Below is the first major paper I've written in about 3 years. It compares the 1957 film A Face In The Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, with the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, first published in 1944.
In 1957 the creative writing and directing team of Kazan and Schulberg released A Face in the Crowd, a socially and politically charged film that expressed their opinions on the value of mass media, as well as their concerns of fascism. Many of the dangers and power systems they depicted seemed to illustrate the theories detailed in Dialectic of Enlightenment written by Frankfurt School academics Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s. However, a deeper analysis of the movie suggests the scholars and directors might not have entirely seen eye to eye. Through a comparative analysis of A Face in the Crowd and the Dialectic of Enlightenment, this paper considers historical contexts, cultural values, economic influences, and finally comes to the conclusion that the key failure of both works is a lack of value and respect for less privileged classes. Still, many of the issues the authors and directors address are still problems in 2011, and therefore both works have lasting value. Since the debate is still pertinent, this paper proposes an opposing, more inclusive viewpoint.
With a cursory overview, A Face in the Crowd seems to be the cinematic embodiment of Frankfurt School ideals, in particular the theories laid out by Adorno and Horkheimer in their seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment. The movie neatly illustrates the power of industry over culture and politics, the passive consumption of audiences, and the theory of reification.
When the corporate sponsors of Lonesome Rhodes’ television show decided to become involved in politics by using Rhodes to promote their chosen candidate for the presidency, it is a clear example of Adorno and Horkheimer’s prediction that just like “culture monopolies”, politics would also become dependent upon “powerful sectors of industry” (p122-3). Just as Rhodes is dependent upon the support of his advertiser, a drug corporation owned by General Haynesworth, the senator running for office is dependent upon the media endorsement of Rhodes via the general. In the end, all power, money, and validation are controlled by Haynesworth, who does a worthy job of representing the concerns and hierarchy of capitalist industry. As illustrated by the scene at the general’s house when at a private meeting Rhodes, Senator Fuller, and select elites meet to discuss how to sell the senator to the masses, General Haynesworth as a business man is creating a powerful inner circle to protect and promote his private interests in the public spheres of media and politics. Anyone unwilling to participate in this power system, such as the ad man Macey, who would prefer a “dignified sell”, are ejected from the general’s confidence.
Further detailing the dangers of the culture industry, and in accordance with their neo-Marxist philosophies, Adorno and Horkheimer explain the system by which commercial agencies process the power of society to the purposes of removing intuition from the individual, and conducting all reasoning for him (p124). The general’s drug company through Rhodes’ power for mass appeal is able to control the thoughts and actions of his mass audience, with no intuitive resistance they consume the drugs and politics they are fed. The audience in A Face in the Crowd eagerly absorbs everything transmitted to them through their televisions, never questioning or pausing to reason out the messages they receive. As Adorno and Horkheimer state it, “no independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals” (p137). In the case of A Face in the Crowd, the product of Lonesome Rhodes dictates the audience’s reactions and thoughts on everything from politics to housework, though his “country boy” character is but a thin veneer covering his true megalomaniacal intentions. Unfortunately, the audience as a mass is depicted as incapable of the critical, independent reasoning that would expose Rhodes and the powers clearly behind him, because they are so conditioned by social signals.
Through cliché, repetition, and reification the man Larry Rhodes becomes the brand Lonesome Rhodes. Adorno and Horkheimer realized that “the blind and rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations” could give advertising the same power as totalitarian propaganda (p165). In this case, by repeatedly reenacting the stereotypical Arkansas “country boy”, Rhodes becomes a branded package of signals that communicate implicit honesty, authenticity, and intimacy to his audience, even though he has done nothing outside the cliché to prove these values. Through their work creating and managing the character, Marcia and Joey are able to own part of Lonesome Rhodes, because he has become more branded product than man. Once the signals have been effectively branded and packaged, Lonesome Rhodes becomes a super effective conduit for transmitting the general’s agenda directly to his eager, passive masses.
However, though the message of Kazan and Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd overlaps significantly with the ideas of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, they diverge in several key ways. It’s doubtful that the Frankfurt scholars would have approved of the movie or that the directors would have agreed with the negative critique of film in the book.
Adorno and Horkheimer clearly state that although they view the entire culture industry as dangerous, they are especially concerned about the influence of movies: “Real life is becoming indistinguishable from movies” (p126). They believed that above all other mediums the pairing of sound with film reduced “mass-media consumers” ability to imagine original ideas or critically respond to their world (p126-7). Consequently, no matter whether they agreed with Kazan and Schulberg’s intent or philosophy, they would have disagreed with their chosen method for communicating it. The movie seems to offer an authentic glimpse behind the curtain of the culture industry, just as when Rhodes offers his audience a glimpse at the mechanics of his television show by having the camera film the camera monitor. Similarly, the film creates an endless hall of mirror effect that simulates reality so closely that it can be hard to remember that it’s completely fabricated, fictional. It is this blurring of mass media and real life that Adorno and Horkheimer believed was confusing people and impairing them from the kind of reasoned thinking that allowed them to be independent citizens.
Moreover, as previously mentioned the movie, as most movies do, utilizes stereotypes. But just as the general uses the branded and packaged Lonesome Rhodes to sell his products and ideas, the directors use the stereotype of Rhodes to convey their complex message within the standard length of a feature-length film. Rhodes is compared to Will Rogers, and sings Rye Whiskey by Tex Ritter so that the audience easily and immediately comprehends his charismatic power as an entertainer and American everyman. The character becomes a symbol for the directors’ message by repeating signals the audience is already familiar with, and by comparing him to an entertainer in real life the dangers exposed in the film are understood to have pertinent implications. This is precisely the type of reification that Adorno and Horkheimer accused sound films of as part of their standardized industrialization that turned culture into mass media (p125).
Ultimately, Adorno and Horkheimer probably would have argued that Kazan and Schulberg used the mechanisms of the culture industry to sell a mass produced ideology, influenced by the coercion of an economy (p166), and crafted for a particular category of previously determined consumer (p123). Kazan and Schulberg made this film at a time when the film industry was attempting to compete with television by differentiating itself as intellectually superior (Maloney p255). The film sells an ideology on the evils of advertising-based media, in this case television, to a film audience defined as sophisticated and intelligent by contrast to the depicted gullible television audience (Maloney p256). And, as Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory proves this is partly because they are operating as part of an industry with capitalistic motivations. Like all movies, despite its message or perhaps with the help of its message, A Face in the Crowd needed to turn a profit. Scholars and press alike hailed the film for its culturally prestigious participation in the larger mass culture debate that was unfolding in the 1950s (Maloney p257). By appealing to one of the widely held positions in the debate, that some forms of culture were better than other forms, the film was able to gain valuable promotion without advertising support.
Conversely, Kazan and Schulberg would have asserted that they were trying to effect real and positive change for the good of the people with their film. In addition to the obvious warning in the movie about advertising’s influence over television, the directors were intentionally trying to warn their audience about the dangers of “grassroots fascism” (Kelley p96). During McCarthy’s red scare, Kazan testified against suspected communists out of a sense of patriotic duty (Kelley p87). Rhodes is depicted as a charismatic populist, because the directors believed that the essential elements of populism were the same elements that made fascism popular, which meant that one could easily lead to the other (Kelley p96). By illustrating the megalomaniacal scheming and narcissism behind the charming “country boy” veneer of Lonesome Rhodes, the directors laid bare the potential for evil and manipulation in innocuous entertainment. The primary reason Kazan and Schulberg made the film is because they wished to convey an important message for the education of their audience. They probably would have argued that the important and positive nature of the movie negated the drawbacks of the culture industry and mass media.
Furthermore, Kazan and Schulberg believed that not just movies, but also television had an “extensive potential for good”, despite some of its inherent dangers (Kelley p94). This is most likely why they chose to end A Face in the Crowd with a massive audience uprising against Rhodes. Although they needed to have it blatantly unveiled for them, and the culture industry was already working to prepare a replacement Rhodes to dupe them again, the film suggests that once the television audience knows the truth they will be outraged and demand better. Here is the potential for democratic change from the masses, and their great education is received via their television sets. It’s doubtful that Adorno and Horkheimer would have ever given either mass media or its consumers so much credit. Interestingly, McCarthy himself proves an actual contemporary example of television’s power to unveil as much as mask. McCarthy’s credibility began to unravel once he appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s show, and was unable to conceal his ridiculously fanatic behavior from the audience’s public judgment (Kelley p91). Though Adorno and Horkheimer saw mass media as entirely and inherently evil, the fall of Rhodes and McCarthy serve as an example of its ability to convey truth and inspire independent reasoning. Thus, suggesting that mass media is inherently a tool that’s function and value is determined by its wielder, and not intrinsic properties.
Clearly, it is important to remember that Adorno, Horkheimer, Kazan, and Schulberg are products of their time along with the creative works that they crafted. Fleeing growing fascism in Germany, many of the core members of what has since become known as the Frankfurt School of sociocultural theory gathered at Columbia University in the late 1930s (Gilbert p111). It simply cannot be overlooked that in the United States these scholars were welcomed into a wealthy, respected academic institution. Although the Frankfurt School frequently worked with the assumption that the highest form of culture was that of their traditional European heritage, there work was popular with liberal, educated American critics (Gilbert p113). From this cultural context, two conclusions can be drawn: the critics were from a wealthier class than the average citizens, and they believed that the classic culture of their class was superior to that of the average citizen, the mass media of the masses.
Given Kazan and Shulberg’s background, as well as the position A Face In The Crowd takes on the 1950s mass culture debate, it is clear that the directors were part of the liberal, educated class. And as mentioned before, Kazan willingly participated in McCarthy’s investigations. In the movie they communicate their values through Mel, nicknamed Vanderbilt ’44, who was admittedly the personification of Schulberg and their “antifascist mouthpiece” (Kelley p101). Mel is also upper middle class, well educated, liberal, and is the least fooled by Rhodes’ act. His eventual distrust of Rhodes’ charisma and populist appeal reflects the fears of fascism common in the 1950s. Unlike Mel, the working class audience depicted in the film requires the help of a brave and moral individual to become aware of Rhodes’ deception. Throughout his work, as a reflection of cold war political values, Kazan repeatedly created characters that by exercising their personal conscientiousness and freedom were able to solve social issues far greater then themselves (Maloney p253). In A Face In The Crowd, this reliance on heroic individualism is embodied in Mel and Marcia, the liberal intellectuals, who unmask Rhodes to his audience, thus ending his cultural regime.
In essence, though they may have come to different conclusions about the value of mass media and the potential of the people, Adorno, Horkheimer, Kazan, and Schulberg all came from a similar cultural milieu, an educated, upper middle class deeply worried by the threat of fascism rooted in populism. Mass media had become the most accessible means for distributing new information and ideas, and therefore became the focus of critics who distrusted sociocultural and political change (Gilbert p119). They reasoned out their concerns within the context of their class, background, and values, which inevitably lead to ideologies based on a cultural hierarchy and simplification of less privileged classes. This is how both A Face In The Crowd and Dialectic Of Enlightenment commonly fall short in their critique of mass media and mass culture. They underestimate the power, value, and individuality of the masses.
Though Adorno and Horkheimer began theorizing eighty years ago, and many of their arguments are still applicable, their fears of fascism have yet to arrive. Though monopolistic capitalism is undeniably still a strong force today, it can be argued that consumers are aware of this power system and concerned by its use. The influence of lobbyists was a decisive issue in the 2008 election, and entertainment magazines write openly about celebrity endorsements as business deals. It would appear that people are not as easily manipulated, hopelessly passive, or able to function as streamlined and segmented masses as Adorno and Horkheimer thought (Mattson p88). Thus our current lack of industrial totalitarianism in America society, the corporations may be overwhelmingly powerful, but they may never be all powerful.
In order to understand the truth of this at a most basic level, we can consider some Communications 101 theory. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen’s Coordinated Management of Meaning theory (CMM), states that “persons-in-conversation co-construct their own social realities and are simultaneously shaped by the worlds they create” (Griffin p69). Basically, individuals although influenced by the conversational milieu, play an important role in the communication process by actively creating and interpreting messages and mediums. Although a person and a corporation in conversation have a different power dynamic and a more unidirectional communication flow, that does not remove that person’s innate ability to uniquely interpret messages or create their individual reality. In the end, no matter how many consumer categories you may associate with, you have a distinct identity; you are your own gatekeeper, and your own interpreter.
For example, consider Reception theory, which “argues that consumers use the products they purchase to their own liking, showing off their ability to resist the intentions of marketers and advertisers” (Mattson p89). Or, consider the “consumer as participatory citizen”, which allows for the collective purchasing power of many individual citizens consuming along shared values that do not necessarily conform to capitalist agenda (Mattson p89). Such theory explains the social phenomenon of consumers personalizing products, and the success of campaigns that promote buying local or organic.
Similarly, due to an elitist view of the masses the citizen uprising depicted at the end of A Face In The Crowd, though pleasantly optimistic, is a weak point in Kazan and Schulberg’s sociocultural critique. It works with the assumption that audience would behave as a hive-mind mass simply because they come from similar educational and economic backgrounds, even though they have far more not in common: men, women, rural, urban, black, white, old, and young. As the movie continues, this diverse audience is personified in Betty Lou; the gullible, willing, immoral, uneducated girl Rhodes marries (Maloney p271). Once again, the distinction between the directors and Rhodes is blurred. Rhodes is disrespectful of his mass audience, but it also seems Kazan and Schulberg disrespect television audiences as well (Maloney p271). Moreover, the fact that a woman is chosen to represent the masses is telling. For all her dimwitted naivety, Betty Lou is cunning in her manipulation of Rhodes to win the baton competition, and her infidelity with an even more powerful man, thus fulfilling the classically sexist Hollywood stereotype of the temptress.
In the film, Marcia is supposed to offer a contrasting model of womanhood. Kazan claimed that the most real message of his film was “women as conscience” (Kelley p103). This fulfills another classic Hollywood stereotype that all attractive women who are not temptresses must be the models of Western, Christian value. Imbued with privileged, education and decency, all she needs is the guidance and support of a man, Mel, so that she can unmask Rhodes and promote goodness. Just as Marcia needs direction from Mel, the audience gets their direction from Marcia. Essentially, this establishes that the less fortunate classes require the agency and intelligence of a higher class, of which Kazan and Schulberg were members and intended viewers of their movie to identify with (Maloney p273). By creating a cultural hierarchy based on stereotypes, Kazan and Schulberg degrade and simplify the masses past the point of anything respectable or recognizably real.
Sociocultural change requires the broad participation of the public as well as a deeply individual shift in values. This is process is so complex and personal it can only be feigned by industry or elites. Or, as James Yates wrote in his critique of A Face In The Crowd so succinctly and passionately I dare not paraphrase it,
“The people of this country have dignity, independent of whether or not as a political body they are free or wise, grounded solely in a cultural identity flowing out of their daily American lives. Artifacts of popular culture, such as country music, blues, hamburger stands, television, exist on a level different and more enduring than the morning headlines.” (p27)
He ends by accusing Kazan and Schulberg of neither having nor wanting a real understanding of the working class (p27). This makes sense, if we try to consider who wins in A Face In The Crowd. The masses don’t win: they are proven to be easily duped and in need of guidance from the upper class. Marcia doesn’t win: Rhodes womanizes and uses her until she’s reduced to a nervous wreck. Mel is the only character you can possibly have any respect for by the end of the movie. He conquers his enemy with his morals and intelligence, gets the girl, and will probably make a fortune with his behind-the-scenes, tell-all book. As mentioned before, Mel was Schulberg personified in the film. By setting the film up with their constructed cultural hierarchy, Kazan and Schulberg win. They have a vested interest in their power system, because it puts them at the top.
Despite this critical analysis, the film does hold some value over fifty years later. As an actor, Rhodes’ dreams of political office make him easily comparable to 21st century republicans favorite president, Ronald Regan; especially given that both understood love to be more powerful than respect (Quart p31). Accordingly, Rhodes’ Cracker Barrel show is an eerie premonition of contemporary, conservative political talk shows, such as those hosted by Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, where pundits with dubious credentials make populist appeals and promote candidates for office. If you are of a more liberal political persuasion, it could be nice to fantasize that a behind-the-scenes look at the real man behind Glenn Beck the brand would cause his audience support to crumble. However, since that has yet to happen, it is clear that the Lonesome Rhodes format is still popular and powerful in 2011.
Crises like the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reveal that industry still influences government, and media coverage plays an important role in the framing of this relationship. Corporately funded lobbyists and political party contributions have real power over legislation and politicians, and generally act with profit prioritized far above public welfare. In a new twist, the power and money of industry sucks talent and resources from the government by offering government regulators better paying jobs in exchange for their compliance. There are many examples of this, but a recent and particularly pertinent case is Meredith Baker, who was promoted from the FCC to Comcast after she approved their monopolizing merger earlier this year.
A frequent critique of academic papers is that they offer no solution. Since A Face In The Crowd still offers commentary of current issues, but is too elitist in its critique, I’d be remiss in my duties as author if I did not propose a new explanation. I’d like to base my viewpoint on Moving Beyond the “Vast Wasteland” by Laurie Ouelette and Justin Lewis. In this chapter from The Television Studies Reader, Ouelette and Lewis examine the sociocultural context that gave rise to the formation of American public television in the early 1960s (Allen p52). The 1950s mass media debate equated advertising control with the pop culture of the masses and public service with the culture privilege of educated niches, resulting in the creation of public television for the purpose of providing uplifting culture to the masses by its sheer force of its alternative existence (Allen p55). This dynamic resulted in a bifurcation in television that made public television dependent upon wealthy donors and their tastes, and privately owned television dependent upon advertisers and the perceived tastes of the masses (Allen p56). Conversely, Ouelette and Lewis propose that the issue isn’t cultural content as much as commercial control, and public television should be a medium that appeals to the majority of people’s tastes without the influence of advertising (Allen p60). This would make PBS more like the BBC, and similarly would become more interesting and financially viable in all likelihood, a prospect I wholeheartedly support.
However, I would like to broaden their analysis and proposal past television to all areas of culture. The problem with cultural hierarchies is that they pit people against people, which distracts from the real dangers of monopolistic capitalism and information control. The portrayal of the masses in A Face in the Crowd and Dialectic of Enlightenment reify the power dynamics they are supposedly against, and alienate a massive group of citizens, who could be potentially valuable allies. Issues of content quality are far less important than issues of who is paying for that content, because that is what decides the medium’s message. Therefore, in the best interest of as many people as possible, the fostering of new media and government regulation should be geared towards reducing corporate influence rather than constructing cultural hierarchies.
Allen, R. C., & Hill, A. (2004). The television studies reader. London: Routledge.
Gilbert, J. B. (1986). A cycle of outrage: America's reaction to the juvenile delinquent in the 1950s. New York: Oxford University Press.
Griffin, E. A. (2006). A first look at communication theory. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1987). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York: Continuum.
Kelley, B. M. (2004). Reelpolitik II: Political ideologies in '50s and '60s films. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Maloney, Courtney . “The Faces in Lonesome’s Crowd: Imaging the Mass Audience in A Face in the Crowd.” Journal of Narrative Theory. 29(3):251-77. Fall 1999.
Mattson, Kevin. “Mass Culture Revisted,” Radical Society Apr 2003.
Quart, Leonard. “A Second Look: A Face in the Crowd.” Cineaste. 17(2):30-31. 1989.
Yates, J. “Smart Man’s Burden: Nashville, A Face in the Crowd, and Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Film and Television Vol V nr 1 (1976); p 19-28.