Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Colbert’

Remembering Network: could we bring Chayefsky back for a sequel?

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Peter Finch won an Oscar for his performance as the news anchor Howard Beale in “Network.”

Today, I read in the news that presidential candidates are hiring high-priced teams of experts to make them appear authentic.

I’ve never seen Robert Redford in 1972’s The Candidate, but perhaps we’ve bypassed the comparative innocence of that story for the nihilistic prophecy of 1976’s Network, about the media distortion of fantasy into our new “reality.” Can kids today even understand that there was a time before all this began? “Thirty-five years later, Network remains an incendiary if influential film, and its screenplay is still admired as much for its predictive accuracy as for its vehemence: a relentless sense of purpose,” wrote Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times in 2011. Film critic Devin Faraci wrote last year: “In 1976 this was broad and crazy; in 2014 it feels like the world in which we live. The big difference is that the internet has taken the place of the TV networks. Very little in Network still reads as obvious satire.”


Faye Dunaway in her Oscar-winning performance.

Aaron Sorkin cited scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky when he accepted his Oscar for the screenplay of The Social Network, and wrote that “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network. ”

Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, said that Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor who goes off his rocker, “is a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel. Not just the nighttime people that I’m sort of a parody of, not just the opinion-making people, but even what is left of straight news.” Telling you what you feel … or arranging “spontaneous” reactions, or creating authenticity with authenticity experts.

Network was the dark vision of screenwriter Chayefsky (1923-81) who won an Oscar for his searing, outraged, and excellent script. Itzkoff, a few years ago, was digging through’s his archive, acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and said the papers “speak loudly for their absent author, documenting the angst and animus that consumed him on this highly personal project.” Network was the intelligent and witty expression of that rage, and Itzkoff described the progress of his scriptwriting, which earned him one of his several Academy Awards:


Chayefsky in the 1970s. Bettman/Corbis

Chayefsky seemed to sense an absurdist tone creeping in. “All this is Strangelove-y as hell,” he wrote. “Can we make it work?”

He was closing in on his central characters: Beale, the crumbling, suicidal anchor; Max Schumacher, the dispirited news division president; and Diana Christensen, the executive who is both Schumacher’s adversary and love interest. Yet Chayefsky appeared concerned that a thesis, any thesis, was eluding him, and his story was becoming increasingly nihilistic. … he confessed to himself, “I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings, and even that doesn’t mesh with the love story.”

There’s even a book about Network – written a few years later by (you guessed it) Dave Itzkoff. It’s called Mad As Hell: The Making of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies (Macmillan). Faraci was writing on the occasion of it’s publication. “So much of Chayefsky’s vision – what made it on screen and what never made it off the page – was prophetic. He truly saw where it was all going; early chapters of the book have Chayefsky, who got his start writing for TV, raging against how that medium had become debased, stupid and pandering. Everything he says about TV – the way it flatters the viewer, the ways it stultifies and the way it overmagnifies minor things – is absolutely applicable to the age of Buzzfeed. Chayefsky saw our downward slope, the one we’re still on.”

network4Sorkin called it “a devastating media-industry critique — one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.”

“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” he said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write The Internet.”

Everyone makes a big deal of the “I’m mad as hell” speech, but I think I like this one better:

“Television is not the truth. Television is a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, story tellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. … We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds.  We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the Tube tells you. You dress like the Tube. You eat like the Tube. You raise your children like the Tube. You even think like the Tube. This is mass madness! You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!”

Here’s the youtube clip. Take two aspirin, and play it regularly throughout the election season.


Tobias Wolff on the Colbert Report

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

TobiasWolffOkay, I’ll admit it’s a tiny little square below. But it’s worth watching. The backstory:  Stephen Colbert admits that J.D. Salingers Catcher in the Rye is his least favorite book, “the most important American novel I don’t get.” He prefers the Glass family stories. So he invited Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life, to convince him otherwise. “You will never convince me,” he warned on the Colbert Book Club.  Toby agreed it shouldn’t be taught to kids as mandatory high school reading:  “Part of the experience of finding that book is that it felt really subversive reading it.” The adult world is unmasked as “a nest of hypocrisy and phoniness. That’s something you want to find on your own. You don’t want your English teacher to be introducing you to the hypocrisy of adults.” So why doesn’t he, too, prefer the Glass family stories? Toby relaxed back in his chair and presented a rhetorical question: “You like to read sermons all day?” Colbert responded in a beat: “I like to give them.”  Who can argue with that?

See it all for yourself:


Peace Train? The Atlantic revisits Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Salman Rushdie

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

The paparazzi haven’t caught on yet, but I’m famous, kind of.  I’m in the cyberpages of The Atlantic this weekend, a feature item in “Atlantic Wire’s The Long War Between Salman Rushdie and Cat Stevens” by Max Fisher.  The “war” refers to the “still-running and extremely bitter war of words between the two men.”

However, the words from the crooner were not merely “bitter” — as I described in my post, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam was supporting murder, however much he may (or may not) have changed his position since, in carefully crafted ambiguous statements, such as the one here. Stevens clearly wishes to move beyond the controversy, yet fails to show the slightest remorse or concern for the well-being for those whose lives he has further endangered (the list has grown much longer since Rushdie’s 1989 fatwa, including the murder of several people).

Fisher notes:

The conflict reignited most recently when a reporter asked Rushdie for his thoughts on Stevens’s performance at the Washington, D.C., rally held by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.

Actually, Rushdie was text messaging a friend in the media, not responding to a reporter’s questions.

Fisher noted in my follow-up post I was “reporting more of Rushdie’s unhappiness.”  Well… yes… I guess “unhappiness” describes it.  I’d be pretty unhappy too if someone endorsed nutters who were putting a bounty on my head.  (He also says Rushdie was telling “another Stanford blogger” — nope, it was still Nick Cohen, a Standpoint blogger.  )

It sounds like Fisher was writing on the trot, like most bloggers.  I plead guilty to the same charge.

Although I was aware that Salman Rushdie was making more and more public appearances (in fact, I covered one here), I wasn’t aware that he has no longer considers himself officially in “hiding.” Brave man.  I understand that a fatwa can only be repealed by those issuing them, and Khomeini is dead.  That means any nutcase who wants to make a name for himself can pick off Rushdie during his guest stint at Emory University or during one of his lectures on contemporary literature.

Fisher comments: “Havens [sic]  concludes by lamenting the state of free speech, although it’s not clear if she’s criticizing Rushdie’s objection that Stevens would appear at the rally or Stevens’s possible support for killing Rushdie.”

Got me again — writing on the trot.  My free-speech comments may have appeared to come out of the blue, so apologies for that.  Here’s where I was coming from:  When I raise topics like these, I get objections that, for example, Rushdie isn’t such a red-hot writer anymore. I must nowadays reaffirm that I support a writer’s right to write even a bad book without being stabbed, gunned down, or beheaded.  Similarly, when I defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s right to exist, even when she’s offensive, I’m told that she’s received support from the right-wingers.  I support non-violent free speech for the left and right.  Similarly, with Molly Norris, I’m told what a bad idea it was to launch a “Everybody Draw Mohammed” day, and that she was “asking for it” by doing so (even though she later withdrew her suggestion and apologized for it) — but the whole point of being a cartoonist is to be edgy, and nobody “asks for” a fatwa.

I will even support Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s right to sing Golden Oldies at a rally for “sanity” — but I also reserve the right to call it out — and I will call out the lazy, ironic, faux-sophistication of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, & co., as they sit on the sidelines on important moral issues, as if the issues do not have anything to do with them.

In the words of Jeff Sypeck:

“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply.”

My comments on this issue are becoming boilerplate.  I guess this isn’t covered in 9th grade civics anymore.  Witness this witless comment on the Standpoint article:

… The point is that Jon Stewart didn’t say he was “fine with it,” Salman Rushdie interpreted Jon Stewart’s apology as such. Who cares what Rushdie thinks anyway. Khomeini is dead and Salman Rushdie, well, he’s yesterday’s man too… indeed if it wasn’t for the dated Fatwa no-one would even be talking about him anymore.

Rest in Peace: Theo van Gogh

It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at a juncture where we have to explain all this stuff.  Again and again and again.

Peace is more than dreaming and singing songs.  Sometimes it requires courage.  In fact, it doesn’t mean much unless it does.  Otherwise, it’s just the easy pacifism of the non-combatant.

Some people “get it.”  Last March, Michael Gordon-Smith wrote for Australian Broadcasting wrote:

Ultimately, however, it’s not something to be made light of. It’s not a yawn. It mattered then and it matters now. Yusuf supported killing a man because someone took offence at what he had written.  …

But 20 years on Yusuf seems to think all the wrongs were done by others. Journalists asked him loaded questions. His replies were misinterpreted. It was the book, not the call for violence that “destroyed the harmony between peoples and created an unnecessary international crisis”.   At worst, his remarks were silly but they were dry English humour. …
He will probably sing Peace Train at his concerts:

Now I’ve been crying lately,
thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating,
why can’t we live in bliss?

It’s time he stopped singing the question and answered it. He had an opportunity to stand for peace and tolerance when the need for such a voice was critical. Instead, when Geoffrey Robertson asked the question, he found no room for tolerance or doubt, but with dogmatic certainty took the side of violence and tyranny.

For me, it remains the most important thing he ever did. Unless he revisits the issue and finds room for difference, in my mind he’s forever defined by the choice he made in those weeks in 1989. The only message I hear from him is the echo of Khomeini’s threat not just to Salman Rushdie but to every free thinker in the world: If you speak your mind we may kill you.

Salman Rushdie speaks out: The troubling case of Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Ummmm… how much “copyright infringement” can you have in 10 seconds?

Salman Rushdie has spoken out against the appearance of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) at a weekend rally with the purported aim of restoring sanity: “I’ve always liked Stewart and Colbert but what on earth was Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam doing on that stage? If he’s a ‘good Muslim’ like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then I’m the Great Pumpkin. Happy Halloween.”  You may recall that the popular singer supported the fatwa against Rushdie, way back when.

The case of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is a troubling one.  He was one of my favorite singers in my misspent youth — one of those cases where I don’t want to believe the truth, either.  I applaud his charity work for UNICEF, Palestinian refugees, and the children in Gaza. But the data on basic human freedoms are pretty damning.

This from the Observer‘s Andrew Anthony: “He told me in 1997, eight years after saying on TV that Rushdie should be lynched, that he was in favour of stoning women to death for adultery. He also reconfirmed his position on Rushdie. He set up the Islamia school in Brent, which is currently undergoing council-backed expansion. Its mission statement three years ago explicitly stated that its aim was to bring about the submission of the individual, the community and the world at large to Islam. For this aim it now receives state funding. Its an incubator of the most bonkers religious extremism and segregation, and is particularly strong on the public erasure of women. Why do people go to such lengths to ignore these aspects of Yusuf Islam’s character and philosophy?”

A recap: While I don’t care for the hectoring tone of the BBC inquisition by Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, the 1989 grilling is here.  An excerpt:

Robertson: You don’t think that this man deserves to die?
Y. Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Robertson: Yes.
Y. Islam: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
Y. Islam: Uh, no, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered by a judge or by the authority to carry out such an act – perhaps, yes.
[Later, Robertson discusses a protest where an effigy of Rushdie is to be burned]
Robertson: Would you be part of that protest, Yusuf Islam, would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burned?
Y. Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.

The Cat in ’76

Troubling, also, is the disappearance of Rushdie’s youtube comments here and here and here, due to “copyright claims by Yusuf Islam.”  How much of a copyright infringement can you do in 10 seconds?  (Isn’t ten seconds of anything fair use?)

I’d like to believe that the singer’s objections to these youtube clips signals a reconsideration of views.  But a low-key objection (let alone legal threats) is not enough at this point; what is needed is a full repudiation.

In 2007, Rushdie wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph:

However much Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam may wish to rewrite his past, he was neither misunderstood nor misquoted over his views on the Khomeini fatwa against The Satanic Verses (Seven, April 29). In an article in The New York Times on May 22, 1989, Craig R Whitney reported Stevens/Islam saying on a British television programme “that rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author Salman Rushdie, ‘I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing’.”

He added that “if Mr Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help, ‘I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is’.”

In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Mr Whitney added, Stevens/Islam, who had seen a preview of the programme, said that he “stood by his comments”.

Let’s have no more rubbish about how “green” and innocent this man was.

All in all, his Saturday appearance was a strange way to revel in sanity. His appearance in a rally to celebrate post-modern irony goes beyond irony — especially remembering the solidarity of Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Andrei Voznesensky, Tariq Ali, Adam Michnik, Harold Pinter, and many, many others in 1989.  Mr. Yusuf, I still love your music, but… I’ll stand by Rushdie, even though I don’t like him much.

Am I missing something in this picture?  Please let me know.

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Muslim sings “Peace Train.”  Rushdie remains in hiding.

Postscript on 11/2:  More dispiriting news from Rushdie posted above, here.

Postscript on 11/14: The Atlantic weighs in — more here.