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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is The Jake Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Nightcrawler.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
"If it bleeds, it leads."
If you watch movies and/or TV long enough, that statement will be made by someone to either condemn or praise the television news industry. Depending on who's speaking, it’s either a bite-size indictment of a business that thrives on greed and suffering, or a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of market forces and consumer demand.
I kept thinking about that phrase as I watched Nightcrawler, the story of Lou Bloom and his rise to the top of his chosen profession. Bloom isn’t what you’d call a social person, but he has drive, ambition, and knowledge (the latter of which is mostly gleaned from the internet). After coming across a horrible accident scene one evening, where freelance camera crews swoop in to sell gruesome shots to the highest bidder, Bloom finds his True Calling. With a little help from his near-homeless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) and struggling morning news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo), he’s going to make something of himself… no matter what it takes.
I enjoyed this movie a great deal. Robert Elswit’s cinematography of nighttime Los Angeles is amazing, while Dan Gilroy’s writing and direction are sharp and well-paced. As Bloom, a mashup of Psycho's Norman Bates and The Office's Dwight Schrute, Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic. Kudos are also due to Russo, Ahmed, and Bill Paxton (as Bloom’s main business rival) for their work. They all contribute to the film’s noir-ish mix of well-known character motivations: desperation, sordidness, and greed.
Kevin, I don’t want to pretend I know what’s going on in Gilroy’s head, but I suspect he might have more than a minor ax to grind with the TV news business. The world Bloom is trying to enter is presented as little more than a reality show jukebox, where the competition is to get the most sensational pictures on the air first. “Stories,” let alone news, are incidental to the process, if even considered at all.
But I’m going to argue Bloom’s case for a moment. Isn’t he just giving the people what they want? After all, ratings (and the advertising dollars they generate) are what matters in a for-profit industry, right? Maybe Bloom, whose fundamental nature is revealed in the first scenes of the film and reinforced all the way through, has found his true calling in society -- a job that requires nerves, discipline, initiative, and a strong stomach. And if he has to find, uh, creative ways of building his business and handling problem employees, isn’t that the mark of a true entrepreneur?
I shall now exorcise the ghost of Ayn Rand from my keyboard. I do invite you, though, to subscribe to my newsletter….!
But seriously, didn’t this film, in its way, demonstrate the end result of the Free Market in action, liberated from pesky things like morality and conscience? Also, although this film is listed as a thriller, I felt like I had just watched an excellent black comedy. Do you think it fits that genre?
Kevin: One of the many questions that floated through my mind during Nightcrawler was, "who still watches local news?" I don't even watch national news these days (most of us now digest such info via the interwebz, right?), let alone the local reports. This Pew study from 2016 indicates that local TV news viewership is down 22% in the last decade alone -- and while I couldn't locate audience demographics, if they're anything like their cable counterparts, the average age of such viewers is rapidly approaching that of retirement.
There's a moment in Nightcrawler where the staff of one of the television stations mentions the pitifully-low amount of time the local broadcasts devote to "serious" news as opposed to the grisly fare that Bloom offers up via his hand-held cameras, and clearly we're supposed to be dismayed at this admission. But... should we? It ain't the 1980s, when you had three channels, no internet, and that was that. There are currently plenty of outlets for highbrow journalism; if a network decides that Rich Folks Meeting Violent Ends is the way to stay in business, what's the point of showing something else and prompting viewers to switch the channel? Social responsibility? Then who signs the checks if nobody watches? The C-SPAN economic model relies on the largesse of others.
As far as the merits of the Free Market in action -- this sort of debate seems to be a running theme of our Fourth Wall conversations! Ha. (With yours truly lining up with the late Milton Friedman & Co.) Sure, Lou Bloom is repulsive in all sorts of ways -- we see him beating up a security guard in the film's opening scene, and later on the van of his chief rival experiences a curious brake malfunction. He's a ruthless guy.
Does capitalism reward being ruthless? Sure! (As long as it's under the table, since positive PR is important.) But so do other societal engines as well. As Milt used to say, "is there another system that doesn't run on greed?" It's also important to note that greed (i.e. humans pursuing their own separate interests) and ruthlessness don't have to involve criminal activity, either -- those markers were inserted into the story to accentuate how Bloom is more than a bit unhinged.
And speaking of that unhingement -- Gyllenhaal's brilliant depiction of Bloom got me thinking (and later reading) lots about the nature of sociopathy. (Did you know that such traits are way more represented among CEOs and politicians than the general public?) There's clearly something "off" about Bloom from the get-go. His largely-expressionless face, his strange speaking style -- when combined with his dogged determination, you could squint your eyes and see him as some sort of Vulcan Assassin. Or perhaps working for Skynet.
Could Nightcrawler also be seen as a black comedy? Absolutely. I think nearly every scene with Bloom's hapless partner Rick qualifies as such -- he's the perfect proxy for the audience, as we become increasingly horrified by the lengths that Bloom will go to. It's one of the elements that made the film work for me, since I much, much prefer to receive my comedic doses via "serious" fare instead of tales where actors are mugging for the camera.
What do think of the fact that here we are, nearly 40 years after the classic Network, and we're still talking about the vapidity of television news? And that was in the days of Walter Cronkite, the "Most Trusted Man in America!" Was there ever a golden age for the medium, or is this a rose-colored glasses situation?
[There was an interesting 2016 film, Christine, about the real-life, on-air suicide of newscaster Christine Chubbuck. She also dealt with frustrations involving resistance to "serious" journalism -- and this was back in the 1970s.]
It seems that "television news" has frequently been a setting for shows on... television! I watched a bit of the long-running Murphy Brown as a kid, and HBO's The Newsroom is probably the most recent high-profile show about that environment. I wish I could comment on the latter, but Aaron Sorkin fare isn't a taste I've been able to acquire. Any thoughts on this or other programs of its ilk?
Clarence: I never really had an interest in those kinds of shows, probably because I got to experience the real thing. My first job out of college was working for the PBS science series NOVA as a Production Assistant. Having worked in a couple of other industries since then, I've realized there really is no difference in the kinds of people who work in TV versus non-TV jobs. There are some nice people and there are complete a$$holes who get ahead by abuse, nepotism, and luck.
I think there was a Golden Age of TV news, and it was generally the 1960s and early 1970s, the time right before the fictional events in Network. I believe Americans got higher quality news when the news divisions didn't have to worry about ratings. News as a public trust is something networks love to crow about when passing out the latest Edward R. Murrow award, but now it's very much just another program type that needs ratings to justify its existence.
That gets to the fundamental question of mass communication - what is it supposed to be for, anyway? The sensationalism, obviously. But there are other things going on. One Web site I frequent is TV Series Finale. It tracks which TV shows are going off the air, among other things. Recently the site announced the end of the show Last Man Standing, starring sitcom veteran (and, I enjoy pointing out, real-life convicted drug runner and prison snitch) Tim Allen. The uproar in the comments section over this show being cancelled was interesting. Most of the comments were about how clean and wholesome it was, how it promoted "traditional American values" and didn't talk down to "regular people."
I suspect that an important segment of TV viewers, to an extent, don't watch shows just for the spectacle, but also to see their worldview reflected back to them, thereby confirming things they already think about themselves and other people. In the case of the news, one of those views is that the world is a dangerous place and you need to watch your back.
I think my answer to Mr. Friedman is that there have been social systems that don't run on greed, such as thousands of years ago when the tribe was the main social unit for humanoids and the main daily concern was food and shelter. It's when large groups of people started getting together to form countries and corporations that greed, more specifically profit, became a big reason for doing things with and to your fellow man.
And it's at the nationalist and corporate* level of profit where personal considerations of morality are most easily tossed aside. People get tired of hearing this example but I'll use it anyway - companies like IBM and Ford were more than happy to make a profit helping the Nazis, even if individual employees would have found their partners' ideology repugnant.
Up to a point, corporate* profit motives are very good at absolving individuals of moral responsibility. "I was just doing my job" didn't work for most of the Nuremberg defendants, but is too often an acceptable way to excuse all kinds of activities, from creating a thriving culture of sexual harassment to poisoning children with lead-laced water.
[*I'm including multi-million and billion dollar non-profit operations like universities and local/state governments.]
Certain kinds of people thrive in these environments. In order to succeed in business, to "get to the top," you have to "do what it takes," which time after time involves behaviors that would label someone a sociopath. It helps to be an actual sociopath, like the character of Lou Bloom, whose lack of empathy is matched only by the slickness of his corporate slogan-speak. I suppose we should just consider ourselves lucky he didn't end up working for the Mafia.
I've been trying to come up with a group of movies that portray corporate life in a positive way. Not just in terms of office culture, but the idea of the corporation as a place to grow and succeed. I can think of exactly one - the 1980s Michael J. Fox comedy The Secret of My Success. Can you think of any more?
Kevin: Agreed, the corporation hasn't received much love via popular culture, and actually has been employed quite often as a villainous entity over the last few decades. In a certain light, they're almost like machines? Unfeeling, uncaring, often featuring an Orwellian vibe... and absurdly tough to eradicate, since if one CEO crumbles, another emerges to take his/her place. In addition, corporations usually have access to vast amounts of resources, and we tend not to root for Goliath.
So, I feel a bit of cognitive dissonance here, since while I personally don't much care for the structure of corporations (I've mostly managed to avoid such webs), I still do champion free-market principles. Are we better off with Best Buy as opposed to mom & pop electronic shops on the corner? How 'bout megaranches vs local farms? I cast my lot with those who argue that we're able to afford higher qualities of life as a result of Big Business... though I also grimace at the McDonaldization of America at the same time.
[We might have to double-back on the notion of greed at a later date. Could we re-label this as "desire," perhaps? I would suggest that even at the dawn of civilization, desire led to scientific progress and wondrous achievements. Of course, it also led to violence and war as well! Contentment is a virtue, whereas greed/desire is a catalyst for advancement. It's tough to find a healthy societal balance between the two.]
OK, getting back to Hollywood -- I loved how, when it came time for the Cold War classic Manchurian Candidate to be remade, there was no sense in continuing to demonize the communists, so "Manchurian Global" was created as the archenemy. We could probably hold a future conversation on the Corporations-As-Villains theme in the future? I think I've mentioned Omnicorp of RoboCop fame in recent weeks, but we could also find examples of dastardly corporations in Erin Brockovich, Aliens, Avatar, and the cult classic Rollerball (the original with James Caan and John Houseman, not the remake).
And sure, corporations have thrown their lot in with heinous regimes in the past. You mentioned those which did business with the Nazis, and how 'bout all those which dealt with South Africa during the Apartheid Era? But corporations also care mightily about image, and as movements like those involving Sun City gained momentum, the power of the pocketbook helped bring about political change. We're seeing something similar re: Israel & Palestine build up steam these days -- who knows where it might lead?
Funny you should mention Bloom fitting in with the mafia. First off, I completely agree -- and I'd heartily recommend The Way of the Wiseguy (by Joe Pistone, the real-life Donnie Branco) for anyone interested in getting inside the heads of these unsavory folks. Second, who's the one faction that can stand up to the might of racketeering operations? Check out this classic Sopranos clip where two "associates" try to shake down a Starbucks that's just opened up. Priceless.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!
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