The Nature of Television

The evolution of the media is not the most exciting thing. We figured out how to paint on caves sharing information about the animals we encountered and how we killed them. This was the first bulletin board. Later we figured out how to make these things mobile. Hammurabi had the law etched onto columns that were distributed around his empire. Since we figured out ink earlier, it took a bit longer, but we came up with various forms of paper to go with it. Once we hand ink and paper, the next big thing was the printing press. Folks from Eurocentric cultures know Gutenberg as the creator. Once we had that, we had everything pretty much in hand until the telegraph allowed us to transmit information electronically. Marconi is credited with making it wireless, although my love of Nikola Tesla forces me to say that’s a bit of bullshit. The wireless paved the way for radio. Radio gained picture to become television. Then the internet blew everything up.

Each media has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some are more local, others are more intimate. The strength of television was the simple ability to show you what was happening instead of just describing it. In the beginning, there was a lot of experimentation while people learned how tv could work. Stage plays were reenacted to poor effect initially. People learned comedy worked much better on television than radio because, well, you couldn’t do Buster Keaton with no sound. Over time the rules of television were codified. The rogue experimental factions settled down. Ideas were borrowed from film, but where film morphed into a venue for seeing large expanses on a wide screen, television settled into telling more intimate stories and the day’s news.

There is still experimentation on television, but you don’t see much of it anymore. Most of the world plays the same programs people in North America see because the United States dominates entertainment creation and distribution globally. (Since Hollywood was built on the backs of Jews forced out of Europe because of racism and discrimination, I wonder what the USA and the southern coast of California would be like if Europe had been more welcoming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) There is a huge amount of money made, so much so that there is little incentive to change. Hence where the problems of capitalism come into play.

It’s little wonder that a wealthy, more socialist country is redefining television in their borders. It isn’t that the programs have more viewers than The Big Bang Theory. It’s that some smart people there looked at their culture and decided that, yes, a show about wood stacking can be popular here. The success of that program led to others. Right now we are in the midst of a nine hour knitting marathon being broadcast live. It’s being simulcast, so take a few minutes and watch. You might even find it as fascinating as I do.

It isn’t that I think we need more knitting or wood stacking shows. It’s that I want to see more experimentation in the medium. When I first began college, I was amazed to find out that the BBC showed sheep dog competitions on television. I wanted to see it because I wanted a chance to taste that culture in a way that eating bangers and mash can’t convey. Thanks Norway for sharing what makes you you. Please continue sharing. Please continue to use television as a dynamic medium.

There’s embed code on their site, so I am giving it a go:

31 Nights of Horror: Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Halloween has arrived as has the final installment of 2013’s 31 Nights of Horror. Choosing a title for today was actually a little difficult. Fortunately Turner Classic Movies saw fit to provide a solution. While I have previously seen Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, I had not seen its 1966 sequel.

Horror of Dracula ended with Christopher Lee’s Dracula being reduced to ash via sunlight. I suspected that was the end of Dracula, and this sequel would simply ignore the prior film. Not so! Apparently in the 10 or so years between visitors to the ominous castle, Dracula’s henchmen swept up the ashes and kept them in a little box. He then proceeds to lure a few British tourists to the castle. One of them ventures off to investigate a noise and is killed and strung up over an open sarcophagus. The henchmen then drains the guy’s blood into it, mixing liberally with Dracula’s ashes. One misty revelation later, Dracula is returned. The man’s wife goes looking for her husband and becomes bride number one.

The other couple gets away, but in their escape, there is a carriage accident and the wife suffers a concussion. They are taken to the local monastery where they recover where Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor gives the lowdown on what’s going on. Dracula is still intent on gaining his second bride, though and mounts an assault on the monastery. He loses one bride, captures his desired number two and flees into the night back to his castle. Father Sandor and the husband pursue them and reach them just as they arrive outside the castle. The wife is rescued and Dracula meets his fate in one of the more original and rarely repeated ways in the book of vampire lore.

The film is a lot of fun. There is the gloomy castle. There is the bride of Dracula in a flowing evening gown. There’s the knowing priest who is also a man of action. Everything comes together nicely. You can’t top Christopher Lee as Dracula. But interestingly, he has no dialogue in this film. Lee said what was written was rubbish and he refused to say any of the lines. The film’s writer says he didn’t write any. It’s left for us to decide who’s telling the truth.

Given that vampires have been at a new peak in popularity the last few years, I was thinking about the ideas rooted in Dracula. Did Bram Stoker write Dracula as that Euro-trash guy who comes into the bar and leaves with the woman Stoker was trying to chat up? Is his ability to mesmerize women the writer’s crutch for why he couldn’t hold the interest of women when a man with a thick Eastern European accent came into the room? Probably there’s a paper in there somewhere if someone else hasn’t written it.

31 Nights of Horror: Orson Welles’ Production of War of the Worlds

In 1938, Orson Welles scared the pants off a large segment of the USA with his production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Welles was at the beginning of his career rising in popularity after his portrayal of the Shadow, the pulp superhero.

His adaptation is worth a listen even today. The program opens with a news report of explosions being seen on the surface of Mars. An interview with a scientist follows. There’s an interlude of music. Shortly the announcer is back with a live report from Grover’s Mill, NJ, where a space ship has landed. Once the ship opens, the visitors make their hostile intentions known. We never hear Earth’s triumph over the invaders, only characters talking about what happened.

I doubt the production still has the ability to scare. How we consume radio and receive our news has changed. Still, the program was inventive in how it mixed news reports and the evening’s normal radio programming to weave a tale that shocked people all over the country. There were few breaks during the program were listeners reminded it was a dramatization when commercials were played. If you missed the announcement, but heard the commercials, the effect of cutting back to an invasion was even more effective. The country was already tense because of the events happening in Europe at the time. Thousands of people were fooled by the broadcast, particularly on the East Coast. Congressional hearings were held, but no punitive action was taken because in the end no laws were broken.

It’s almost a little sad that no media outlet has the reach or reputation to scare us the same way today. Anyone fooled probably felt taken advantage of, but it says something about the strength and reach of the Columbia Broadcast System’s program that people believed that this was happening. I doubt the mix of anxiety about war and quality of production will ever again mix in the same way. That’s probably for the better. Still, history does have a tendency to repeat itself. If you’re interested in reading about the fallout of the broadcast, there are a couple of news items here you can read.

Thanks to Rashmi Sharma for requesting this as 31 Nights of Horror.

31 Nights of Horror: The Halloween Tree

According to Wikipedia, The Halloween Tree was originally written by Ray Bradbury as part of a project he was working on with Chuck Jones. That project never came to fruition, but Bradbury repurposed his screenplay into a short novel that was published in the early 1970s. I hadn’t heard of the story until research for one of the prior entries in this year’s 31 Nights of Horror.

The story follows a group of kids getting ready to go Trick or Treating on Halloween night. One of their group, Pipkin, is sick, but assures them he will be there. He had even scouted the route and wants to meet them in a particular spot. When they arrive there, Pipkin is kidnapped and a mysterious stranger, Mr. Moundshroud, arrives and leads the children on a tour of Halloweens past in an attempt to locate and save their friend.

The story is a history of the holiday we celebrate today with stops in ancient Egypt where they see a precursor to Trick or Treating. They pass through ancient Rome and see the Romans bring their beliefs to the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Their final stop is in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos. The kids eventually save Pipkin, but not without giving something of themselves.

The version I enjoyed is what you see pictured on the left–an audio drama produced by the Colonial Radio Theater players. All the actors perform well enough, although I was a bit let down to know that it was a bit of a musical with occasional breaks for song. The program is a great overview of where Halloween came from and why it’s still popular and observed today. Colonial has produced several Bradbury stories. You can find samples and more information here.