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Pop reviews — Week of March 2

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Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies

Dave Itzkoff

You’ll be forgiven if you think the subtitle of the book Mad as Hell refers to the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the 1976 Oscar-winning satire Network. Finch screamed that phrase into popular culture, though writer Paddy Chayefsky conceived it and embodied it.

As author Dave Itzkoff explains, Chayefsky was angry about a lot of things: suicidal militants, anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel, the influence of Arabs on the American economy, and the impact of corporate interests on TV news. Weaving all that and more into a screenplay gave voice to Chayefsky’s anxieties and paranoia.

Providing details that can test even a fan’s patience, Itzkoff explores the many roots and branches of the film. Chayefsky’s idea for a subversive TV series about television executives became the heart of a cutting send-up of the industry. Unlike nearly every other writer, Chayefsky had control of all aspects of the production.

His list of potential actors to play Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, included interesting choices — Robert Montgomery and Gene Hackman — and ridiculous ones, such as James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Finch was a choice of almost last resort. “No matter how much polite praise the Network screenplay received,” Itzkoff writes, “it was not easy to convince any of Hollywood’s leading men to play a part so iconoclastic, so morbid, and so vulgar.”

Network earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It was one of three best-picture nominees that year — the others being All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver — that suggested a cultural rot was taking hold in America after Vietnam and Watergate. The top honor went to the decidedly upbeat Rocky. Chayefsky won for his screenplay, as did Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight for their performances.

For all of Itzkoff’s good work, it’s difficult to draw up much interest in a film that has lost its power to shock. So much of what Chayefsky presented as a warning wrapped in satire is now a reality.

The movie’s more fanciful elements — a self-righteous newsman ranting night after night and a TV series revolving around the shameful behavior of real people — have become staples. Hardly anyone blinks when media conglomerates gobble up each other, or when a news network churns out political and social propaganda.

Being right has its drawbacks.

— Douglass K. Daniel

Associated Press

Overstep

Mike Gordon

When Mike Gordon steps away from his day job playing bass for mega jam band Phish, he tends to get even more experimental and weird than normal, which is saying a lot.

But on Overstep, his fourth solo album not counting two collaborations with Leo Kottke, Gordon creates a much more accessible and radio-friendly record. That’s not to say it’s boring, because it’s not, or predictable, because it isn’t.

What it does have is a more solid rock base, perhaps thanks to the increased role of longtime collaborator and lead guitarist Scott Murawski and producer Paul Q. Kolderie, who previously worked with Radiohead.

What Gordon may have given up in control, he gains by creating a more unified and satisfying sound. Don’t worry, Gordon lovers. There’s still plenty of his off-the-wall lyrics.

Take Ether, the first track, where he dreamily describes floating around and encountering a Cyclops and using rocket components to build a new girlfriend.

Yarmouth Road is the best song of the bunch, propelled by a Jamaican-influenced bounce, Murawski’s wah-wahing guitar and Gordon’s plea to “come on home and hang with the bees and buzz with the honeycomb.”

— Scott Bauer

Associated Press

Influx

Daniel Suarez

Imagine a world where scientific breakthroughs are kept under lock and key. This is the terrifying scenario in Daniel Suarez’s innovative and thought-provoking new novel, Influx.

Physicist Jon Grady and his team create a device that can reflect gravity. This device could greatly benefit transportation, space and the construction industry. Grady hopes to win the Nobel Prize, but his lab is locked down and his data is destroyed by an organization called the Bureau of Technology Control.

Grady receives an offer to work with the bureau to further his research — but not for mankind’s benefit. When he refuses, he is transferred to a high-tech prison. His cell and everything inside are designed to break him down until he reveals how he developed his device and becomes subservient to the bureau. Grady must figure out how to escape an escape-proof prison — and defeat a group of highly advanced people with technology that’s decades beyond what is imaginable.

Suarez raises an intriguing question: What if science has advanced beyond what we know and that knowledge has been hidden from the public?

Influx is a terrific reading experience, and an intriguing discussion is sure to follow.

— Jeff Ayers

Associated Press


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