[14 February 2010]
Reaching back into media history, the roots of The SImpsons’ ‘Radio Bart’ can be found in the media events surrounding the deaths of explorer Floyd Collins and San Marino girl Kathy Fiscus—an explorer and a young child unlucky enough to die in holes, and ‘lucky’ enough to have the media around while they were doing it. (That last bit is debatable.)
Whether or not the sources were specifically intended, they certainly provide most of the key details either directly or indirectly. Like Floyd Collins, Bart [now aka Timmy O’Toole] has his leg caught which prevents him simply being pulled out (amputation seemed to be an option for Floyd at one point). Similarly, Kathy Fiscus wasn’t able to be pulled out by a lowered rope, and the 14-inch opening of the well she had fallen into was too small to allow access for rescuers (jockeys and midgets were considered for the rescue)—in ‘Radio Bart’, the well is actually a generous 34 inches but, in a great joke, ‘not one member of our city’s police force is slender enough to rescue the boy’.
As with Kathy and Floyd, Bart/Timmy’s plight also sends musicians rushing to the recording studio—now a big ‘We Are the World’ type effort from mega-celebrities: ‘We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well’ (‘Though we can’t get him out, we’ll do the next best thing / Go on TV and sing, sing sing’). But exactly what benefits go where is caught up in the general flow of business-as-usual (something George Harrison famously learned with the Concert for Bangladesh): ‘we have to pay for promotion, shipping, distribution…. those limos out front, they ain’t free. Whatever’s left over, we throw down the well’, Krusty the Klown explains of the benefit single.
There’s money to be made, live TV reports, t-shirt and authentic baby-teeth vendors all over the place; as with Floyd and Kathy it’s good for business whether it actually has anything to do with the rescue or not. (Kathy may not have drawn the circus-style crowds that Collins did, but she didn’t have nearly as long to do so—and the real gatherings were taking place in front of shiny new television screens).
Of course, by now there’s nothing shocking about this kind of cynicism; we’ve had plenty of opportunities to be suspicious of media spectacle. But it’d be a mistake to think that this is only a modern perspective that has evolved out of an innocent and straightforward past (the frequent nonsense rhetoric we’re usually served up about how cutting-edge we all are, usually just to put a trendy spin on the same old rubbish)—if The Simpsons takes its core details from Floyd Collins and Kathy Fiscus, its dominant cynicism is transferred almost directly from Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole, a vicious recreation of a Collins/Fiscus style event that makes easy modern cynicism look like kids’ stuff.
Wilder stepped out of popular (and relatively classy) comedies for this vicious story of one guy trapped in a cave, the reporter who builds it into a media sensation, and the vacuous public that laps it all up. At first sight, Kirk Douglas’ opportunistic reporter, Chuck Tatum, might as well be any fast-talking flamboyant movie newsman. He’s down on his luck when we start out, drifting into a small town paper looking for work, but the quiet mix of disapproval and befuddlement his presence draws from the straight-laced newsroom is more or less overwhelmed by his personality and flamboyant ambition from the outset; Tatum’s smugly amused by the hokey ‘tell the truth’ sign on the wall and the editor so cautious he wears both suspenders and a belt.
Stopping in at near-deserted town on the way to an unwelcome assignment to report on a rattlesnake hunt, and stumbling over news of local man Leo Minosa trapped underground in a cave, Tatum’s pursuit of the story seems reasonable enough—what really makes the difference is his realisation that he’s hit the jackpot. Or, at least, he could hit the jackpot if he plays it right. Passive reporting isn’t even worth considering. Venturing into the underground cavern, Tatum reminds his rookie cameraman of the usual laws of ‘human interest’, where one man trapped underground is a whole lot better than a bunch of ‘em. We’re clearly in Floyd Collins territory, and Wilder doesn’t hide his source: ‘You never heard of Floyd Collins, 1925, Kentucky? The guy pinned way down in that cave. One of the biggest stories that ever broke, front page on every paper in the country for weeks’.
The young cameraman’s never heard of him; but forget Collins, Tatum sums up the moral of the story: ‘Maybe you heard that a reporter on the Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize’.
Peering through a gap in some caved-in rocks, camera in hand taken from the less-bold rookie, Tatum find Leo trapped under some debris; he’s out of reach, but he can throw him food and blankets to keep him warm and alive. Tatum’s friendly demeanour and reassurance quickly slips into reporter mode, pushing aside talk of the rescue to draw out Leo’s backstory; his ears prick up when he hears that the cavern is an Native American tomb; his tone, probing but trying not to draw attention to itself, as he prompts Leo with a flat ‘that’s worthwhile knowing’, suggests a brain working overtime. Within seconds he has the camera out and Leo posed, holding one of the pottery pieces he crawled in to find.
Leo is suspicious at the emergence of the camera, but calms down when he hears that Tatum’s just a benign newspaper man. He even gets a little excited that he might get his picture in the paper. We’ll all be pulling for him, Tatum tells him. ‘Don’t worry, Leo. I’m your pal’, he says, and Leo has no reason not to believe him, no reason to suspect that the smiling reassuring face sees the situation as nothing more than a cog in a plan.
Tatum’s writing the story before he’s even out in the open air: ‘Maybe bigger than Floyd Collins… Floyd Collins plus King Tut… How’s that for an angle?... White man half-buried by angry spirits. What will they do, will they spare him, will they crush him?’. Still a dopey rookie, the cameraman just wants to know if they can get Leo out. Tatum remains jovially optimistic: ‘Floyd Collins lasted eighteen days. I don’t need eighteen days. If I just had one week of this…’. When questioned, he shrugs it off with a still-standard media defence: ‘I’m not wishing for anything. I don’t make things happen, all I do is write about them’.
Wilder pours out so many small but key images and moments of Tatum asserting control through ‘passive’ reporting that a play-by-play report is almost impossible. Tatum quickly sets himself up in a position of power, ‘owns’ the news, makes deals with the local politicians and businesses, until he’s at the centre of the whole spectacle: he’s a life-line to the trapped man, but now Tatum’s the real star of the show, surrounded by a real-life circus that’s sprung up around the once-desolate cavern and dying town.
But stardom and power don’t necessarily bring any real control. As Tatum slowly grows disgusted by the opportunism of those around him and those who have flocked to the site, and begins to turn that insight inwards, he finds that the momentum he’s established isn’t about to be turned around as quickly as his self-perception. In an attempt to stretch the story out, alternate (and simple) rescue plans were abandoned for the spectacular. Too late to turn back, Leo dies, still trapped and alone, with an exciting but unnecessary drill still pounding away at the mountain above him.
With the announcement that Leo is dead, the tents come down and the revellers file away from the scene, sensing that the spectacle, and the cash-flow, is all but dried up. Tatum comes to see himself as a ‘murderer’, but even that moment of personal revelation doesn’t draw any interest from the public or the papers—Leo’s already yesterday’s news. As the trucks and trains flee the scene, along with Leo’s wife, only Leo’s father, sincere but powerless, remains in the once again vacant terrain (echoed in the closing scene of the empty landscape and ‘safe’ well in ‘Radio Bart’).
No wonder Ace in the Hole wasn’t exactly a hit; far from simply targeting reporting, it seems more concerned with the public’s preference to spectacle over honesty, sensation over reality—the tourists that flock to the site are never presented as more than mere parasites, vicariously cementing their sense of their own humanity through the suffering of another. The only person who actually gives a damn barely gets a look in. Drawing directly on Floyd Collins, and hitting the screens only a couple of years after Kathy Fiscus, Ace in the Hole seemed intent on reducing the benign and passive image of the press when tragedy becomes spectacle.
Retitled as the less-cynical ‘The Big Carnival’ and more-or-less shoved aside, Ace in the Hole was never exactly an easy film to find. Still, my Grandfather, never one to bother much much with movie-talk, spontaneously recounted some of the film’s events to me one afternoon when I was a young teenager; he’d seen it tucked away as a B-picture on a double-bill and had never forgotten the songs about Leo playing throughout the carnival and the image of the deserted landscape. (I eventually snared a 3am Australian TV screening on VHS tape, and got a bit of collector’s poutyness when Criterion rendered my blurry VHS obsolete with an excellent dvd release.)
The Simpsons’ ‘Radio Bart’, of course, acted as the usual reference point for trying to discuss the film—the circus environment around the well certainly seems to be directly modeled after the film, and, while it’s perhaps less-cynical in its approach, it still remains concerned with the question of exactly what these spectacles actually mean to a viewing audience and the power inherent in ubiquitous presentation:
Homer: That Timmy is a real hero.
Lisa: How do you mean, Dad?
Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and… he can’t get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, it’s more than you did!
The Simpsons also had a more recent event to draw on: 18-month old Jessica McClure fell into a well in Texas in 1987 and immediately became the centre of national media attention. While longer memories may have turned to thoughts of Kathy Fiscus, thankfully everyone finally got the happy ending that they were apparently waiting for: after 58 hours, Jessica was pulled out from the well alive.
Aside from that little detail, elements story might be considered highly comparable to Floyd Collins and Kathy Fiscus. As with William Miller reporting on Floyd Collins, the well brought a Pulitzer for photographer Scott Shaw. It also paid off elsewhere—on the scene was a growing news broadcaster, its profile increased by its presence: this time not KTLA, but CNN.
Yet, however much the past repeats itself, it’s always easier to pass it off as something new and unexplored—there are fewer questions that way. A New York Times retrospective certainly seemed to think there was something new about the whole thing:
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is worth many times that, and a live moving picture makes an emotional connection that goes deeper than logic and lasts well beyond the actual event. This was before correspondents reported live from the enemy capital while American bombs were falling. Before Saddam Hussein held a surreal press conference with a few of the hundreds of Americans he was holding hostage. Before the nation watched, riveted but powerless, as Los Angeles was looted and burned. Before O. J. Simpson took a slow ride in a white Bronco, and before everyone close to his case had an agent and a book contract. This was uncharted territory just a short time ago.” (“Death on the CNN Curve”, Lisa Belkin, 23 July 1995)
The article quibbles over the techniques of the live reporting then and now to create a sense of difference, but it’s really just the same story with different technology. What the technological focus does it divert us from the real essence of the spectacle, that ‘emotional connection that goes deeper than logic and lasts well beyond the actual event’. That last part may be shaky (the benefactors of the events seem to last a lot longer than the people at the middle), but there seems little doubt that the connection goes well beyond logic—or, at least, well beyond the kind of logic we like to think the world runs on. Does this focus on mega-spectacle, in a world filled with tragedy, really create any meaningful emotional connection, or is it just a narrative to pass the time and, perhaps, help us take comfort in our own relative security?
There seems little doubt that the details seem more or less engineered towards creating a viable narrative—Chuck Tatum manufacturing a story in Ace in the Hole now seems second nature rather than a revelation. Selective reporting is similarly plain: it’s common knowledge that attractive white middle-class women, kidnapped, trapped or otherwise, make for much better news than anyone else.
We often hear today about ‘compassion burnout’, but it’s worth wondering if actual ‘compassion’ even really plays a part: maybe we’re just sick of the regular story. The profits to be gained from media spectacle were never clearer than with Jessica McClure, who now sits on a trust fund of one million dollars or so from money donated by viewers—the benefits of media-branded ‘heroism’.
It may seem picky to begrudge Jessica her payday, but there’s really no shortage of tragedy and even kids falling down holes—they’re just not all lucky enough to be part of a great story: who remembers Bobby Gow, who slipped into a well and was rescued by no-doubt similarly valiant efforts in October 1949, not long after Kathy Fiscus? (see the Spartanburg Herald-Journal 30 October 1949) It’s easy to see where the ‘Balloon Boy’ hoax came from—getting stuck in a hole (albeit one floating in the sky) always seems a safe bet. Maybe I wouldn’t go that far—but parents might want to consider preparing their kids with a media kit in case they ever get into any trouble. If little Johnny falls down a hole, I’ll make sure he’s got a script sewn into his jacket, since a sensational backstory seems to be the best method of securing a well-funded rescue and maybe some cash.
Far from going ‘deeper than logic’, the whole approach to tragedy simply seems to bypasses logic entirely. Most of the money sent to rescue Jessica had no effect on the actual rescue, whereas it would have had an enormous effect in many parts of the world that, in fact, could be enormously impacted just about every day. Philosopher Peter Singer sums it up nicely in relation to Jessica: one identifiable child became a focal point for emotional response, while 50,000 children died who could have been saved (it’s always uncomfortable to see global charities having to explain that not every donation will be explicitly used for the most prominent disaster-of-the-day). It was no longer a matter of saving Jessica—work was already underway—perhaps just a desire for, or a mass delusion of, effectiveness. If engineered, yet fruitless, emotional response can’t be said to logical, can it even be considered ethical?
Withdrawal may be the only appropriate response—a charity and compassion that renounces its own emotional biases, giving without revelling—but finance tends to overtake logic and ethics, and holes were still paying off recently in Beaconsfield Australia where in 2006 a mine collapse left one miner dead and two trapped underground for two weeks. All the usual plot-points seem to apply, but what’s really notable is how the two trapped miners orchestrated their return to the world, insisting that they be allowed to shower and then, in a show of bravado, removing their tags from the mine roster (effectively ‘clocking off’) before being taken to hospital. After two weeks underground, they knew they weren’t just victims, they were also the show.
Less impressive is the Ace in the Hole-style media tactics, with accusations that journalists were offering big money for footage from inside the mine. That may sound like plucky Lois Lane-style journalism, except that the operation was dangerous enough without hidden agendas—according to Australian media watchdog Media Watch, ‘the mine was forced to start searching the bags of rescue workers as they headed down’, complicating an already difficult process. Australian viewers will, of course, remember the opportunistic ambulance-hopping by one of Australian TV’s more loathsome personalities.
‘Radio Bart’ may not offer any solutions when delving into the mess, but it manages to compress an extraordinary amount of media history, compassion, manipulation and cynicism into a sharp, quick and funny 20-minutes or so. It may not approach the cynicism of its source in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, but nor does it succumb to the ‘human interest’ trap offered by so many of these recurring spectacles. Its cynicism in the media process and the potential for self-interest and profit at the expense of others is grounded by its awareness of the potential for sincere and honest altruism and benevolence: the media spectacle, in the end, is nothing but a distraction, and it’s some sincere digging by a few people (and Sting), once the lights of the theatre of tragedy have moved on, that really gets the job done.