Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Storytelling from cave to YouTube
WESTPORT, CT. — It began in caves, from prehistoric Indonesia, Egypt and Somalia to Lascaux in France, continentally agnostic, and around fires wherever they could be kindled, by lightning or friction. Stories were told, in picture, word and song. Memories of hunts, ancestors honored. The narrative of our lives was born. To carry the news from person to person and village to village was to introduce our species to its unique self-definition.
The New Testament itself is a Rashomon — Akira Kurosawa's mid-century contribution to filmic vocabulary — of more than two dozen acolytes' accounts assembled in Greek a century or so after the fact of the life and mythos of one of the world's most disruptive storytellers.
A millennium later, in the 11th century, the Chinese perfected movable clay type, but it was only when Johannes Gutenberg hardened that notion to wood in 1440 and, subsequently, to metal type, that the Bible and all the good and bad news that followed in its wake found their most ubiquitous expression.
By the early 17th century, begun in Holland — let a thousand tulips bloom — newspapers flowered across Europe, and today more than 50 million print copies a day land on newsstands and front lawns across America. The broadsheet itself which you are reading can trace its origins to the weekly Western Star in Stockbridge in 1789, and its rebirth in this quotidian form a century later.
But storytelling writ large is not just books, newspapers, movies and electronic media. Law is storytelling, which is why it has spawned so many TV dramas. Politics is subtle and not-so-subtle storytelling — just ask Donaldio Trumpeto, a self-immolating soundbite puppet who insists on pulling his own strings and makes the nose of Geppetto's wooden Pinnochio look like a short stump. A story may be true or false; it is still story.
The spread of the word was not limited to palpable and pulpable tree fiber; the voice and the harmony of the spheres began to get into the act. Critically for mass media, Guglielmo Marconi filed a British patent in 1897 for his radio, riding the invisible airwaves like oxygen for storytelling, fueling its inexhaustibly expanding breath.
This mystical mechanism would reach into every home, and later, car, enabling the master of the form, FDR, to share his fireside chats that fortified us amidst a Great Depression and unified Americans to fight a war across two oceans. Meanwhile, channeling H. G. Wells, Orson Welles took a different tack, terrifying the nation in 1938 with a radiophonic invasion from Mars. I still cherish the sepia snapshot of my mother and her brother when they were children, ears pressed up against a grand radio console, belladonna-eyed in rapt amazement. Radio was magic.
WRGB makes history
From its humble origins in Schenectady in 1928 when WRGB signed on the air, television — in my book, radio with a light on — added actual faces to go with the voices and, by replacing our imaginative faculties, thereby took away much of that magic. TV was real people inside Cyclops-eyed boxes right in our bedrooms talking us to sleep — here's Johnny! — and pepping us up in the morning with kaffeeklatsch chitchat. Initially feared as a replacement for radio, it became instead complementary, just as nearly every innovation in media is threatened as revolution, only to morph into coexistent evolution.
The difference, now that we have been Gored by the internet, is that the 20th century corporatization of content by editors, publishers and producers that was the inevitable outgrowth of 2nd millennium media has been upended by user-generated content. We now have more funny-cat YouTube uploads than you ever imagined we would want to share with our 50 million closest friends — beasties for besties. Further, media will soon inhabit every inch of our lives, from smart homes to driverless cars, and it will be an inextricable weave of universal connectivity, some mindless and some mindful.
By this fireside, at the mouth of this cavernous Brave New World before us, where everything is recorded and shared, and only a small fraction mediated, we will quickly leap from the more than 350 scripted series on television today to the millions of channels shared virally by each of the next Orson Welles making a purrfect video of his anthropomorphic cat. Whether this represents utopia or dystopia, our children of the future will judge.
It's "Fahrenheit 451," yet we'll still be here and, in my movie, the cave will be cool comfort while I look out upon the Berkshires, where The Eagle still flies.
Dalton Delan has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.