chairman.

It’s recently become something of a fashion to point out examples from pop culture that anticipated our current state of affairs. From Archie Bunker to Falling Down, the image of the embittered white males demanding what is rightfully ‘theirs’ has seemingly coalesced into a national movement. Does any line more succinctly capture the essence of this than, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”? It’s a sadly appropriate slogan for our time, post-political and beyond reason. The creators of Network latched on to something very real but rarely discussed.

Can you imagine what Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky might have to say about state of the media in the intervening decades since Network’s 1976 premiere? On so many levels the film seems eerily prescient about the imminent arrival of cable news and reality TV, as well as the internet and social media.

Chayefsky may have been somewhat inspired by the real life on-air suicide of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota anchorwoman who did in fact kill herself on live television in the summer of 1974. The headline-grabbing event was recently dramatized in the two 2016 films, Christine starring Rebecca Hall and the documentary Kate Plays Christine by Robert Greene. Director Sidney Lumet, however, went on record saying that Chayefsky had started working on Network before Chubbuck’s death, and had been motivated to write a screenplay that captured the bottled up frustration and disillusionment that was so prevalent in the economic downturn after of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Nominated for ten Academy Awards, Network won four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Chayefsky and nearly sweeping all four acting categories with statuettes for Beatrice Straight as Best Supporting Actress, Faye Dunaway as Best Actress, and Peter Finch as Best Actor. Sadly, Finch died of a heart attack at age 60 in January 1977, with his Oscar accepted posthumously by Chayefsky and his wife Eletha. Chayefsky would also die from cancer just four years later in 1982 at the untimely age of 58.


Jack, Jules, Esther & Me

This week’s indie is Jack, Jules, Esther & Me, written and directed by Daniel Poliner.

Jack, Jules, Esther & Me focuses on four high school graduates over the course of their final summer weekend before leaving for college. The “me” in the title is Luis, or Lou, played by Alexander Flores. As Lou’s immigrant family busily plans a farewell fiesta for him, he is much more interested in planning his complicated seduction of Jules. Jules just happens to be the downstairs neighbor of Lou’s best friend Jack, an affable Park Avenue slacker whose privileged Manhattan life is a world away from Lou’s working class Jackson Heights’ neighborhood.

Lou devises an intricate scheme to win Jules’ affection before it’s too late, but no sooner is it launched than it starts to unravel. To salvage what he can, he enlists the help of his friend Esther to act as an unwitting accomplice. Yet despite his ongoing efforts, Lou’s best laid plans just keeping getting undone, leading the unlikely foursome on a series of character-defining misadventures.

Premiering at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, Jack, Jules, Esther & Me marked Daniel Poliner’s feature film directing debut. In writing the script, Poliner drew on his experiences working as an SAT tutor for several well to do Manhattan families. He was also helped by the observations of his wife Megan, a public school teacher in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who helped Poliner broaden his story to include a more diverse group of teens, both in terms of ethnicity and of class.

In our text and social media obsessed times, it’s refreshing to see a film in which teenage characters actually talk to each other. Poliner brings admirable elegance and sensitivity, especially in the first party scene of his quartet. For many of you, and certainly for me, the long silences, sidelong glances, off-kilter comments and general sense of tension that pervades the atmosphere will feel achingly, even frighteningly, familiar.

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