Over the years I think certain classic entertainment movies about media have had as much impact on my life’s decision to work in media and as a freelancer as did any actual journalism. As a freelancer, there are so few guiding lights, mentors or road maps along the way when you begin that you make many different sources into influences as you construct your own unique journey. Mainstream movies being no exception.
Over the recent holidays I watched a lot of classic movies. Among my favourites were movies about media that I’ve watched again and again and again. I thought it would be interesting to list a few – unabashedly “entertainment” movies made for the most part in Hollywood – and look at their influence and what I still “take away” from them. Many I saw first in reruns on late night TV as a kid or later during college film classes; I still enjoy them all greatly. I would posit that if you look up any of these classic movies yourself you will be greatly rewarded. First, they are vastly entertaining. Secondly, they say something about the media we love and sometimes hate and have chosen to work in. They are painless kaleidoscopic mirrors that reflect selected aspects of media’s past.
After you’ve read my list, please share your own personal favourites with us via the comments section at the end of this post.
And now… In no particular order…
* Network (1976). Written by the legendary playwright Paddy Chayefsky, Network is an angry, dark, deeply cynical film that still holds up incredibly well today. It satirizes the worst excesses of commercial American TV network news, accurately prophesying much of its future (today) as mindless entertainment in the service of corporate shilling, lacking any real journalistic integrity. A stunning Academy Award-winning performance by Peter Finch as the suicidal “mad prophet of the airwaves” ultimately assassinated on air “because he had lousy ratings” helped the film achieve its considerable box office success. Canadian trivia: the TV studio sequences towards the end of the movie, showing the new “improved” news-as-entertainment features, were all shot at Toronto’s CTV affiliate CFTO-TV.
This was one of the most influential “media” movies I ever saw as a kid. Its warnings about the dirty politics behind corporate media probably made me wary of ever getting too embroiled in any one media organization. In retrospect I seriously believe it had a pivotal role in helping me choose the freelance life.
Takeaway: Much that this scathing indictment of American commercial TV news predicted has come true. It should be viewed as a stunning milestone along the way that everyone saw but to which very few paid heed. Alas.
* Family: A Loving Look at CBC Radio (1991). This was the last documentary film ever made by Donald Brittain, pioneering documentary NFB filmmaker, which perfectly captures “a day in the life” of CBC Radio Toronto. Unashamedly a labour of love, the camera simply follows CBC Radio personalities of the day around the studios and out into the hallways as they go about their duties. It doesn’t sound like much but like a family photo album it manages to squeeze in so many happy memories of such a precious moment in time. This was more-or-less the CBC I grew up listening to and was determined to join somehow. And I did eventually – as have so many of you before and since – as a freelancer.
Takeaway: Looking back on this film you now begin to really see with hindsight the negative impact of 20 plus years of budgetary cut after cut after cut. Our national public radio broadcaster is still a service to be proud of and worth fighting to preserve but is in so many ways merely a shadow of its former self. Others might argue that this is not such a bad thing. See the film and judge for yourself.
* Broadcast News (1987). William Hurt as the good looking reporter going places in the news biz based upon his looks. Holly Hunter as the hard working behind the scenes perfectionist who schedules “crying time” at her desk. And Albert Brooks as the likable reporter with talent but not the looks that modern TV demands. Stereotypical characters that transcend their clichés thanks to skillful performances, this lighthearted look behind the scenes of TV news circa late 1980s works well as both a romance/comedy and as an overview of much that was wrong with commercial American TV news in its day. Its happy albeit bittersweet ending marks it as decidedly lightweight fodder. It was, however, groundbreaking in its day in terms of how it accurately depicted its subject matter.
Takeaway: BN showed the public, perhaps for the very first time, the importance of team work in television news as well as the role of behind-the-scenes personnel in backing up the on screen talent. Perhaps some of today’s cost cutting corporate bean counters should view it again to reacquaint themselves with the true value of a fully staffed, fully functioning newsroom.
* All The President’s Men (1976). The reality-based feature movie about the real life Watergate investigations by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (portrayed on screen by Redford and Hoffman). It showed, dramatically but with documented accuracy, the step by step unraveling of the infamous Watergate cover up that culminated in then President Nixon’s resignation in disgrace. Without a doubt the first film I ever saw as a kid that made me say, Hey! You can change things for the better with media. And actually made me want to.
Takeaway: Investigative journalism is by far the most expensive form of the craft and has been dropped altogether or downsized by so many miserly media operations. This film is an excellent reminder why it costs so much but also why it is such an important aspect of the profession, worthy of whatever it takes, especially today.
* My Favourite Year (1982). Loosely based on behind-the-scenes at the original Sid Caesar show in the early 1950s, this Richard Benjamin-directed affectionate tribute to the early live days of New York based TV comedy stars the late Peter O’Toole as a charming but drunken has-been of a movie star attempting to pay off back taxes with an uncertain appearance on live TV. That he ultimately manages to redeem himself provides a thoroughly satisfying ending, all seen through the eyes of the show’s novice writer character played by a young Mark Linn-Baker. Although pure fiction, the Mel Brooks-executive-produced story beautifully captures the sights, sounds and zeitgeist of that innovative and exciting era. (It portrays a period in the media long before my time on this planet, and if I could go back in history to work at any age in TV this would be it for me). It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s sweet and it’s among my favourite films – of all time. Richard Benjamin’s insightful audio commentary on the DVD is also definitely worth a listen.
Takeaway: Any time someone who claims to know more than you tells you something can’t be done (perhaps online or with new technology) watching this movie is a good reminder of what young folk did in early live TV when they didn’t know that what they were doing every week was thought to be impossible.
* The Front (1976). Starring Woody Allen, this is the loosely based-on-historical-reality story of the McCarthy era witch hunts in America. During which time talented, distinguished freelance writers were “blacklisted” for their alleged (but usually unproved) communist affiliations and were thereby unable to work on any network TV shows. Woody plays an “acceptable” writer with no actual talent who acts as a “front” for a stable of real writers unable to work under their own names. Woody brings his special brand of humour to his performance in a shameful, bitter story lacking much real life humour. Zero Mostel steals the movie in his role of a suicidal actor unable to find work. It is a performance that is especially poignant to watch as indeed he, Mostel, was actually blacklisted during the real McCarthy era.
Takeaway: Today’s journalistic chill induced by governments and corporate entities around the world in the name of “national security” has all been done before and for pretty much the exact same self-serving political/economic reasons. Change “communist” to “terrorist” and you see nothing much has really changed. You study history or you will be damned to repeat it. Of course, sometimes even when you do study it, you’re still damned.
TAGS: the born freelancer