Network (1976)

Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums


Taylor Swift – 1989


How brilliant is “Blank Space”?

When I was with my girlfriend, I couldn’t listen to it. It was a laughing warning sign, taunting me that all this happiness is bound to end. When she dumped me, I still couldn’t listen to it. It laughed harder and bragged how it told me so. It’s more than a take on Taylor’s ‘serial dating’. It’s a song that acknowledge the futility of the Pursuit of Love.

We all know that most relationships won’t last. Marriage is just a fancy ceremony. Yet we keep going, still trying to find that person. Taylor takes a look from above and laughs how repetitive it all is. There’s hope that it might be worth all the work (“You can tell me when it’s over/if the high was worth the pain”) but that’s it. Taylor doesn’t even consider the possibility that this time it might work.

You’d think that in the age when science and atheism are popular, people would be more cynical. I’m surrounded by people who have a strong faith in love and that we will all find The One. “Blank Space” is a rarity in a world whose view of romance is almost cult-ish.

That song is a towering achievement in an album where nothing tries to match it.

Taylor made a career out of singing about heartbreak. That’s not unique, but to her credit she always had some insight to add to that never-ending subject. On 1989, it sounds like the subject is no longer important to her.

There are a lot of songs about relationships that failed, but there is no sorrow here. The reason we sing about heartbreak and listen to those songs is because we can’t just get over it. Someone in the world has it worse, but heartbreak is a painful experience even when it’s boring. We’re afraid of taking chances because every hurt makes it worse.

Taylor sounds like she can afford to get hurt. It fell apart on about 5 songs here, but Swift just shrugs it off. These are not anthems of resilience. These are songs about heartbreak where the singer moves on after a week. It’s like Ed Sheeran, only less creepy.

Maybe this is how reality works now. I know 3 girls who exited relationships and immidiately found new suitors. Taylor is a beautiful and successful singer, so I’m sure she has plenty of hot guys at the door. When you can get so many hot and famous guys, does it really matter when it falls apart? A replacement is on the way. It’s better than Ed Sheerans’ attempt at having one night stands with girls dying for romance, but it still misses the point.

The hotness of the guys is important. Taylor discovers sexuality on 1989. When young Pop stars discover sexuality. it’s scary. Many try to use sex as a form of rebellion. They dress half-naked in the music videos and we’re supposed to think they’re unique for having sex (like everyone else does?).

Taylor’s sexuality is different. She’s closer to Tove Lo than Nicki Minaj. She doesn’t brag about how many guys stare at her ass. She’s simply enjoying being found attractive by attractive guys, and being attracted to them. There are no explicit songs about sex, but the delivary is very sensual. “Style” sounds like Kylie Minogue, only more tame. “Wildest Dreams” is all about sex. She doesn’t throw herself at the subject like Tove Lo or Minogue, but it’s her first steps towards it and they’re great. If Taylor made an album that’s all about sex, it will turn out great. The way she sings ‘a tight little skirt’ is sexier than anything Minaj or Lady Gaga will ever do.

Speaking of “Wildest Dreams”, it’s the song that symbolizes the main problem. Everyone said it sounds like Lana Del Rey. Why it’s not as good as Lana is what’s interesting. Lana Del Rey made songs about being attracted to Hot Bad Guys and about all the fun and tragedy it involved. She put the excitement right next to the fall and asked us if it was worth it.

There is danger in “Off to the Races”. There is tragedy in “Born to Die”. There’s nothing like that in Taylor’s song. The guy she’s into is tall, handsome and is good at being bad. She doesn’t address how it affects her. The relationship doesn’t last, obviously, but where’s the heartbreak and the pain? Where is the grieving? Taylor sounds invincible. She wishes that the guy would remember her and that’s it. That’s not the brave-face act that made Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” so good. That one had cracks in the surface.

Taylor was never an outsider. She tried to paint herself as such in songs like “You Belong to Me”, but it’s hard to be a beautiful outcast in a society where female beauty is worshipped. 1989 is a step in admitting that she’s one of the Beautiful People. That’s why “Style” sounds so honest. That’s why on “Shake It Off” she doesn’t diss her haters or prove to us she’s strong but celebrates herself. Both of these are a lot of fun.

The rest of the songs sound like weird celebrations of being attracted to Hot Bad Guys who know how to get the girl. I’m happy for Taylor she can now afford to jump from relationship to relationship without suffering heartbreak, but it’s not good material for heartbreak music. At worst, she sounds smug and unpleasant, disconnected from How People Feel. El-P’s frustration over “Welcome to New York” makes sense. New York must seem great when you’re a beautiful successful singer, but all these underground rappers have a different perspective. Hot Bad Guys aren’t a problem when you’re attractive, but when suitors are less common then every one matters and every one hurts.

There are few songs that sound like leftover from a different era. “Out of the Woods” is Midwest Emo lyrics in a Pop song. It uses imagery over spelling out how the narrator feels, and Taylor sounds vulnerable and unsure in the chorus. Although she abandoned country completely, the narration of the song makes you wonder whether there’s a Bluegrass demo of it. “Clean” also helps conclude the album with the realization that Taylor is strong, she left the heartbreaks behind and she can move on. Does that mean we get her sex album now?

At least Taylor’s talent for hooks isn’t gone. 1989 doesn’t fail like most Pop albums do. There are no shortage of good hooks here. Despite Taylor’s detatchment, “I Wish You Would”, “Wildest Dreams” and “Bad Blood” all have poppin’ melodies. She also saved the melodies for the best lyrics, so the result is overall a pleasant, but disappointing album. At least Taylor doesn’t sound out of steam. She’s probably just not out of the woods yet.

3 blank spaces out of 5

Attack on Titan (Shinkegi No Kyojin)


We have a weird obsession with our own self-destruction. It’s not just stories about how we’re destroying the Earth. We are attracted to the sight of humans being butchered, cut up and eaten. The arts have constantly provided a safe place for people to view these things, knowing these people aren’t really dying.

As profound and deep as it sounds, it also gave rise to exploitation films. Sometimes, they get a budget and we get something like the Saw series. The worst offenders are those that use the grim’n’dark atmosphere of violence to shock. The audience for Saw is there for the visual spectacle, but many people are still sure grimdarkness is a sign of depth and maturity. Just look at all those crappy FPS games with monochromatic tough guys, or that very popular fantasy series that’s all about who will be the king.

The premise sure sounds like it will join these ranks. Anime is full of overblown violence, especially in shows with a very serious tone. There’s also a realistic art style to boot. After a few episodes, though, you notice you spent more time with the characters rather than looking at titans eating humans.

Attack on Titan never feels like it’s even trying to join the rank of shlock grimdarkness. This is a very humane story, one where the characters are much more important than what happens next. It doesn’t even sink into exploitating their suffering. It’s far more excited with the variety of humans to linger on one detail.

Calling Attack on Titan a story that loves humans sound silly. Heads are being chopped off and there are a lot of assholes around, but that’s the strength. It looks at humanity’s worst aspects, admits their exist and still refuses to give up on it.

In fact, it’s a criticism of such misanthropy. The titans are distorted versions of us. That’s a visualization of how misanthropes see humanity – as senseless animals just bent on destruction. Yet the whole purpose the titans exist, just to chop humans to destroy them all is the logical end of misanthropy.

It’s not a caricature, though. The creators understand why misanthropes exist in the first place. Cruelty is everywhere. Sometimes it’s cliches about how the elite only cares about themselves (Thankfully, the series doesn’t linger on that too much). Sometimes we get a more interesting look at how assholes are born. A military police officer can’t hear the explanation of how all these destruction is going to get humanity anywhere. Right now his own world is under attack. We care more about our home environment than we do about humanity as a whole.

Caring about the whole isn’t easy. The series presents two ways of doing it. Either persevere as if nothing is happening and hide behind the walls, or make great sacrifices, risk losing everything but also gain everything.

It’s not an easy choice at all. The ideal situation is that Erwin’s plans will work, but there’s no guarantee it will. We’re always encouraged to take risks, but the reason it’s a risk in the first place is because of the possibility of failure.

Failure is an ever-looming presence in Attack on Titan. Plans never go as expected, and sometimes even Erwin isn’t sure where to go from that failure. The series asks whether the risk is worth taking even if the plan fails. It doesn’t present a simplistic, complete failure. The characters always gain something from the risks they take. A complete loss is easy to write and doesn’t leave much to explore. Rather, it asks whether what was gained was worth the exchange.

While this focus on dealing with failure is admirable (and possibly pretty rare in these types of anime), it sometimes become repetitive. The series never sinks into milking its tragedy. We see titans eating humans, but just enough to understand the horror of it all. The camera never lingers on dead bodies and titans chewing on a human. We still get an overpowered enemy for the ending, though.

The last part of the series goes in a different direction. It’s a nice risk, but I’m still not sure whether it was worth it. It’s an extended action sequence that’s well-animated and exciting, but can feel too out-of-place. Up until then the series was concerned with the characters. We got various worldviews and personalities and saw them interact. The training arc is especially great. The action sequence relies on more on what will happen next than on the characers’ personalities.

There are still character moments there. A moment of banter between the elite soldier defines what makes this series so engrossing. The way each of them talks is modified by their personality (Oluo’s narcissism, Petra’s empathy). The action is also entertaining enough. It’s well-animated, unique to the series rather than just generic sword swinging and uses extended, moving shots. There is a kinetic energy to it. The camera moves as the soldiers fly with their gear, and that transmits this motion more effective.

Too bad their enemy is pretty dull. It borders on invincible. Fighting an all-powerful enemy can be used well, but only psychologically (As in Harlan Ellison’s story about mouths and screaming). An action scene against an enemy who can block each attack quickly becomes repetitive. There’s a reason why the last fighting scene in Medabots is so short.

The enemy is given the occasional downfall and these are the most intense moments. Anytime it breaks out and finds a way around there’s a sense of been-there-done-that. At that point, it just felt like the creators was dragging the series on and piling on tragedies.

Up until then, it constantly kept moving forward and didn’t linger on unnecessary details. The reason we get these time skips because we don’t need 40 episodes of Eren’s childhood to understand him. We’re given enough to understand and then it moves on. Why linger on the least exciting section? Maybe they’re trying to appeal to an audience who’s in it for the action. At least they gave them unique action scenes.

Overpowered enemy means the ending isn’t very different than what happened a few episodes before it. The lack of conclusion isn’t the big problem. The manga keeps going, and the series doesn’t put all its money on the Big Conclusion anyway. The conclusion is not satisfying enough, but it doesn’t negate all that came before. The problem is that not enough changed when it ends. Change is only hinted at, but the enemy hasn’t been really defeated and not a lot of progress was made. I did not want all points wrapped up, but I wanted a lesson learned. A good ending is one that wraps up the themes, not plot points.

The series also gets credit for changing my view on realistic character design. My previous experience was with Monster, where everyone looked like real people and no one looked interesting or unique. Animation gives total control. The animators decide everything – the size of the head, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair.

There is supposed to be a good reason to include a detail. If not, it’s just meaningless fluff with no purpose. That’s why, in cartoons, the characters tend to have ridiculous designs that are either interesting to look at or to inform us about the character’s personality. Attack on Titan has this attention to detail. The facial expression especially have a lot of work put into them. Levi has small, narrow eyes that reflect his world that’s nothing but killing titans. Eren’s eyes are wide but muscular, which fit with his idealism, extremist views and desire to go to the world outside. Petra also has such wide eyes, but they’re softer. She’s more emphatic than anyone around here.

It also avoids the shounen trap and let women look like women. A lot of shounen anime give the women breasts, but not actual female beauty. It’s no attempt to subvert gender norms. The femininity is removed without something to replace it. Here, though, women are allowed to look like women whether they’re mother figures (Petra), hardened warriors (Annie, Mikasa) or wild eccentrics (Hanji, Sasha).

It’s a good moment to say that the series avoids all cliches of misogyny and feminism in its representation of women. The women in Attack on Titan are allowed to be human beings, not walking pin-up posters or bland strong women. They have characters and personalities just like the guys. They do drop the ball Mikasa, but that’s less because they try to make her strong and more because they forgot to give her a personality. Why do we waste our time, asking whether a sexy schoolgirl with a one armed scissor is feminist when this one gets it all right?

Despite the small flaws, Attack on Titan is well worth the fame. It’s good to easy it became so big. There are at times when it feels unstoppable, like it’s hell-bent on becoming the best anime ever. Almost every scene has purpose and every dialogue exchange contributes to the characters and worlds. Even when it becomes just an extended action sequence, it’s fantastic. That’s how good it is.

4 titans out of 5