Searching for Howard Beale: The Fall of Our Discontent

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

*Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Ya, what’s going on

Wall Street: a neighborhood that handles the finances of those elusive job creators who have perpetrated the ultimate coup: enacting a suspect political dogma that the masses think they understand. Simple wording and snappy sound bites are all part of the gelatinous political-stew of lies and half-truths. But wait a minute, not all the masses have eaten this last supper of deception. Zuccotti Park has become a festival of signs and faces of protest which brings to mind a certain declaration – the emotional genesis for many a proletariat movement – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Today, life imitates art imitates life… (I could go on). The art here is the 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, Directed by Sidney Lumet) where the mad rantings of prophetically sensitive newsman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) send the network establishment into the hair-pulling tizzy of damage control. They fire the unhappy newsman deeming this much easier than attending to the root of his suicidal outbursts. Beale’s position is saved by a friend’s intervention and his promise to apologize to his viewers. But the emotional waters have already boiled and all it takes is heat from the lights, camera and the countdown to spill over. Once more, rather than the promised apology, Beale rages at the camera calling life meaningless and “bullshit!” The “angry man” scenario is an overnight (today it would be instantaneous) ratings hit moving the network to give Beale his own show. Network is ripe with subtext and the firing of Beale highlights the old Hollywood maxim – “…you’ll never work in this town again — until we need you.” The personal urgency behind Beale’s rage remains unexplored by those he works for and the audience he entertains with his emotional antics as the “Mad    Prophet” who refuses to be ignored any longer. Timing is everything in love, politics and business and Beale hits the perfect note when he persuades his audience to throw open their windows and shout the “mad as hell…” mantra of the masses. The people have found their leader  and, at his behest, will send letters and telegrams (yesterday’s e-mail and twitter) to the White House in protest of the UBS network company being bought out by a Saudi conglomerate (any of this sound familiar?). Beale’s pending emotional breakdown is ignored even as his message is being co-opted and twisted by his employers who fear his power.  The big boss does manage to get a naïve Beale to put his evangelical zeal to work on another, less populist cause. As a result, ratings tumble but Beale is kept on and, like a public hanging in which the corpse is left (as a lesson) to twist in the wind, his messages, along with Howard Beale the Mad Prophet, are barely remembered.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

In 2000, because it was considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” Network  was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. And rightfully so. Those protesting in Zuccotti Park are mad as hell and (in a figurative sense) refuse to continue the dance with their executioners. It is as if Network creators had their fingers on the pulse of the future.

I have a journalism student who spent several days photographing, talking and sleeping at

courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

Zuccotti park as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This highly  motivated and intelligent young woman believes that education is her key (as it has always been) to open the gates of success. I wondered if she would come in contact with other college students, those who perhaps have already acquired the key to said gate. Would they tell her how the key no longer fits?  How can there be a future with bright horizons when there is no present to occupy? Sadly, it is part of the grand deception; the horizons that once belonged to today’s youth have been bundled, parsed and sold as part of the derivative stew of lies and half-truths. Yes, education can be the key to success, but not in a society that allows the 1%  to leave the building and take all horizons with them.

In the quest for lost horizons, frustration becomes the muse of the masses from Egypt to     Oakland and major points in between. If Howard Beale represents the 99%; those  unemployed without hope and those workers with more empathy than hope, then the 1%,

A wall Street-off Scott Lynch/Flickr

the vile and heartless who today would mock the protesters as they sip champagne on a balcony overlooking Wall Street, is represented by Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) the network programming head whose spiked heels have pierced many backsides in her race to the top of the ratings chart. Like the Wall Street dwellers, Christiansen has crapped where she lives but a little cinematic license allows her to close the door on the smell.

Not so in life – today.  Chickens truly do come home to roost- witness Zuccotti Park. But, until these demonstrations manifest in a change that will slay greed thereby returning futures to their rightful owners, these Wall Streeters get the same warning of self destruction that Network‘s Christiansen received from her lover (William Holden), “You are [greed] incarnate…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to [true] joy.” For Diana Christiansen, “All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” And so it goes with a life owned by those who would mock  misery with their bitter toasts.

   *From, What’s Goin’ On/Marvin Gaye

Picture Paris: a Photo Essay – The Metros

 Let Us Not Forget Paris

Mapping the metro world

My lapses in travel posts show a laziness that embarrasses and motivates me at once.  However, my time between posts was not all idle; I did use it to process my experiences in Paris – not in a lineal way (me lineal? Nah) but more visceral; I sorted the colors, the stories behind the structures, the tastes of the wines and the smiles of the genuinely nice people I was fortunate enough to meet. No, Paris was not all grumpy and ill-mannered people and from this distance I can appreciate, more fully, the good and the beautiful.

Speaking of the good and (sometimes) beautiful, the Paris metro system is by far the best means of getting around. Some Paris metros have a theme and my favorite was all copper Arts et Metiers (so named for the Museum of Arts and Crafts) with its constant luminous interior giving it an other worldly feel. Standing on the platform, at a loss for words, I could only guess at the fate of all this shining beauty if it existed in some U.S.

Copper clad metro - Arts et Metiers in Paris' 3rd Arrondissement

city: There  would be some Americans who would have this entire metro stop stripped down to its girders before anyone realized they were being robbed. The copper would be parsed and sold quick and silent to those who make a living in that shadow economy known as the black market.  Just a thought.

Without FDR , I suspect this metro would have a more German name.

The Metro Quatre-September (the closest to home base) was so named to commemorate the date of the beginning of the French Third Republic after the capture of Napoleon III in

Quatre-Septembre metro - line 3

1870. The entry, wrought iron twisted into the metro name became a point of arrival and departure so many times that I began to feel rooted to the area.

Opera lovers

Opera Metro with two lovers  sealing their pact  with Paris : they really were kissing with abandon.

And then there were those metros treated much like the starving unseen we fail to acknowledge due to a collective shame, guilt or worse, lack of compassion. These metros (usually in the outer arrondissements) wage war daily against the olfactory with the stench of unwashed walkways and walls crawling with urine and vomit. The steady barrage of smells are the only weapons that these metros’ have at their disposal. I did not capture the travesty of human injustice that is the unloved metro. The times I could, I chose otherwise as there were humans – often just one but other times children sat with their elder (on a thin blanket to protect them from the filth but not the stink) in simple supplication. The yoga of misery; sitting behind an empty cup, legs lotus-crossed, praying-hands together beneath a bowed head begging – for anything. To photograph this agony would be to cement the fate of the subject – for me, such a purloined image would never change. I began to see little difference between photography and thievery – making me a thief of space, time  and experiences that were not mine to share.

What Matters Most…

I work for a NYS educational institution that, curiously, expects students to attend          classes on Veterans’ Day and gives the same students Columbus Day off. Then I got this e-card which informs me just why these students need this explorer’s day off.

I get it now.

CONTAGION: Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood

Cinematic themes featuring a world done in by some uncontrollable force – Godzilla,   Disturbing the universe meteorites, nuclear weapons and, in the case of Contagion,  virus, are not new. Although, Contagion does take our collective fear of a pandemic and brings that fear home in a very realistic manner. This threat is not wrapped in the guise of some cute-faced monkey (think Hot Zone) but rather it arrives on a beautiful (if unfaithful) host from it its Asian swine/bat origin. This virus is off and running throughout the world population in the first half hour of the film and, until the end, we can only guess at the virus’s epicenter or day-one of its cycle. The reality of such a disaster coming as the peace, love and happiness generation enters old age seems deceptively unimportant and begs the question, what remains of this world for Matt Damon, Kate Winslett and Gwynneth Paltrow – the beautiful representatives  of the generation to follow? Well, death of course (for some).   According to Dr. Paul A. Offit of Medscape Today, Steven Soderberg’s production has not sacrificed “science in favor of drama.” Contagion’s realism carries a cautionary note. And while I didn’t leave the theatre in immediate search of hand sanitizer I did attempt to count the times I rubbed my eyes.

Contagion did what a good movie should do – educate. As part of the scientifically uninitiated, I came away understanding rates of viral spreading. The ubiquitous numbers and web-like connections were made comprehensible by putting in perspective this virus’s contagion rate compared to diseases like polio and influenza. I learned too the role of fomites.  A fomite is a means of transmission – that is – any contaminated surface or inanimate thing, (clothing, dishes, doorknobs, telephones, money) once touched, can and did permit rapid spread of this deadly virus.  Soderberg’s montage of Paltrow’s final days drive home the tragic consequences of social and cultural obliviousness. I saw a side of Paltrow that I never want to see again.  Contagion’s backdrop of boarded up houses, lanes of traffic heading one way, and lines of ragged, cold and hungry people waiting for an untested vaccine speaks for itself. One scene provided frightening detail of how society will break down in the face of hopelessness. When the long line of sick and healthy alike are told the allotment of an herbal remedy has been exhausted, it comes as no surprise that people, utterly deprived of hope, will return to the sewers of their baser instincts. Pharmacies are smashed and looted, grocery stores hold only what can’t be consumed, and people are killed as their homes are raided. Even the home of Laurence Fishburne, the CDC official, is broken into by masked looters looking for any of the vaccine. It is here I wondered about the total breakdown of authority. If the breakdown was as complete as implied why would these trespassers wear masks? Old habits die hard I suppose.

The virus gets top billing in Contagion with Winslett, Paltrow, Damon, Fishburne and Elliot Gould doing the grunt work of surviving, dying and breaking all the rules to find the antidote. Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers a bit of realism as he interviews Fishburne, the CDC official thrown under the bus for being human. Fishburne’s character finds its foil in Alan Krumwiede played by Jude Law. Law’s character comes with a penchant for promotion of the pseudo-cure Forsythia.  The connection between the idea of Forsythia as a cure and the idea of Forsythia as a money making tool is a bit fuzzy made so by Law’s paranoid and heart-felt acting on behalf of the unproven homeopathic remedy.   Law’s political paranoia comes dressed as passionate righteousness in the form of his blog “Truth Serum.” This is Glenn Beck territory sans the tears. Law’s character irresponsibly yells government conspiracy and his legions fall in line lock-step with the theory.  Contagion holds important questions that, in the case of real Krumwiede-type citizens, should be answered now – not in a time of widespread panic. Is blogging journalism? Or is blogging, as one character implies, just speech with punctuation? Also, and most importantly for professional journalists, is it unfair to expect some sense of journalistic propriety here?   Krumwiede has millions of followers and he is, in a sense, screaming fire in a crowded theatre. Conceivably, millions of lives depend on his relationship with the written word. Alas, for Krumwiede, blogging is simply a narcissistic venture that smothers all truth.

There was hope to be had by the end of Contagion– even as panic dances on the slender fomite thread of ignorance. Trust in science is a huge message here. Today, trust in human nature may seem at an all-time low, but one cannot rule out the potential reality of individual humans willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice for the furtherance of the species.  I left the theatre rubbing my eyes and considering how rapidly society has changed. In my day, a half million people could gather, share music and fluids and no pandemic. Now, a forest is disturbed and an ancient virus is vexed to new life.