Sunday, March 2, 2014

Let’s All Go to the Lobby…

“…to get ourselves a treat.”

This advertising jingle appeared in movie theaters and drive-ins from the mid 1950s on, accompanied on screen by dancing cartoonified containers of soda, popcorn, candy, and gum.  A potent earworm, it was very effective in driving up snack bar sales for many years after its debut.  (I still have it in my brain, decades later.  Maybe you do, too.) 

Later on, researchers experimented with embedding tachistocopic subliminal messages such as “eat more popcorn”, flashed on the movie screen so quickly that they were undetectable by viewers.  This was also effective in generating sales of snack items.  I cannot believe that such powerful technologies of persuasion were abandoned in the last century.  Surely someone saw value in developing them further, for various uses.

Some popcorn sure would taste great right now.

Another cartoon, this one much more diabolical than the one inviting us to the lobby, is the subject of Wallace West’s chilling The Phantom Dictator, originally published in 1935.  I found this gem in the Avon Fantasy Reader No. 17 (1951), an anthology series edited by Donald Wollheim in the early 1950s.  (You may recall that Donald Wollheim wrote the original story on which the 1997 film Mimic was based.) 

Interestingly, in his introductory note to West’s story, Wollheim comments on the growing influence of television—a relatively new technology in 1951.  He references the historic Kefauver Committee hearings, which dealt with organized crime and corruption of big city governments in the USA.  The new medium of television drew the public’s attention to this national problem in a way that had not been possible before.  Wollheim recalls the effective use of radio by the Nazis to mold German public opinion during World War II; he speculates that television, in the wrong hands, would allow some future totalitarian unprecedented power over the public.  What if Hitler had been on television?

But Wallace West’s nightmare is about the subversive use of an earlier technology—motion pictures, and more specifically, animation.  (West in real life actually worked for a time at an animated-cartoon company.)  In The Phantom Dictator, the narrator, Dr. Brown, is a psychiatrist who begins to notice that people around him are beginning to act strangely.  Their behavior seems connected to a popular cartoon character named Willy Pan, currently showing in movie theatres across the country.  People who see the cartoon insist that their friends see it too, and soon everyone is talking about Willy Pan and his various escapades.  Against his better judgment, Dr. Brown attends a show with his office nurse, Miss Hawkins.

At first he is impressed with the apparent advances in the animation technique, which give the cartoon a three dimensional quality and an intensity not typical of contemporary cartoons.  (Mickey Mouse is mentioned in passing.)  It seems like an ordinary, even entertaining cartoon, until Willy Pan waves his magic wand, “which sparkled at the end with varicolored, spinning lights.”  Dr. Brown realizes he is being hypnotized and tears his eyes away.  The audience, including the malleable Miss Hawkins, is powerfully mesmerized and lulled into a glassy stare at the screen. Dr. Brown, the only one still conscious, hears a strong compelling voice that reassures the audience, but also issues commands to them.

This is not about buying more popcorn! 

The voice behind the Willy Pan character recommends radically changing the government and economy of the United States, as well as its place in the world.  War is looming in the western hemisphere.  Dr. Brown and a handful of people not yet hypnotized struggle to thwart the subversion in time.  Their chief weapon is the production of an anti-Willy Pan cartoon which contains an antidote message.

The Phantom Dictator is remarkable for its foreknowledge of subliminal messaging and its impact on political persuasion.  West deconstructs the production of an animated feature to show how hypnotic elements could integrated into a message delivery system, and so affect the choices of a somnambulant population.  Some of the story may be tongue-in-cheek satire, in that rival animated-cartoon companies struggle to control the minds of their fellow citizens.  West wrote this story as Americans were debating whether to get involved in World War II.  There was also at the time considerable anxiety about the spread of totalitarian ideologies like fascism, Nazism, and communism from Europe to the Americas.

Technology itself is a source of uneasiness in this story.  The advent of new technologies is often the base material of nightmares, both in our waking lives as we adapt to them and in our dreams.  These in turn are soon reflected in contemporary horror and science fiction entertainments, which document our psychological and emotional adjustment to technological change. 

Recent examples over the past few decades include films like The Signal (2007), in which cell phones, television and radio convey a mysterious transmission that turns its recipients into killers.  Malevolent computers appear in Collossus: The Forbin Project (1970), War Games (1983), Demon Seed (1977), and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Advances in robotics helped provide the impetus for movies like the Terminator franchise, and more recently, I, Robot (2004).  There are many other examples.   Communications media of various kinds are an especially fertile ground for new technophobias because of their intimacy and impact on individual privacy.   

Though dated by the male chauvinism and pre-occupation with the ‘Red Scare’ of the early twentieth century, The Phantom Dictator is still disturbing.  The basic premise is chilling and still relevant—that our behavior can be shaped and altered without our awareness by everyday technology.  Who among us hasn’t been distracted or redirected by the images, colors and chimes of our various communication devices, or by the amazing graphics of the media we observe?  Do we really know what’s going on around us, or why we make the decisions that we do?

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