Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cinematic Reality: What is real? PART SIX


Our conception of cinematic reality is not static.

It changes with time.

It's a reaction to the old.  And a desire for the new.

Sometimes, as in the case of "Star Wars" and "A Fistful of Dollars," it's a desire for the old in a new way.

It's a reaction to historical/social trends and change.

But it's also a response to new media and technology that historical/social change fosters.


Orson Welles
Sunday, October 30th, 1938.  The night before Halloween.   A 23-year-old impresario from Kenosha, Wisconsin, scares the hell out of the United States with his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds."

Orson Welles did not plan his adaptation as a hoax or a prank, and yet he managed to create enormous alarm throughout the U.S. as listeners believed a real Martian invasion was taking place!


Welles knew that American audiences had been exposed to the conventions of radio broadcasts, gathering their information about social reality from listening to the radio.  He was keen enough to understand the implicit trust listeners had placed in the rather infant medium as a source of truth and reality.   Whole industries had grown around this new technology.  People had invested lots of money to get inside American homes.  Americans had become comfortable and trusting of the new innovation.

Welles played on this trust and adapted H.G. Well's novel as if it were a real broadcast!

He imitated the format of real broadcasts.  He interrupted the "fictitious format" with what appeared to be a "real" report about a series of explosions on Mars.

Listeners who had just dialed in, or had missed the pre-show announcement ("The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in the 'War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells!"), and Welles' introduction, had no clue they were listening to a fictitious broadcast.

So we can see that one stratagem for convincing a mass audience of the realness of a fantasy is to play on their knowledge of new media modalities.

(NOTE:  There is some evidence to suggest that the panic caused by the broadcast was not as widespread as has been thought.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that Welles still imitated traditional radio broadcasts to make his adaptation seem more real.)

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