It Was Mother

It Was Mediums

It Was Mediums
Wayras Olivier
JULY 2016


Mediums tend to coarsen perceptions when transmitting news that originates, unverified, from the other side. To doubt both the medium and the message's veracity is only human. Of the uncounted mediums throughout US history, only one managed to remain so singularly legitimate in the court of public opinion. His name was Edgar Cayce. Born in 1877 in a bucolic Kentucky town of tobacco farmers, Cayce possessed, while in trance, one, an uncanny ability to report news before it happened and two, an undeniable and demonstrable talent for healing people. For a healer, his method was suspiciously ordinary—no farcical hand gestures; no creating holy ash out of thin air; no spasmodic convulsions; and no speaking in hysteric tongues—Cayce would simply lie down in a stupor, quietly identify a pathology, and prescribe an unconventional non-pharmacological remedy to a burdened patient. As you can imagine, this left Cayce vulnerable from time to time to furtive patients who could and did slip in a question when Cayce was in the midst of an altered state of consciousness, one that could ingress and access—you guessed it—how a racehorse at the track or a stock in the market was going to perform. Cayce would complain of headaches to his wife after such sessions; a signal he soon realized was his body's way of telling him that his prescience was being unscrupulously leveraged for profit. From then on, whenever Cayce went under, his wife would remain in the room by his side to monitor what was being asked of her husband.

Coincidentally, yet unrelated, is the period when Cayce's talent began to sprout; right after he was struck with laryngitis—mother nature's version of a gag order—which rendered him speechless for almost an entire year at the turn of the century; precisely when, on the other side of the Atlantic, a work of research was completed by an Austrian tobacco fiend called The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The author, a long-faced psychoanalyst, studied how the mind tends to smoke out that which has been forcefully repressed and called this inability to keep the forbidden private—parapraxis. Or, if you prefer: a Freudian slip.

The private sector's symbiotic reliance on the fourth estate can be traced back to the late 1700s when only one medium was available. A small circulated daily New York newspaper that Lorillard used to advertise its fragrant snuff. This was a few years prior to chemists isolating nicotine from the cured tobacco leaf, many years prior to the brand becoming one of the three "Big Tobacco" juggernauts, and almost two hundred years prior to A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers. Sponsored in the late fifties by Lorillard and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation (to name a few), the dubious ad ran in hundreds of circulated newspapers across the US. It went on to say:

"For more than 300 years tobacco has given solace, relaxation and enjoyment to mankind. At one time or another during those years critics have held it responsible for practically every disease of the human body. One by one these charges have been abandoned for lack of evidence."

Public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, the engineers of the ad, enforced the message's credibility by assuring the reader a Tobacco Industry Research Committee would be formed to continue research into the future. The statement concluded:

"In charge of the research activities of the Committee will be a scientist of unimpeachable integrity and national repute."

This Eisenhower-era "scientist," whoever he was, most certainly went to sleep every night counting plush sheep without compunction. Some forty years later, in Kentucky, another scientist, Jeffrey Wigand, hired by Brown & Williamson at $300,000 per annum (equivalent to half a million dollars today) didn't see the wool being draped over his eyes until it was too late. When interviewed (scene not in film) by Mike Wallace on February 4th, 1996 for 60 Minutes, Jeffrey had this to say:

"You know I was very inquisitive when I came on: "Have you ever done any nicotine studies, have you done any pharmacology studies, have you done any biological studies, have you looked at the effect of nicotine on the central nervous system,' and always general and categorically [the answer was]—no we don't do that kind of work."

Although absent from The Insider, anyone who has been in a similar situation would know the ensuing "scene." The boss would say—cryptically of course—to just "play along"; this usually arouses resentment in an employer, who believes it should be, above all else, common sense to an employee who suddenly notices what should have been apparent and obvious. One can't know for sure what contributed to Jeffrey and his wife Lucretia (her name changed to Liane for the film) to split and eventually divorce but one scene in the film exquisitely dramatizes how quickly guilt culminates when husband and wife's incommensurable ambitions have diverged. Jeffrey's profession was never a source of remorse for his wife; now watch the subtle bow to Lady Macbeth's "My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white"; when, a few scenes after Jeffrey (Russell Crowe) has taped the interview for 60 Minutes exposing B&W, which jeopardized the Wigand's financial security; Jeffrey is reprimanded for cleaning his hands in the kitchen:

Liane: "Please don't wash your hands in the sink."

Jeffrey: "Where should I wash them?"

Liane: "Use the bathroom."

Jeffrey: "What's the difference?"

Liane: "That's for food."

"Viral" showed up as a neologism in print media around the same time The Insider hit theatres in 1999. Whether or not Mike Wallace in reality—due to his fiduciary responsibility to the network—sided with CBS Corporate instead of Jeffrey after B&W threatened litigation, one thing can be said for certain since the film's release: information has evolved into a staggering "organism." Colonizing with unreasonable speed and inspired sophistication, it can now advance and spread without a host. Today, one face or one network, as sole arbiter of global connectivity is a gelastic and aggrandizing concept; sadly, if for no other reason than our accelerated agility in consuming information and likewise, our expedient habit of forgetfulness—so is Wallace's speech:

"I'm not talking celebrity, vanity, CBS. I'm talking about when you're nearer the end of your life than the beginning. What do you think you think about then? The future? "In the future I'm going to do this? Become that?" What future? No. What you think is: how will I be regarded in the end? After I'm gone. Oh along the way I suppose I made some minor impact. I did Iran-Gate and the Ayatollah, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Saddam, Sadat etcetera, etcetera. I showed them thieves in suits. I spent a lifetime building all that! But history remembers most what you did last. And should that be fronting a segment that allowed a tobacco giant to crash this [CBS] network? Does it give someone at my time of life pause? Yeah."

Scribed and performed by Eric Roth and Christopher Plummer respectively, the scene came shortly after Jeffrey, the mad scientist, stretched and adjudicated his own "pause"—through a mural in his room at the Seelbach Hotel—for a crucially symbolic, 60 seconds.

***

All mediums (print, radio, and TV) were available in the sixties for tobacco to advertise on, as seen in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Matthew Weiner's pilot episode for Mad Men. Fictional characters; Bertram Cooper, a Japanese architecture and art enthusiast, along with his partner Roger Sterling, is tasked with devising an ad campaign for Lee Garner Sr., owner of Lucky Strike cigarettes. In the boardroom, Lee Garner Sr. and Roger:

Mr. Garner: "You know this morning I got a call from our competitors at Brown & Williamson and they're getting sued by the federal government because of the health claims they made."

Roger: "Yeah, we're aware of that, Mr. Garner. But you have to realize that through the manipulation of mass media, the public is under the impression that your cigarettes are linked to ... certain fatal diseases."

Mr. Garner: "Manipulation of the media? Hell, that's what I pay you for."

Weiner, most assuredly aware of Lucky Strike's history when he wrote that last line, would be familiar with PR phenom, Edward Bernays (Freud's nephew), who was hired by Lucky Strike in the late twenties to do just that: manipulate the media. At the time, a cigarette in a woman's mouth was associated with sexual serfdom but Bernays knew, through his uncle's work, that critical thinking is greatly reduced when people are in groups and crowds; arrested even further if the products' message (any message for that matter) spoke directly to—as Freud put it—the masses: infantile, emotional, and most importantly, irrational perceptions and beliefs. If cigarettes could be perceived as a "movement" they could be given any name, "Torches of Freedom" for example, and identified as a phallic symbol indicative of a woman finally "possessing her own." In turn, elevating the opinion that women, through puffing, could possess the qualities of her masculine counterpart, namely: agency, reflexivity, and autonomy. Completely nonsensical and misogynistic, the PR campaign was tremendously effective in capturing an undermined market segment and swaying public opinion.

Big box corporations continued to enlist Bernays' expertise and he eventually went on to sculpt a permanent zeitgeist—the American, no longer as a citizen but a consumer. When consumers project their identity onto goods and services they shift from needing products to wanting them, even products that have little or no utility. This sounds counterintuitive, as life's necessities should outweigh life's desires (as Maslow, years later, would go on to theorize) yet Bernays distinguished a subtle difference between the two and knew that at the deepest levels of the psyche, humans are biased towards desires. Keeping up with the Joneses is not a social addiction rooted in the necessity to preserve one's survival. It is an addiction to enhance one's relevancy within the zoo.

Notice how tobacco, from both spheres, becomes a monkey. Classified as a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), although not highly perishable, it does have a short shelf life and high turnover rate owed to its link with social mobility (desire). Moreover, through the gravity of chemistry, it makes a person physically dependent (need). Immune to both planned and built-in obsolescence the cigarette is, for its purveyor, a perfect product. Not for Wigand. Cited in both the real 60 Minutes interview and its reenactment in The Insider; Wigand identified coumarin (not nicotine "boosting") as the deleterious compound in B&W's cigarettes that led, on grounds of conscience, to his departure from the company after an unsuccessful confrontation with his boss Thomas Sandefur.

A contrarian voice to Bernays' mechanistic view of man as mere consumer came years later from social critic Herbert Marcuse. In his 1955 book Eros & Civilization, an emphatic Marcuse swerved clear from Bernays' uncle. Whereas Freud believed man is capricious, irrational, and a menace if left to his own devices who can only achieve a life of order through suppression of his base impulses; Marcuse viewed man's primary libidinal impulses as productive and essential to his overall growth, well-being and sanity. Suppressing Eros, Marcuse argued, is what causes belligerence, mayhem, and destruction. Expanding his ideas even further, Marcuse synthesized their impact on government, economics, and even general human happiness in a sweeping book called One Dimensional Man.

Much fuss has been made over the supposedly untouchable greatness of the one scene in Heat that pits cop (Pacino) and criminal (De Niro) in an American diner to decode what their dreams mean. Nonsense. Not to mention irrational one-dimensional nonsense. It's Michael Mann and Dante Spinotti's choreography that pits journalist (Pacino) and whistleblower (Crowe), Lowell Bergan and Jeffrey Wigand respectively, across from each other inside a Japanese restaurant that deserves a high mantel. Jeffrey, who has never heard of Herbert Marcuse—indicated by the mispronunciation of his last name—is struggling with whether or not to tape the interview with Wallace:

Jeffrey: "The internet said you did graduate work at Wisconsin then went to UC La Jolla with Professor Herbert Marcus?"

Lowell: (corrects pronunciation) "Marcuse. Yeah. He was my mentor. He had a major influence on the new left in the late sixties and on me, personally."

Swiftly, the scene escalates:

Lowell: "You go public and thirty million people hear what you got to say, nothing, I mean nothing will ever be the same again. You believe that?"

Jeffrey: "No."

Lowell: "You should. Because when you're done a judgment is gonna go down in the court of public opinion my friend and that's the power you have."

Jeffrey: "You believe that?"

Lowell: "I believe that. Yes, I believe that."

Consider how suspension of disbelief—the audience's consensual alacrity to hold true anything presented to them in the name of enjoyment—is shattered by a disruptive "cut" the precise moment Jeffrey is about to challenge Lowell:

Jeffrey: "You believe that because you get information out to people something happens?"

Lowell: "Yes."

The filmmakers break the fourth wall by jumping the scene's directional axis with a cut that causes Jeffrey for three brief seconds to suddenly shift positions with Lowell. Aside from jarring the audience by calling their attention to both the scene's "message" and "medium," in this case 35mm; the move momentarily suspends Jeffrey and Lowell's position by "reversing" them; the two shoeless men, squatting at the table, ostensibly are two sumo wrestlers locked in a "Mushòbu"; a term for a non-outcome, a draw, a deadlock if you will. Merging both yes and no to produce a maybe; to the question "you believe that because you get information out to people something happens."

In his essay, Shock and Awe, The Manipulation of The Human Psyche, social and political commentator, Alan Watt (commonly cited incorrectly as Alan Watts, the highly regarded British philosopher) instanced why people use information the way they do. Note in this brief passage—if you agree with his premise—how easy it is for someone to become a consumer and how strenuously difficult it would be for that someone to become, one, their own person and two, capable of forging a legacy:

"Most people want to belong to their peer group, they want to be the same as everyone else when it comes to opinions. In fact, they judge their own personal sanity by bouncing ideas off their neighbors and friends, who will answer back and agree on these same topics in kind. It doesn't matter if the topics are facts or utter nonsense. As long as everyone agrees at the same time, you'll say: "I'm sane" and your friends will all agree because they've had the same information given to them."

One can't comment with certainty on the "real" Jeffrey or his inward journey other than the one presented in the film. But notice how the filmmakers, just seconds prior to Jeffrey's enervated hallucination in his hotel room, preface the scene with his daughter uttering, as if her father is trapped: "Mom, there's Dad, on TV." One cannot escape communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan's bracing kòan "the medium is the message" nor is it possible to believe the filmmakers were not deliberately running with this idea to heighten the film's drama; so often absent when filmmakers recreate a work of non-fiction. Dramatized is the PR slogan: "perception is reality" for the audience to denounce and revoke in favor of a more attenuated truth: perception is merely a notion of reality. For the beholder, this is a realization that can make one, contrary to the film's title, an outsider. As such, when Jeffrey's daughters "appear" as a mirage on the mural inside his room (without the aid of an industrial medium), it is immediately obvious by how quickly they turn their backs on him, what his posterity, by not allowing him to indulge in his stupor, gets across: the journey of discovering your message, however painful—do not permit unbalanced madness to invalidate your legacy.

W.