Paddy Chayefsky

I’ve been a cinema buff all of my life, and one of my favorite screenwriters is Paddy Chayefsky. He wrote the screenplays for some of my favorite movies – most of them dark comedies. In this post I’ll write about my three favorite movies scripted by Chayefsky. Those of you who’ve read my previous philosophical and metaphysical posts will appreciate why the one Chayefsky  movie I’ll cover, that is not one of his dark satires, takes us deep into the realms of ontology and quantum physics.

The first Chayefsky movie that captivated me was The Americanization of Emily (1964), a WWII satire starring James Garner, as a US Naval officer, and Julie Andrews, as an English Army driver. I regard it as one of the best anti-war movies ever made. The Allied forces in England are awaiting D-Day, and Garner works for an Admiral. He’s an admitted coward who thinks his job as a “dog robber” (procurer of whatever the Admiral wants) will keep him out of combat. He meets Emily, who hates war, having bedded one too many soldiers who have since died in combat. She falls for the charming American officer and is glad that he’s a coward, and unlikely to participate in the coming invasion. Powerful people going mad is a recurring theme in Chayefsky satires. In this case it’s the Admiral, who goes off the deep end and decides that he wants Garner’s character to be the first man to land on Omaha Beach, so he can film the Allied landing! I remember the essence of a powerful anti-war speech in the movie, about how honoring the fallen with medals and flags and parades ultimately serves to glorify and perpetuate warfare.

Chayefsky’s best-known film was Network (1976), starring Peter Finch as a network news anchor, and Faye Dunaway as his flint-hearted producer. Finch won an Oscar (posthumously) for his portrayal of Howard Beale, whose increasingly unhinged behavior from behind the news desk leads to higher ratings. The network exploits his growing madness to get more market share, and hires fortune tellers and performers to make the news broadcast more entertaining. The best-known scene in Network  is when Beale, rain-soaked and disheveled, exhorts his audience to stop watching, open a window, and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He goes on to tell his audience to tune in and watch him blow his brains out on live TV. It’s savage social satire, with brilliant dialogue. I’d hoped when I first saw it that it would prove to be an inoculation, to prevent the continuation of the trend of chatty news and “infotainment” on network news broadcasts. But, alas, it proved to be predictive, not preventive. There was a time when network news organizations didn’t compete for ratings, and pretty much stuck to news reporting. Today, the Evening News  greatly resembles the circus depicted in Network.

The third Chayefsky film I’ll cover is Altered States (1980), which starts out as science fiction, but turns out to be a love story. Chayefsky became fascinated with the work of consciousness researcher John Lilly, and did a lot of reading about psychedelic substances before writing his only novel, Altered States. The book was adapted for the screen by it’s author, and the movie was directed by British bad boy director Ken Russell. It stars William Hurt as Eddie Jessup, a brilliant neuroscientist obsessed with consciousness research and plagued by existential angst. Blair Brown co-stars as his wife, a brilliant biologist who has to live with her husband’s emotional distance. Dr. Jessup is willing to be his own guinea pig and ingest strange psychoactive substances in the course of his research. One day, while he’s alone in the lab for an unauthorized “trip” in a flotation tank, his body reshapes itself, in an evolutionary regression. He temporarily becomes a primate, an early ancestor of man.

Accounting for this transformation requires a paradigm shift in the relationship between corporeality and consciousness. One school of thought (material realism) holds that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of being a complex biological organism: it serves to enable the organism to survive. The other major school of thought (monistic idealism) posits that physical reality arises out of consciousness. Dr. Jessup has personally experienced a physical transformation that his mind enabled, and his new understanding of the nature of reality has terrifying metaphysical implications. He loses all control of the now-constant shapeshifting and becomes something monstrous, damned. He is rescued from the Abyss by the power of love.

I recommend the novel as well as the movie. Chayefsky’s name doesn’t appear in the film credits, because of disputes with Ken Russell. Russell’s contract specified that he couldn’t edit out any of the dialogue in Chayefsky’s script. He kept to the letter of the contract, but had some scenes with multiple overlapping conversations going on at once. Chayefsky didn’t like that, and didn’t want his name associated with the film. What dialogue you can make out is brilliant and thought-provoking, but you’d have to read the book to fully grasp the depth of Chayefsky’s speculations about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to physical reality. Apparently the book wasn’t widely read, but it remains one of my favorite modern novels.

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