The Media Machine. The Entertainment Industry; labels for the business of fiction, christened against the hull of 20th century technology.
Image: Bullwinkle the Moose booming, "Hey Rocky, wanna watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!" But it is never a rabbit that Bullwinkle extracts and the cartoon becomes a metaphor for the repercussions of the era's reckless innovative enthusiasm. There was such confidence among forward thinkers as they reached into the unknown. Tesla, Edison, Einstein, Oppenheimer. But were they ever stunned when the white rabbit roared?
Media is as misunderstood as atomic energy. The effect on civilization is so far reaching that it will take generations to put it in perspective. A new look at an old star, the film "No Direction Home" reenacts the life and times of pop star Bob Dylan. It draws heavily on Pennebaker's documentary "Don't Look Back," perhaps the first "reality movie" in which a musician consciously fictionalized his own persona while allowing the film maker unrestrained access to his daily life on tour. As I watched the historic television interviews from this period, there was a sense that Dylan was trying to surf a Hiroshima-like shock wave.
”You have no thoughts on why you’re so popular?” the reporter asked.
”You have no thoughts on why you’re so popular?” the reporter asked.
“Well what do you want me to say? It happened like anything else happens." responded the chain smoking, twenty-something composer, at a loss for an explanation of the social phenomenon exploding around him.
For all his groundbreaking notoriety, the young Dylan is portrayed in "No Direction Home as "only a pawn in their game." but whose game is anyone's guess. Fiction's fame and fortune quickly out-step the sum of it's human parts. Dylan and his management have no more control over the evolution of his media appeal than claiming the atomic age was directed by the crew of the Enola Gay. Celebrity, until the era of Rock & Roll, was still a conventional weapon. Suddenly, by combining the forces of radio. TV, film and print, stars become nuclear in their reach and appeal. Children, mad with media's radiation poisoning, begin to go wild in their presence.
Years after Dylan's arrival, Michael Moore will make a documentary in which school administrators blame the music of Marilynn Manson for inciting teenage boys to shoot their classmates at Columbine High School. The viewer is left wondering, "Does music kill people or do guns?" So who killed those 100,000 civilians in Japan? The War or the atomic bomb?
What is the phenomenon of "fan?" What does it mean to faint in the presence of a someone you have never met. What effect does this unbridled adoration have on performers?
For many, it would appear to be fatal. There is also a sense of latent chromosomal damage in the human hordes hypnotized by media: rainbows are chased, life paths pathetically misguided.
There are two primary boxes in America; the residence and the television set. We spend most of our leisure time at the intersection of the two. Picture a theatre. Replace the rows of seats with your favorite sofa and recliner, add an end table or two and some side lightening. Furnish a kitchen area, a bath and bedroom. Now draw open the velvet curtains on stage and let the play begin. Enjoy your dinner, shower and shave, pad off to bed and rise again as the actors perform before you. Depart for work, return in the evening and plop down again in front of the stage. Chat on the phone, skim the newspaper, pay the bills, all as the cast performs their roles.
Now imagine the actors have a contractual agreement with "the house." If they notice that you are losing interest in the performance, if you're observed in rapt conversation with a spouse or child, it is their job to notch up the action and recapture your attention. They can do this in any number of ways; shoot guns, draw blood, have sex, sing songs, preach sermons. What ever it takes to get you back.
Add another component to the fantasy. When you leave the theatre, the actors get a double bonus if they can reach you "on the outside." That is, they make extra money every time your eyes lock on a billboard advertising the play, every time you purchase an article of clothing worn by a performer or a toy representing a character. Any product or event tracing its trademark back to the stage yields a commission for the actor. And finally, imagine that the play never stops. Artists are frequently replaced, but the performance runs 24-7, 365 days a year for the rest of your life.
So what do you think? Would this flesh and bones fantasy have any effect on the way you live your life?
I wonder if a media conglomerate could be sued for psychological abuse. Think of the claims made against the tobacco industry. Manipulated by advertising a kid starts smoking, gets hooked, and after forty years develops lung cancer then files suit for damages. In the novel "High Fidelity" the narrator wonders if his mental out look would have been a bit brighter, life a shade or two less jaded, if he hadn't been exposed to all those despondent love songs.
Secondary smoke is finally having its day in court. No more tobacco in public areas where workers may be exposed. Well what about the unsuspecting department store clerk stocking dress shirts by the simulcast-plasma-screen Toshiba display? Or that bank of boom-boxes or the mega-watt media center where Sheryl Crow bares her love-bruised soul? Or that canned music piped in to every crevice of the building. Is there any residual effect on an employee's mental outlook? Certainly it is designed to effect the passing consumer or it wouldn't be there in the first place. Without the media, would the pharmaceutical industry be enjoying this hay-day of anti-depressive sales? Can we put a price on the number of times we were forced to endure the existential abyss Mick Jagger created by screaming, "I can't get no... S-A-T-I-S-F-A-C-T-I-O-N."
It might be a case worth testing. After all, these media conglomerates have deep pockets and apparently no remorse for having sent countless industry workers to their graves: Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Allman, Presley, Holly, Monroe, Dean. They then add insult to injury by capitalizing on the deaths of these young artists with fictional re-enactments of their lives and tacky tourist seducing museums. Perhaps Monsanto Chemical should display a tasteful collection of deformed Love-Canal babies at a high-traffic Niagara-Falls location. Call it something catchy like The Super-Fund Hall of Fame. Charge admission of course.
"No Direction Home" gives us a sense of the 20th century as a period of departure. A blasting off from the earth and the traditions that supported society for countless generations. As we surge away from our roots, we are dashed upon a screen of technologically enhanced illusion. Like gnats drawn to incandescent light, we bob frantically around icons, some plastic, some flesh. Like Bullwinkle, innovators may never tire of reaching into the magical hat of technology, but as many a Luddite has warned, beware the rabbit that roars!