Since my background related to this kind of media has something to do with this judgment, a few words about where I’m coming from:
I watched melodramatic media evolve during the 20th century. I avoided commercial entertainment media for many years while I was making documentaries, educational media and commercials. Whenever I tried viewing popular shows, I lost interest in minutes. Now, my pursuit of an MFA in music for media had required that I view mainstream melodramatic series and films that found a popular audience during the last half century, while I was busy making movies. I’ve seen a dozen or more episodes of popular mainstream or indie shows a week for fifteen weeks at a time. Fifteen on, twenty off to recuperate. My view of these things differs from my classmates, who grew up watching them in the evenings.
My first direct contact with audio and audio/visual equivalents of serialized pulp fiction was in the mid-1940s. From 7AM to 5PM, my mother was at work at the U.S. Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. I hadn’t started school yet and our comfortably stout “colored maid”, Laura, listened to soaps that were broadcast at ten and eleven on weekday mornings, for instance, “Ramona, The Romance of Helen Hunt”. I had no idea what these voices were talking about in their elegant dialect that was the same as voices in movies of the ’30s and ’40s but I remember feeling their passion, amplified and resolved by organ stabs and signature themes and I recall the mesmerizing voice of the narrator because of which I’m still tempted to buy Ivory and Lux soap bars when I see the packaging on the shelves at RiteAid or CVS. On weekend evenings, I listened to series of Our Miss Brooks, Fibber McGee and Molly
, Jack Benny’s melodramatic/comedic skits, Sky King, The Shadow, Green Hornet
and so on.
As a reader/listener/viewer, I experienced evolution of the audio/visual serialized melodrama from its beginning in newsprint, the adaptations to radio and in motion picture theaters, where “Westerns” and Movietone news preceded each feature. I was disappointed when these serials disappeared, replaced by animated cartoon melodramas. Movietone news disappeared at about the same time, replaced by commercial television. Dramatic melodramas like Paddy Chayefsky’s appeared and inspirational comedies by people like Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Audrey Meadows, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, etc., followed. I later learned about the writers of these shows and I knew these men and women all must have had some direct form of relationship to the horror of WWI in the same way as I was touched by the bombing of Vietnam.
They lived through the “impossible” horror of WWII, survived the global economic catastrophe euphemistically known as, the great depression’ people had witnessed direct reports of the engineering thoughtlessness that resulted in the Hindenburg disaster and the sinking of the Titanic. They or their parents had directly experienced the exploitation of child labor, women, miners and workers as a class. They knew the disaster of the dust bowl and daily, routine violence against women, Jews, Irish, Italians, people of color, and so on. These writers could have had no illusions about the capacity for thoughtless cruelty when people act as a mob. This was a culture for whom Arthur Miller had successfully written The Crucible, for which work he earned the love of Marilyn Monroe our highest icon of the feminine. These writers were also aware of the potential for media to produce mass hysteria. They’d knew about the riots induced by Orson Welles broadcast in 1938 of War of the Worlds and Goebbels effectiveness in mobilizing masses for the 3rd Reich.
On live televised hearings of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), I saw Senator Joseph McCarthy and his assistant Richard Nixon, verbally demonizing these same writers, directors, actors and producers, accusing them (and I assume now, naturalism) of treason. Later, I learned about the Hollywood Blacklist but I didn’t actually see the effect of it until I saw the election of a man that I’d seen on television a few years before, confessing in tears to a felony for which we normally jail offenders. Having met Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver (who was central to exposing McCarthy and dismantling HUAC) and having analyzed Nixon’s jingoistic rhetoric, I couldn’t avoid seeing the effect of audio/visual media in rewriting history, creating the mob-think that George Orwell described so well in 1984, not by writing lies but simply by omitting the truth.
In 1962, I was a Yeoman in the U.S. Coast Guard, when JFK announced a demand that the USSR remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. I was given the task of typing mobilization orders for all Coast Guard reservists in the 11th district. I saw and felt the possibility of WWIII and felt an enormous burden of fear lifted when the Soviet Union backed down. When the U.S. administration, with JFK as its spokesperson, diverted funds from the military and war to the Peace Corps and education, I felt hope and inspiration. I saw a surge of optimism and hope expressed in media and I saw this destroyed in an instant, when JFK was murdered in broad daylight with national television coverage (coincidentally on my birthday). Since that moment, I’ve seen the output of audio/visual and print media has increasingly become more sophisticated conservative propaganda so that, even though content appears to become liberal, the core values reflected in the media are not consistent with ideological principles expressed in the foundational myths of American culture as described, for instance, in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, while our melodramas pay lip service to these values, the stories consistently promote resignation and cynicism and I saw that it now does so through a form of faux naturalism.
Although “reality tv” is more obvious about this, a book like Coyote Blue exemplifies it perfectly. On the surface, the book presents native American culture in conflict with spiritual materialism. However, by avoiding natural character and presenting stereotypes, it classifies reality and the result is a story that could be viewed as earnest and responsible but something critical to this is missing.
Great stories are not produced from analysis. Analysis is something we do after the fact. In adapting a book like Coyote Blue to the screen, my analysis allows me to understand and thereby transcend the faults of the book by breathing life into otherwise dead characters even though the writer cast them as shallow forms. So, I can potentially exploit the popularity of the melodramatic stereotype. However, I can also see the difference between this kind of adaptation and the much greater task confronted by Von Stroheim, McCullers and DeSica in adapting, respectively, Greed, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and In the Garden of the Finzi Continis. It seems far more demanding, for these books stand among the greatest works of art in the literature of western culture.