Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sidney Lumet - RIP

After the recent passing of legendary movie director Sidney Lumet, I decided to go on a voyage of re-discovery. I’ve always admired his movies, been greatly entertained by them, and been impressed by his willingness to disappear inside the different stories he chose to tell, nothing flashy, just honest and earnest serving of the material.

What I didn’t expect to find is a vision that is startlingly relevant today. His career which spanned six decades grew increasingly concerned with the struggles of the little man, the working class, and the steadily weakening middle class to make ends meet. He was especially concerned with what man was capable of doing if pushed down hard enough and the consequences of his desperate actions.

The movies I’ve watched over the past week surprisingly fell neatly into two matched pairs. Dog Day Afternoon and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (his final movie shot when he was 82) are both about men driven to commit robberies to cover unexpected expenses. Daniel and Running on Empty offer two different views of revolutionary parents, focusing on the effects their actions have had on their children.

Every time my wife sees a poster from a family forced to hold a pancake breakfast to pay out of the blue medical expenses, she comes home upset and tells me I just have to write a letter to the editor. There is no way that people should be put through such hardship because fate deals them a card imprinted with a word like leukemia.

Dog Day with its famous “Attica! Attica!” spouting Al Pacino and Before the Devil with its brother attacking brother and father attacking son conflicts that approach Biblical proportions are moral quagmires. Pacino needs money to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. Philip Seymour Hoffman needs money to cope with his drug addiction. But, how unsurprising it would be to open the paper tomorrow and read, “Father Robs Bank to Keep Daughter Alive.”

Lumet was fascinated by radical figures, with clearly mixed feelings. The parents in Daniel – arrested and executed in the 1950s as Soviet spies – and in Running on Empty – on the run from the FBI after bombing a napalm lab – are presented sympathetically. But their children are put through Hell as if asking, “Was it really worth it?”

Daniel (Timothy Hutton) has been struggling to find meaning in his parents’ execution for most of his life and his sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) ends up suicidal. And there is no scene more deeply moving than Danny (River Phoenix) tearfully telling his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton) that he loves her, knowing that he may have to leave her tomorrow.

Lumet’s masterpiece is Network. I didn’t connect with it when I was in my twenties, but it has grown increasingly powerful with aging, its aging, my aging. It deals with a fourth place out of four television news network and its struggles to improve its ratings. The old guard has been striving to remain ethical even if it loses money and the new, represented most memorably by Faye Dunaway, wants to turn the station into, essentially, Fox News.

The most oft-quoted scene is when news anchor Howard Beale gets out of his chair during the live evening newscast and encourages his listeners to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Things just aren’t done live anymore. The sponsors have grown too concerned with their well-being to allow that and Timberlake and Jackson didn’t help matters. But I can imagine just as much shouting out of windows occurring today as back in 1976.

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