(This was originally given as a speech to The Torch Club, a group of Washingtonians -- mostly elderly -- who gather to listen to... uh... speeches. This was one of them. Most, if not all, of the ideas originated with others, and you may find them familiar. I would give credit if I could remember where they came from, but it's not always possible.)
Clayton on the Media
There are two things worth remembering: 1st, the Eskimo have no word for snow; and second, the bison had six legs. There is a third you might remember, but I don't insist on that. I've already asked you to remember twice as much as most people do from a given event, sermon, commercial, lecture, campaign slogan. One is about all most people can manage. Remembering two shows real attention to detail. You're almost bound to pass the quiz. But three? Well... you might remember Mrs. Adams and "Is it true, Daddy?" But enough of that. Let's get on with the part you don't need to remember. The rest of the evening.
Some time ago, scholars differ as to the exact date, but with their usual pinpoint accuracy place it somewhere between 8,000 and 35,000 years ago -- that is to say, before most of you here were born -- some person or persons unknown crawled into the stygian caves of the Franco-Catabrian mountains and for reasons known only to themselves and perhaps to their contemporaries painted pictures. Mostly of animals. Horses, elk, a wooly mammoth, bison....
Some of the bison have six legs.
These are not "Pictures at an Exhibition." They are difficult to reach, tucked away in nooks and crannies, in absolute and total darkness. Indeed, it is that darkness that has preserved the paintings over the thousands upon thousands of years since the extraordinary effort was made to place them there. But clearly -- if one may use that term of pictures so carefully placed in obscurity -- clearly they were not intended for general or casual viewing. Even so, many of them are beautifully rendered.
So why are they there?
Actually, we don't know. One of the theories -- as good as any and better than most -- is that they represented objects of desire: food, clothing, and the raw materials -- bones and sinews -- for a wide variety of products from the decorative to the utilitarian. Perhaps by representing what you wanted, you could come a little closer to having it -- what is sometimes referred to as "sympathetic magic."
But of course no matter how realistically the animals are rendered -- and many of the paintings are marvelous at capturing the character of the animals they represent -- not matter how good they are... they are, after all, paintings: inanimate, still, lifeless.
If only you could bring them alive.
But what is "alive"? Life moves. Dead things don't move. Paintings of bison don't move. But living bison move!
If you WANT the bison (and you do). And if representing them in the hidden recesses of a sacred cave will bring them closer (as you believe); they must move.
How do you make them move?
You give them the illusion of movement, of life. You give them multiple legs to suggest they are moving. For to move is to be alive; and what you desire becomes that much closer to reality. They gave the bison six legs.
During what was called "The Great Depression," virtually the only industry that prospered was the motion picture industry. Millions upon millions of the descendants of those early practitioners of sympathetic magic -- as impoverished as they were -- found the means to afford a pilgrimage to the dark caves of movie theaters, there to witness the objects of their desire magically brought to life -- the rich, the glamorous, the sexy, poverty overcome by luck or virtue, dreams come true in moving pictures!
So when Mrs. Adams asked me to teach Sunday School, I explained to her that I had no children, knew nothing about them, and very little about Sunday.
She dismissed all this with a wave of her hand. "There is very little you need to know about children," she began. I should have left then. When Sears tells you the instructions are simple and easy to follow, you know right away you're in trouble. But I let her continue.
"When children are very young," Mrs. Adams said, "They want the familiar. The same story over and over again.
"When they get a little older, they want a new story. 'Oh, not Cinderella, we've heard Cinderella, tell us a new story!'
"And finally, the last stage: 'Is it true, Daddy?'"
So Mrs. Adams told me one of the most profound summaries of the human experience I've ever been given: The familiar; the new; the real.
Every night I told "The Three Bears," over and over again, until I could chant it like a tobacco auctioneer. It didn't matter how fast I went, but woe betide me if I skipped a sentence, a word, and inflection! Up in the cradle with outraged eyes: "You skipped porridge'". Right. Right. Porridge. Go back to sleep or I'll kill you.
And then... what about "The Tree Bears"? No? How about Cinderella?" No? "The Seven Dancing Princesses?" Rumplestilskin? Beauty and the Beast? Snow White and Rose Red. For Pete's sake WHAT? A NEW story? So you begin making them up... Alice and Michael Bunnyrabbit, Old Mr. Thunder Cloud... anything you can think of until...
"Is it true, Daddy?"
You want a quick survey of literature?
Skip ahead a little way from our infancy in the caves.
Mankind's childhood. 5th century, B.C. A new story? Are you kidding?
"Sing it again, Homer! Tell us the familiar stories. Sing of the wrath of Achilles and the quest for the Golden Fleece! Hey there Aeschylus! Hey there Sophocles and Euripides! Tell us of Agamemnon, of Clytemnestra, of Orestes. Tell us again about Antigone and Creon. Of course, we've heard the story. Tell us again!"
Skip ahead a little way to mankind's youth.
"Sure, sure, Bill, Hamlet is a good enough play, but what have you got for next week? They've got a terrific bear act over at The Swan."
"Grind 'em out, crank 'em out, Alexander Dumas. Pour it on, Earl Stanley Gardner. Give us a new pulp magazine, Street & Smith! More! More! More!"
Gone. Gone. Gone.
Redbook gone. Argosy gone. Colliers gone. The Saturday Evening Post gone. Spicy Detective gone.
"Is it true, Daddy?"
Enter Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report. Enter Life for those who couldn't read and enter Look for those who couldn't think.
Enter NON FICTION.
Tell us in detail what it's like to murder in cold blood. Tell us what it means to have the right stuff.
If it's fiction, make it sound like non fiction. "Just the facts, ma'am." Hey, Manning Coles, Tommy Hambleton was fun, but this is what it's really like to be a spy and come in out of the cold. Want to know how to get a fake passport? The Jackal will tell you. Want to know how an attack submarine operates? Join the hunt for Red October.
Don't give us opinion, give us statistics, footnotes, interviews, documentaries, docu-drama. Give us the truth, Daddy, even if it's a crock.
You don't need a fortune teller. We can do a statistical analysis of your local newspapers and give you the megatrends, packaged with just what you want to hear: Your future is going to be wonderful! Who wants to pay for pessimism?
And yes, honey, it's all TRUE.
Even our fantasy. Join the star wars of the future and see how real the equipment looks: rusty, dusty, used and abused.
Ah, but "What is Truth," Mrs. Adams? Old Pontius Pilate was neither the first nor the last to ask the question.
And we'll talk about that a little later.
Just remember, the bison with six legs.
And the eskimo.
My late father-in-law, Sears Polydore Doolittle -- isn't that a marvelous name -- Sears Polydore Doolittle -- has a ring to it. They don't make names like that anymore. Not only that, he had a Ph.D. Yep, he was DOCTOR Doolittle. Ah well, some people have it all.
Anyway. Sears P. was from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and remembered all his life the first movie he saw there. It was a loop of film that played continuously of a locomotive that rushed at you from a distance, approached at terrifying speed where you were (apparently) watching from the railroad tracks, and silently roared over you, its engine thundering in your imagination, as you flinched from the shock, then reappeared in the distance to charge toward you again. Many people ducked, dropped to the floor, or screamed. Nobody they knew had ever seen anything like this and survived to tell about it.
The audience did not ask for more or newer entertainment. This was more than enough for any of them.
In France, we are told, they tended to prefer nubile maidens to locomotives. No accounting for taste. But we are also told that immediately after the first viewing, members of the audience (male, of course) scrambled out of their chairs to peek behind the screen and find the girls or lined up in droves at the entrance waiting for their favorite -- third from the left -- to appear.
The moved. They were alive. They were real.
But what were they? These moving pictures? What was their essence? Their character? What made them difference, for example, from the theatre. After all, actors move, stories are presented. What's so different about a movie?
Of those who have addressed these and similar questions on the nature of film, my favorite was the German, Siegfried Kracauer, in his book, Theory of Film. With the thoroughness that seems characteristic of German scholarship, he bores in to determine where film is unique. I found it useful and fascinating. My students hated it. I had planned to draw on sections for this evening's entertainment. I can't find the damned book.
Either I loaned it to someone or one of my student's burned it. As a result you will be denied the benefits of his thinking and have to suffer through what I remember that seems worth passing on to you.
It is probable that Kracauer would have as much trouble recognizing my representation of his views as Jesus would have in recognizing the representation of Jerry Falwell... or for that matter, St. Paul.
Let's try from a slightly different angle. You read the book or you saw the play or you were in World War II or something and you go to the movie and say, "That's nothing like..." Choose one, (a) the Book; (b) the Play; (c) the actual Battle of the Bulge; (d) Having your gall bladder removed; (e) Any other experience you can think of or name.
And, you conclude (choose any or all): (1) the film makers are idiots; (2) they didn't want to offend anyone who might make a profession of being offended; (3) studies show that the average movie patron is fourteen years old with the IQ of an aardvark and less information; or (4) what the hell do bankers know about making movies?
And you came here this evening to get the answer. Ah, hope springs eternal.
Unfortunately, our evening is dedicated to broadcast media, so why should I share my profound insights on the film with you?
I'm glad you asked.
The answer, of course, is because the eskimo have no word for snow.
I knew you wanted to know that.
They have, I am told, a word for the conditions that are excellent for dog sledding. They have a word for the kind of snow that is just right for building igloos. Then there is the word that means you're going to need a special type of snow shoe, a word for the conditions that are fine for seal hunting, a word for when it's iced or glazed over and slippery as the devil, a word for... well, they have a lot of words. But snow is far too important to their lives to have a single, essentially useless general term like "snow."
The story is told of the eskimo who comes to the United States for a visit.
"What's that?" he asks his host, pointing to an automobile.
"That's a Ford," his host replies.
"Oh," says the eskimo, happy with his new knowledge. "There's another Ford." The escort shakes his head.
"Nope. That's a Dodge."
"That's a Toyota."
"And that one?"
"Well, actually that's a Ford too. But that one's a Crown Victoria. The other Ford was an Escort."
So it goes throughout the day. The eskimo returns home. "How was America?" his friends ask him.
"Okay," he replies, "but the Americans are really odd. They've got a thousand different words for automobile."
So what do you think of television?
Or as Leo Rosten once put it, "What do you think of print? Seen any good print lately? Are you in favor of print? Do you think print leads to crime? What about our children looking at print?"
Most of what is printed is garbage. Whether it's on a tube of toothpaste or on a scroll preserved in a dry cave near the Dead Sea. Tens of thousands of plays have been written, books, short stories, religious tracts, and analyses of why the Redskins are no longer winning. How much of it is worth looking at, much less remembering. It is rather discouraging to think that it is possible for a human being to have read in one life time every thing worth reading. The number of great plays, for example, is exceedingly small. As for great books... even with a liberal definition of the term, not very many. Almost certainly fewer than a thousand. Some think not more than a few hundred. Go re-read Aristotle's Politics. I assure you, you will not find anything is today's Washington Post that will better equip you to understand the world you're living in.
Well, enough of that.
So let's begin with understanding what television is. It is a means of transmitting an image in real time from a single source that may be viewed on an infinite number of receivers simultaneously. This has drastically changed the character of the audience and the nature of its experience.
Broadcast media -- and this includes radio -- totally reversed the experience of theatre and moving going.
Theatre and film technology to be economically viable required the spectators to gather at a location where the production -- play or film -- was presented. Thus the experience was a corporate one. Emotion is infectious. As a spectator you are influenced by the reactions of your neighbors, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer refers to the influence and impact of being surrounded by fellow participants in a ritual -- "a cloud of witnesses" it calls them. An audience is a corporate living entity and the individual spectator is a cellular part of that body.
Broadcast media communicate with individuals, not groups. When broadcast media are used to transmit films, they change the nature of the experience. Viewing a film alone or (to paraphrase Bob Newhardt) "with your loved ones, in some cases your wives" is not the same. The film is the same; the experience is different because you are different; you are an individual, not a part of a living organism known as an audience as that term is understood wherever more than two or three are gathered together.
The only element of television that is television when it is used to transmit a film or a slide or any previously recorded event is that it is transmitting that image instantly. Even if the film was produced in 1936, when you see it on your television set, you are seeing it at the exact moment the film is being played. Give or take the speed of light.
Other than that -- and that is of virtually no importance to the television audience -- the essential character of a movie seen on television is not that it is television, but that it is a movie. Transmitting it via television does not change its character as a movie -- we'll skip dimensions for a moment -- the only thing that changes is, again, the character of the viewing experience.
It may be useful to think of television as having two essential but in some ways unrelated characteristics: One is it's capacity to transmit an image to every place in the solar system and the other is that it can do this instantly. (Okay, if you're picky, at the speed of light.)
The first is important in the sense that we can download the world's total visual experience -- from the sublime to the obscene -- in every wigwam, igloo, family room, campsite, and palace on earth. It is one gigantic garbage disposal system available to omnivorous humanity -- if you can eat it, we can feed it.
The second characteristic -- what Rudy Bretz referred to as "immediacy" -- is unique to television. And it's greatest pioneer practitioners understood that. "See It Now!"
Remember Arthur Godfrey?
"Howya! Howya! Howya! Have you seen the moon tonight? Boy! It is gorgeous! Hey, if you haven't seen it, you've gotta see it. Go on, take a look at it. I'll wait for you. Go on! I'm telling ya, it's a beauty!"
And there you are. You and Arthur Godfrey. Looking at the moon together.
Same moon. Same time. Shared experience. You and Arthur. Not a crowd mind you. He's not shouting to the multitude, not exhorting a mob. Nothing like it. This is an intimate conversation between you and Arthur and there's nobody else there.
You see, when he looks into that camera, he looks right into your eyes.
You. Not the person beside you. You.
So he speaks quietly, easily. Sometimes there's almost an air of conspiracy. You and Arthur are sharing a secret joke. He's talking just to you.
Of course Roosevelt understood that about broadcasting. He called them fireside chats. Nobody before or since did it like he did. You've got this enormously complicated subject and you need public understanding and support. Of course, as a politician, Roosevelt could warm up a crowd, speak from a podium, get the joint to rocking with "Martin, Bartin, and Fish!"
But this was radio. This was not a speech. This was a "chat." This was not a lecture hall. This was a fireside.
And this was Franklin Roosevelt.
"My friends. And you are by friends. Do you have your map of Europe ready?"
(The public has been warned to get maps of Europe, or to get out anAtlas. Many newspapers had printed maps in preparation for the announced "chat" from the White House.")
"Now let's take a look at our maps" (Sound of paper being unfolded)
"All right, now up here near the top is Norway and Sweden -- where a lot of our people come from, by the way -- And over here is..."
So there you are at home with your map spread out on the dining room table or on the floor. And there you are with the President of the United States. You and Franklin. Talking over the big picture.
Archibald MacLeish, in a famous phrase, called radio "the poet's medium."
Indeed, it was a joy to write for and, for that matter, a joy to direct. I have been fortunate enough to see my work produced on the stage, in motion pictures, on television, and radio. I have also been fortunate enough to direct in all four of these media. Believe me, radio is my love. I lament its passing.
It is the ultimate realm of the mind, fantasy land without restriction. You did not need to describe; you needed only to suggest:
"Sufferin' Catnip, Charlie, look over there. That's the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my life!"
Six million listeners conjured up that girl in their imagination. Six million different images: fat, lean, tall, short, dark, fair, young, old, blond, brunette, oriental, caucasian, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Persian, Russian, Swede, Serb, Welch, Irish... dressed, undressed, chaste, sexy. Six million girls and each of them "the most beautiful girl in the world."
Playboy has to choose one. And then convince you that their's is the definition of beauty. Not radio. We told you she was beautiful; we're leaving the details up to you.
"Well, I'll tell you, pilgrim, that's one tough bar you're walking into. You'd better watch your step."
Try that line in a play or a movie script or on television. Got a scene designer? How much of your budget can you afford for the "toughest bar" set. I've heard arguments in New York -- I remember one when Eddie Albert was playing the lead -- arguments between the producer (in charge of the budget) and the director (in charge of putting it all together) over choosing between a particular set and a camera boom.
"I'm telling you I need that boom for the rolling shot in scene 43."
"Okay, fine. Then scratch the bar room set. You don't need it anyway."
"The hell I don't; it establishes Jenny's character."
"Establish it somewhere else."
"I need it."
"Fine. Scratch the boom."
"Dammit, that's not fair."
"Hey man, I didn't invent the budget for this show. Ask the guys in programming."
Boys, boys! Do it on radio. The bar set, sure; a stately dome in Xanadu? Why not. The diamond as big as the Ritz. It's there! Buck Rogers and his famous flying belt? Whiz, bang, zoom, we got it.
Beauty was not in the eye of the beholder; it was in the mind of the listener. You learned that as a director.
I used to turn my back on the studio when I was casting. You want Helen of Troy? Listen! "No, sorry. Next, please. No, appreciate it. Try us again. Next. No, sorry. Thank you. Next. Hold it! Will you read that line again, please? That's it, ma'am. You have the part!" Turn around and meet the face that launched a thousand ships: 52 years old, 183 pounds, black as the ace of spades, and a voice that does very naughty things with your imagination. Wow! Hello, Helen!
I loved radio.
But you see, most people want to be slaves. My students wanted me to give them the answers. And I'd say to them, I worked for my answers. You accept them; I own you. So I'll just ask the questions, and you bring in your answers. Maybe I'll like them better than mine. Maybe I won't. Maybe you'll like yours better than mine. Maybe you wont. But you'll work for your answers and you'll make choices and you'll be your own person. Being free is hard work.
Radio was a medium for free people. People who did their own thinking. Created their own worlds. Chose their own furniture; defined their own universe. And they could afford whatever they could imagine.
But most people prefer others to do their thinking. Show us beauty, Playboy. Define tough guy, Mr. Cagney; define sexy, Miss Monroe; decide what the Emerald City really looked liked, Mr. Mayer, and then tell your designer he's going to have to trim the budget before he builds it; get the priest to interpret virtue, the rabbi to interpret the law, and television to interpret the four horsemen: conquest, war, famine, and death on the nightly news.
Yes, most people want to be slaves. But not all of the people. And not all of the time. For those who wished to be free, radio provided the dreams, and television the reality.
Radio was for the people who could dream; television was for people who needed to wake up.
It began, appropriately enough, on October 31st, 1939, with a Halloween broadcast, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of H.G. Welles' War of the Worlds.
According to the beliefs current at the time, nobody was listening to Mr. Welles. They were all listening to Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen.
Polls showed that only about 3 or 4 percent of the radio audience listened to the Mercury Theatre.
In Louisiana, my grandparents were attending church, the chief social and recreational activity of that small rural community. In the midst of the service, a farmer burst through the door, rushed to the front of the Church and whispered urgently to the minister, who looked up ashen faced to address the congregation. "Farmer Jones has informed me that the radio has just announced that we've been invaded by Martians. Up north. New Jersey is already under attack."
"It was about midnight," Thomas Heggin wrote, "when it came to Ensign Pulver that he could walk on water. And there were those who believed him, and those who didn't."
So it was with the Martian attack.
Princeton University made a study of the brouhaha that followed. It was true that only 3.5 percent of the radio audience was listening to Orson Welles. But that small percentage added up to six million people. And of that six million, some one million were, in the words of the study, either frightened or disturbed. That is, they jumped off bridges, out of buildings, loaded their belongings and fled in cars, or charged into church to announce we had been invaded by Martians.
I used to ask my students what was the significance of the broadcast. The correct answer, in my opinion, was there is no such thing as a small radio audience. Six million people is one helluva lot of people. Advertisers and politicians were rather quick to get the point. So you only get 3.5 percent of the listeners; so only one in six is motivated to "do something." That's a million people ready to go out a buy Quirky toothpaste or vote for Throttlebottom, the people's choice. Not only that, but they're scattered all across the country and willing to urge others to do the same.
It is possible we'd have been better off with the Martians.
So much for radio.
As for television, I leave you with the words of the late Medgar Evars, the NAACP leader who was murdered in Mississippi. "The share cropper's house," he wrote, "is a lot smaller than ol' massa's house on top of the hill. But their television antennas are the same size; and they're looking out on the same world."
Not Martin Luther King, my friends. His was a voice crying in the wilderness. It was television.
The view of the south end of a mule remained the view of the world for millions for many years. I had students who taught children in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama almost close enough to the sea to hit it with a rock. And those children didn't know what an ocean was, much less that there was one within walking distance of their home.
It was a window into the world. Not everyone was walking behind a mule.
Not everyone lived the way they were living. And the great exodus began.
Television showed them a different world. What it didn't show them was how to achieve it.
If the dream -- the objects of desire -- had moved from the cave to the theatre and from the theatre to the living room, it was still a dream. Even if it moved. Even if it was alive. Even if it was real. Seeing it brought it closer; but seeing it didn't make it yours.
You had to go out and hunt it down and make it yours. A lot has changed in 35000 years. But that's not one of them. Nobody can give you your freedom.
Not even television.