Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Love Me or Hate Me, Still an Obsession

Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have an almost hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation (1962). For cultural critics still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed.

Although these underlying anxieties of mid-century American society could be examined via a wide range of anthropological lenses and frameworks, visual media has historically provided a particularly vivid manifestation of the fears latent in the people of the United States (Haskell, 2004). This is, of course, not to imply that visual media is necessarily the best or only means by which we can understand prevailing ideologies in the years after World War II, but merely one of the most visible. However, as a critical examination of the entire media landscape of the 1950s would be beyond the scope of a single paper of this magnitude, discussion shall be primarily concentrated around Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd with particular attention paid to the contrasting channels of cinema and television.[1] This paper will seek to briefly position A Face in the Crowd in the larger context of paranoia-driven cinema of the 1950s before using the film as an entryway to discuss critiques of mass culture. Given the film’s apparent sustained resonance as indicated by its relatively recent mention (Vallis, 2008; Hoberman, 2008b; Franklin, 2009), the arguments of Critical Theory will then be applied to modern American culture in an attempt to ascertain their continued validity. Finally, an argument will be made that acknowledges the potential dangers facing mass culture in the 21st century but also attempts to understand the processes that underlie these pitfalls and provides a suggestion for recourse in the form of cultural and media literacy.

Paranoia, Paranoia, Everyone’s Coming to Get Me

The post-war prosperity of the 1950s caused rapid changes in America, literally altering the landscape as families began to flood into the newly-formed suburbs. With the dream and promise of upward social mobility firmly ensconced in their heads, families rushed to claim their piece of the American dream, replete with the now-iconic front yard and white picket fence. And yet, ironically, a new set of worries began to fester underneath the idyllic façade of the suburbs as the troubles of the city were merely traded for fears of paranoia and invasion; the very act of flight led to entrapment by an ethos that subtly precluded the possibility of escape.

As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia, there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects (Murphy, 2009). Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety:  from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, and from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of being a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age and latent fears manifested in media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts, all of which filled the movie screens of the decade (Jensen, 1971; Murphy, 2009; Wolfe, 2002).[2] Following solidly in this tradition, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd picks up on some of the latent strains of paranoia in American culture while simultaneously serving as a platform for a set of critiques regarding mass culture.

Somewhere, a Star Is Made

The storyline of A Face in the Crowd is rather straightforward and yet deceptively complex in its undertones:  on the surface, we experience a rather heavy-handed morality tale in the form of country bumpkin Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a relative nobody who is plucked from obscurity and made (and subsequently broken) through powers associated with television. Yet, it is only when we begin to connect the movie to a larger societal context that we begin to understand the ramifications of the film’s message; a careful examination of A Face in the Crowd reveals striking suspicions regarding the role that media plays (in this case, primarily television and cinema) in shaping American culture. Stars, director Elia Kazan argues, are not so much born as made, a distinction that portends dire consequences.

It is worth noting that Kazan’s film was made during a time when the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America; for a large part of its history, the United States, firmly grounded in a Puritan work ethic, had honored heroes who exemplified ideals associated with a culture of production and was struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment whose emphasis was now focused on consumption. Although modern audiences might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today:  in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system could would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status (Gamson, 1994; Benjamin, 1973)

Such is the case it seems, with Larry Rhodes, who is discovered by roving reporter Marcia Jeffries in an Arkansas jail. Although it cannot be denied that Rhodes has some modicum of talent and a certain charisma that comes from being unafraid to speak one’s mind, Marcia ushers Rhodes onto the path of greatness by dubbing him “Lonesome” and thus creates a character that transforms Rhodes from a despondent drunk to a winsome drifter. This scene—the first major one in the movie—thusly introduces the important notion that those involved in the media can be implicitly involved in the manipulation of the information that travels over the airwaves. Subtly adding to the insidious nature of the media, A Face in the Crowd portrays Marcia as a character that seems likable enough, but also a person who is, in a way, exploiting the people in jail as she rushes in with her tape recorder intent on prying the stories from the characters she finds (or creates!) and does not exhibit much concern in truly understanding why these men are imprisoned in the first place. Taken to an extreme, we later come across the character of The General, who further perverts the connection between media and power as he conspires with Lonesome to remake the image of Senator Worthington Fuller as the congressman runs for President.

Yet, as Lonesome Rhodes grows in his role as a media personality, he quickly demonstrates that the power to manipulate does not lie solely with those who sit behind the cameras. In Memphis, Rhodes incites a riot against the Luffler mattress company and also solicits donations in order to help a Black woman rebuild her house. In light of this, we can see that while Kazan focuses on the negative implications of television and celebrity, that the relative good or bad that comes from these actions is not necessarily the point—instead, the one constant in all of the depicted scenarios is a public who is manipulated into performing actions on the behalf of others. Although the characters of Lonesome and The General are vilified throughout the film, it is the masses for which Kazan demonstrates true disdain.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions

Perhaps nowhere is this contempt more apparent than at the end of the film where, in an attempt to offer a small moment of solace to Marcia after her unmasking of Lonesome, writer Mel Miller notes, “We get wise to them, that’s our strength” (Kazan, 1957). And Miller is not wrong:  Western tradition has long recognized the correlation between knowledge and power and Miller’s assertion touches upon the revelatory clout inherent in the realignment of perception and reality as noted by public relations guru Howard Bragman (2008). A more critical examination of the film’s closing scene, however, raises an important question:  Who is Miller’s “we”? Although one might be tempted to read this line as indicative of an egalitarian philosophical view, it is important to note that the only two characters in the shot represent the film’s arguably upper-middle class, and pointedly Eastern-educated, elite—nowhere to be seen are representatives of the small Arkansas town from the film’s opening or denizens of Memphis, both of whom serve to characterize the majority of Lonesome’s devoted viewers.[3] In fact, if we take time to reflect upon the movie, we realize that the majority of the audience was only alerted to Lonesome’s dual nature after Marcia flipped a control room switch and revealed the underlying deterioration; the masses oscillated from one position to the next without understanding how or why and once again adopted a passive stance in their relationship with media. Moreover, as Courtney Maloney points out, Kazan’s depiction of the agency of the masses is actually limited in scope:  despite a montage of audience members vehemently phoning in, sponsors are simultaneously shown to be acting independently as they withdraw their association with Lonesome (1999). Moreover, the subtext of the scene distances the rational decision-making of the truly powerful from the impassioned beseeching of the masses, likening the power of the latter to that of a mob. Knowledge and its associated authority, clearly, are afforded to a select group.

This idea, that the world can be divided between those who “get wise” and those who do not, serves to develop a rather sharp classist criticism against the medium of television and those who would watch it:  moviegoers, by virtue of witnessing Kazan’s work, find themselves elevated in status and privy to “the man behind the curtain” (to borrow a phrase). In contrast, the malleable masses were considered to be pacified and placated by idealistic portrayals of life in the 1950s in the form of television programs like Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Clearly, Kazan creates a dichotomy imbued with a value judgment descended from the thoughts of prominent thinkers in the Frankfurt School who, as far as aesthetics were concerned, preferred the high culture of cinema to the conformity and manipulated tastes of television (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002; Adorno, 1985; Quart, 1989). This distinction between high and low culture would be a crucial supporting idea for critics as a prominent fear of mass culture was that it portended a collapse between concepts (e.g., fame, celebrity, or intellectual value) of objectively different quality, essentially rendering all manifestations the same and therefore all equally mundane (Boorstin, 1962; Hoberman, 2008b; Kierkegaard, 1962).  Even worse for critics, perhaps, was the perception of the masses’ refusal to grow out of its immature interests, a behavior that was characterized as both childlike and stubborn (Adorno, 1985).

And the fears of such theorists, all of whom were reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology, were not unfounded. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it.[4] For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.

[1] It should be noted, however, that the comics of this time—those that belong to the end of the Golden Age and beginning of the Silver Age—also provide an additional understanding of the ways in which Americans indirectly wrestled with their fears.

[2] For a more exhaustive list of movies that support this point, see Wolfe, 2002.

[3] Let us also not forget the fact that Lonesome exhibits a rather patronizing attitude toward his audience in his later career, instituting the Cracker Barrel show with its manufactured country lackeys (Yates, 1974). In contrast to his first stint in Memphis, Lonesome has begun to embrace his country image as a means (if an inauthentic one) to connect with his audience, a point of contention to which we will return.

[4] Curiously, however, we see that this relationship between presidential addresses (like the aforementioned fireside chats) and mass media did not elicit notable complaints from critics who were generally wary of the merging of politics and entertainment (Quart, 1989; Benjamin, 1973). Although a larger discussion is warranted regarding the subtleties of this distinction, I would suggest that part of the differentiation stems from a high-low culture dichotomy. Although critics linked the negative presence of television with corporate advertising, James Twitchell suggests that there has always been a rather intimate relationship between arts and commerce, most saliently exhibited by wealthy citizens or entities who act as patrons (Twitchell, 1996).


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