Spielberg invades Bayonne

The other worlds of Television?

Although Nicholas Tesla had already invented what would later be called "the Telsa Coil" by the time H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds making the concept of television possible and its 1927 unveiling inevitable, the impact of television had no place in the original book.

As pointed out in an earlier essay - with the use of The Ten Commandments to enhance his theme - Spielberg often uses television in his films, and gauging from these uses, you might well expect to find television playing a role in his 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds as well - perhaps playing off the concept of mass media's impact in the ending of the world the way the 1939 radio play did.

In 1953, when the first War of the World film was made, TV was still too new a concept for the film to explore its impact the wall Orson Wells did with radio - especially when the movie makers had an even better technological toy to play with: the atom bomb. Although George Orwell, an advocate of H.G. Wells, understood the slower perhaps more devastating impact television meant for society (writing 1984 as a consequence) War of the Worlds did not. Had the later short-lived War of the World TV series lasted longer, perhaps it might have delved into this area.

For Spielberg - who has used television as a vehicle for a host of other issues in his films - the temptation to explore some of the same issues the radio broadcast raised may be irresistible.

Born two years before television's official start in 1948, Spielberg like the rest of us grew up with TV has a central part of his life - an icon to suburbia that he has explored frequently in his other films. TV has acted as an important media in several films, agents for plot and character development without which the films might not have worked as well.

Although Close Encounters shows the broadcast of "The Ten Commandments" as a kind of thesis statement early in the movie, TV played a more critical role later, creating a dramatic irony which allowed the audience to anticipate the reaction of the Dreyfus character with pictures of Devil's Peak on the screen which he had duplicated with use of a trash can and mud in his home. Television in this film is the vehicle the authorities use to deceive the public with their faked train disaster and toxic chemical release.

Although TV seems to drivel on in the background in many of Spielberg films (almost a parody of the total control Orwell gives it in 1984), it often serves some purpose - as in Close Encounters where it provides the necessary connection the main character needs.

TV in Spielberg is not a predictable commodity. He appears to use it for whatever purpose he needs to advance his plot. In ET, television takes on the guise of teacher, although often with comic results, dumping into him (the way television dumped into the empty head of the robot in Short Circuit) a flood of apparently useless information out of which ET manages to shape a language (perhaps homage to Spielberg's own life and how his art evolved out of what he saw broadcast). In Poltergeist, the television becomes the portal to another world, an important link though which the kidnapped daughter can communicate back to her family. This also has the ironic twist that you must tuned to a particular station which has no other broadcast, a kind of Zen philosophy that claims you must distract the conscious mind in order to reach spirituality.

Considering how obsessed Spielberg has been in his presenting aspects of working class and suburban life, and how a critical portion of War of the Worlds will involve the same kind of scenery, how can television fail to take center stage here as well?

What role will it play?

Will it be the hero informant or the instigator or panic?

Will it serve as a means of communication or confusion?

Stay tuned.

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