JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Frank Hackett is in charge of the news operation. The space of his office in Network indicates the power of the corporate conglomerate.

In Saturday Night Fever Tony makes a rare visit to Stephanie's Manhattan apartment and is told that their relationship, however limited, has no future.

In Network, Howard Beale commands his viewers, “Stick your heads out of the window and yell, 'I'm mad as hell.'” Is this the beginning of reality television?

Max opens his window and witnesses what Howard has wrought, a populist uprising with no political impact.

The parent company director tells Howard that his is the face of God in Network, as he attempts to get Howard to comply with the wishes of the company.

In Network, the UBS corporate chiefs plot Howard’s assassination, the only way to get rid of their star without angering his audience.

In New York, New York Jimmy's successful jazz club features the music he values, showing the possibility of blending the commercial and the artistic.

Jimmy plaintively plays beneath a street lamp in faux Brooklyn, wondering about his fate.

In Fame aspiring actor Michael awaits his big break as he waits on tables in the meantime.

 

Performing the post-industrial city

All these five films overwhelmingly dwell on interior space, a focus that defines their strategy as centripetal. While to some degree their various narratives set the action in interior space, their visual emphasis in this regard connotes a larger story about work and the city. The films stay indoors even when their narratives seem to push them out. And in all cases, interior space is the realm of the private, the bureaucratic, and the corporate. Since performance space in media and the arts is subjugated to marketplace demands, the larger the potential profit of a given “presentation,” the more constrained the access to the profit-making presentational space. In such a model, we see the realms of “art” and “integrity,” terms fetishized and suffused with nostalgia in these films, subsumed by a business model that leaves little room for any equation but that which ends in a dollar amount. Within the films, explicitly qualitative judgments of talent, vision, and creativity are minimized; even the plots are involved in a hierarchical system that exercises authority based on perspectives that reduce all performance to product. Arguably, those characters with talent are subordinated to those with administrative power gained from their narrow means/ends worldview. Thus, the films valorize fame, bureaucracy, and institutional notions of education.

This question of who defines success and the definition’s connection to a business model of performance gives an insight into these cinematic representations of a world of circumscribed space. Such spaces show us a city of restricted dimensions replete with an enforced hierarchy. For example, in Network corporate flunky Frank Hackett, played by Robert Duvall, commands Schumacher: “You’re fired. I want you out of your office before noon or I’ll have you thrown out.” The visual depiction of Hackett’s office shows him as central, a man in authority who remains centered in that space, commands the tightest close up, and has the use of the phone, the instrument for calling security. Urban space in these films has become not the agora but rather corporate controlled interiors. The dynamism of the street has been replaced with the fluctuations of a relatively circumscribed marketplace, a place that grants access according to one’s ability to access its electronic nodes of entry. Thus while the networks of communication gesture out to the world, the specific space where these networks produce their products is shown as privatized and constrained, marking a new vision of the centripetal as space constrained by the forces of private enterprise. Saskia Sassen describes precisely this phenomenon as characterizing global cities’ role in a world system:

“Massive trends towards the spatial dispersal of economic activities at the metropolitan, national and global level are indeed all taking place, but they represent only half of what is happening. Alongside the well-documented spatial dispersal of economic activities, new forms of territorial centralization of top-level management and control operations have appeared. National and global markets as well as globally integrated operations require central places where the work of globalization gets done. Further, information industries require a vast physical infrastructure containing strategic nodes with hyperconcentrations of facilities.”[32] [open endnotes in new window]

Such recurring representations of the entertainment industry are also indicative of the New Hollywood era in film production, as well as its analogues in the music and television industries. Further, they help connect both the content of these films and their mode of production to the emergent Post-Fordist moment of economic history. In the U.S. film industry, this is a period of both innovation and ultimately consolidation. The mid 1970s stand as the cusp of the adventurous late 1960s and early 1970s, and the blockbuster era of the mid 1970s. The films implicitly seem to recognize the transition taking place, as they dwell in recurring definitions of interior corporate space. And they typically place that kind of space within a hierarchy defined by a vision of a far-flung audience/market that can be accessed only through limited points of entry. The power of bureaucrats is to restrict this access. This vision of bureaucracy speaks to the structure of the Post-Fordist workplace. As organizations increase in complexity and authority increasingly migrates away from those involved in materially productive enterprises, tiers of upper management assume increasing importance.

In Network the act of removing Howard or Schumacher, those more directly concerned with the presentation of the news, from the building is an assertion of naked power. Similarly, in Saturday Night Fever, Stephanie never allows Tony into her workplace in the record industry though he clearly aspires to a life outside of Bay Ridge. She also limits his access to her apartment in Manhattan, which was formerly the place of her employer and lover. These constraints show us that even her very limited relation to the devices of the entertainment industry allow her to exercise relative power over the provincial Tony.

The relations articulated between the value of a particular space and its role in a electronic means of dissemination place these businesses in their Post-Fordist era, and thus provide the films with a kind of cultural resonance that connects them to other forms of industrial production. This shift refers both to the transitions that were occurring in U.S. productive industries at large and to Hollywood, where the former industrial model of the studio system was now defunct. Film companies sold their backlots and became components of larger multi-national corporations.[33] The prevalence of independent producers that drove the New Hollywood era in the early 1970s may be seen as part of the industry’s move into the Post-Fordist moment.[34] More broadly, this era was ushered in by an increasing ease in the movement of capital and goods, enabled by enhanced means of communications between financial centers and far-flung locales of decentralized production. And while all of these films represent and valorize electronic networks of dissemination, it is Network that does so most emphatically.

Network is replete with references to and representations of this new system. As the film begins, we see the newscaster Howard Beale as one of four faces in a framing of four monitors showing the network newscasters of the mid 1970s: Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Howard K. Smith. The voice over by Max Schumacher (played by William Holden), the head of the UBS network’s news division, tells us that Howard had been a legend and now is suffering from low ratings and personal problems. Max and Howard go out for drinks after the broadcast, so that Max can give his friend the news that he is fired. They wax nostalgically about “the good old days” of network news and end at a bar, with Max cynically spinning programming ideas that will play to the lowest common denominator as Howard lies on the bar drunk. But with the rise of cable television, the authority of these talking heads was about to erode, and the Howard Beales of the world could indeed be more valuable as mad prophets of doom than as the authoritative voice of truth.

The credits roll and we are shown in succession, the corporate headquarters of the big four networks. These buildings are shot from close range and low angles, emphasizing the size and gravity of their imposing skyscrapers. They seem like medieval castles, cities unto themselves. As we go inside the UBS building, we find much the same, a world that creates the world, an entity that is self-constrained and that functions unto its own logic. As Howard announces that he will be leaving the nightly newscast in two weeks, he adds that he will also be killing himself on the air. We witness this performance from the control room, as Howard is shown on many monitors but we “sit” behind the production board, watching the technicians, who are involved in their own bored banter and who are not watching Howard. It is only through the intervention of a woman transcribing the newscast that his words get noticed.

That “news” has clearly become a commodity and like any commodity answerable only to the desires of the marketplace redounds throughout the early part of this film. But news’ status as an electronic commodity with its origins and means of dissemination in a relatively restricted district of central Manhattan is also an important visual element of these early scenes. After Howard’s assertion, the network goes into damage-control mode, a situation that makes its condition even more insular. We hear of hordes of reporters in the lobby though we do not see them. What we do see is Howard’s newscast becoming news in itself, apparently supporting his on-air assertion that his suicide will garner a huge audience.

Network offers a prescient vision of the new era of communication and network spatial organization that was just becoming visible in the mid 1970s. This era is defined by networks of electronic communication that connect certain sectors of specific urban locales to corresponding sectors of other urban spaces, regardless of the actual distance configured. It is the means of communication that developed in the mid 1970s and resulted in a New York that was more focally connected to London than it was to Bridgeport, Connecticut. This reconfiguration of urban space and its role in a shifting world order, what Manuel Castells defined as the “space of flows,” “the informational city,” a conception of certain urban spaces transcending the materiality of physical place as they are more precisely defined by their situation in electronic systems of communication.[35] Network tells of a New York that has become the sum of its particular means of electronic communication.

And following this logic as it occurs in Saturday Night Fever, New York, New York, All that Jazz, and Fame, access to the means of dissemination defines material success. Thus, we can see how art for the marketplace serves as both a symptom and a symbol of the Post-Fordist moment. This product like all others can be produced by a vast flexible and largely captive work force engaged for a particular task and then let go. As in textiles, there is a local boss, but command functions may be ensconced in far away locales, enabled by the technology of modern communication. Art becomes, like news, a commodity and its aura, much like the aura of a certain branded garment, becomes a means of positioning it in the global marketplace. Art as a thing has the power to participate in the utter transformation of both the physical urban landscape and its social character, since the city as a cultural center may organize its central spaces to enable performance and to attract both performers and denizens of the various media displayed.

A film like New York, New York, for example, despite its obvious and intentional artifice, offers a vision of New York that, while set in the 1950s and clearly nostalgic, locates its residual status as a locale where the avant-garde could exist alongside the commercial, however marginal the role of the avant-garde becomes. Indeed, such a vision is part of the aura of the contemporary city as a center of culture. And in this film, more than the others, as art morphs into artifice, the stylized soundstages that form this vision of the city are picturesque in a manner that both accentuates Zukin’s vision of the aestheticized city, as well as draws attention to the inherent partiality and constructed-ness of such visions. In its positioning the arts as central to the city’s economic life, the film enhances New York’s post-industrial image and speaks to its shifting demographic.

Jimmy’s devotion to his music, choosing it over love and money, naturalizes those on the margins of the entertainment industry and provides an antithesis by which we can further valorize market-based success. And indeed, Jimmy’s devotion to art over commerce leaves him on the outside of both his marriage and the success that could be his. He is consigned to the fringes of the city, partially because there is no marketplace where his music might be heard and judged without bias. It is intriguing that two major transitional scenes find him alone under spotlight formed by street lamps. These street scenes lack the dynamism of the city streets and suggest there is no outside to the inside defined as the privately controlled space of commerce.

But what is the broader social effect of cities that include any number of citizens who are perpetually in a state of economic insecurity? When Howard exhorts his viewers to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the screamers are thrown into a world that has all but ceased to exist—that outside of their windows. Yet, the electronic prompt and the lack of interaction among the screamers suggest that this is a late twentieth century version of a polity. That is, the viewers engage in no discussion or debate, nor do those in a given political movement engage one another. All cues are from a remote location and all feeling is visceral. Howard is nearby, but we find that he has a similar impact hundreds and thousands of miles away. This vision of mass communication well anticipates Castells’ vision. But such a vision ignores that is always a there. The building exists; the studio exists; and the means of communication, the electronic devices that allow dissemination, all have a specific materiality and location that can only be ignored if we mistake the immateriality of the image for the materiality of its means of production and dissemination. Though the images pervade the air, they are enabled by the UBS corporation and designed to increase the wealth of that business and its corporate owners. As Sassen reminds us,

“The vast new economic topography that is being implemented through electronic space is one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster economic chain that is in good part embedded in non-electronic spaces. There is no fully dematerialized firm or industry. Even the most advanced information industries, such as finance, are installed only partly in electronic space.”[36]

The image of Howard, enabled by Max and then by the other corporate chiefs of the UBS network, is a projection allowed by access and with a specific valence in the commercial world. This is not a placeless world but a world where specific spaces are far more significant than others. And while this has been true to some degree for most of the twentieth century, the relative significance of those spaces has increased geometrically in importance. Indeed, Howard’s sin does not come from his incompetence. His sin comes from his waning appeal, and when he finds a means to attract an audience, the absurdity of his means has no bearing.

Ultimately, Howard’s madness makes him uncontrollable. It is a world in which business is everything and in which, as the corporate head Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty, tells Howard there is only one law, the law of business. Thus, the profits of the show are meager compared to the larger profits of the international sale of commodities: Howard must go. Arthur Jensen says, with a god-like forbidding:

“You have disrupted the forces of nature. There are no nations, only IBM, ITT, only dollars.”

And though this is indeed part of the film’s over-the-top satire, such a vision of corporate dominance powered by a vision of cost effectiveness would become even more pressing in the succeeding decades. The centrality and hegemony of corporate space establish the means by which all other expressions of power may become irrelevant.

Embedded within these films that dwell in the world of art, entertainment and, more broadly, mass communications is a historical commentary that shows us that the over-supply of labor and the brutal process of selection that prevails in the mass entertainment industry is applicable to the broader structures of the Post-Fordist labor market. These films dwell in the city of performance and romanticize that space, but their narratives narrow the areas from which that performance can be disseminated; there are various registers of effectiveness for a given performance. As we project the futures of our characters, it is far more likely that they will be, like the once-promising Michael in Fame, waiting on tables and providing a labor market with an over-supply of desperate workers than it is that they will be on television and movie screens around the world. In such a world, then, all who strive and barely progress may indeed stick their heads out the window and impotently shriek, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But to what political effect?

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