Trapped! Or The Ballad of Floyd Collins and the Media

Kirk Douglas_Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas as twisted newspaperman Charles Tatum in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951).

There is a scene in Billy Wilder’s unrelentingly bleak 1951 film Ace in the Hole where disgraced reporter Charles Tatum, played with cool venom by Kirk Douglas, explains to his photographer protege the ins and outs of human interest stories.

The pair has just entered an Indian cliff dwelling in search of a man who’s been trapped inside while searching for ancient pottery to sell in his New Mexico curio shop. The public doesn’t care about tragedy on a massive scale, Tatum says. They simply can’t assimilate that. It’s not relatable. It’s too vast a quantity to attach your sympathies to.

But the trials and tribulations of one person. That provides a foothold. And the two examples Tatum produces from history as exemplars of the human interest form are Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the story of Floyd Collins, the enterprising Kentucky caver who was stuck underground for roughly two weeks and whose rescue attempt and heartrending disintegration became one of the first all-out news media blitzes in American history.

In the film Tatum goes on to self-consciously recreate Collins’s predicament, keeping his ne’er do well subject trapped underground much longer than is necessary, with the expressed purpose of inseminating a media furor so that he can reclaim his position as a star journalist and return to the country’s cultural epicenter of New York City. Only Tatum wants to rewrite the conclusion of Collins’s story. His subject will not perish but will be exhumed intact because, as Tatum has it, you’ve got to deliver the goods to your audience and a dead body’s a real bummer. But of course things do not go according to plan and Tatum ends up sacrificing not only his subject but himself.

Wilder paints the news media in vile hues, displaying the ways in which suffering can be transformed into a commodity. Tatum is its emissary, its dark mage. And yet, interestingly for this viewer, Wilder doesn’t seem especially concerned with turning the criticism upon himself as a purveyor of a media product. His film seems to view itself as being exempt from this form of critique perhaps because it knows it isn’t true, at least in the journalistic sense.

Wilder the iconic filmmaker was not the first to adapt Collins’s story into a creative medium in order to investigate certain dark slivers of the American psyche. In fact for a long time Collins’s story has provided grist for American artists. One could argue that there is something about Collins’s story, and the manners in which it lends itself to re-creation and memorialization, in which it induces a sort of contemplative state of mind that plays on our deepest anxieties and horrors, titillating and repelling us in equal measure, that make it a perfect object for artistic manipulation. As Tatum tells us it is the ur-human interest story and therefore provides seemingly limitless opportunities for excavation and interpretation.

Collins’s story seems especially suited for sonic adaptation. The year of Collins’s death in 1925 early country music icon Vernon Dalhart recorded the haunting “The Death of Floyd Collins,” a cautionary tale that warns especially the young and the ambitious to consider foregoing their desires for adventure and fortune in favor of “getting right with your Maker.” As the song would have it Collins’s hubris interfered with his piety and fate intervened, making him a tragic martyr whose example we should avoid.

Wilder’s film even pays homage to the ways in which Dalhart’s recording served as a sort of complementary testimony to contemporary news reports and bulletins that informed the public about Collins’s condition. Ace in the Hole‘s trapped caver Leo Minosa gets a tune all to himself:

Even more recently in the 1990s Collins’s life was adapted for the stage in an eponymous musical production by Adam Guettel and Tina Landau.

There are even reports that Billy Bob Thornton has purchased the rights to the Collins story and plans to make a feature film based upon it.

Speleogen’s David Matysiak was moved to use Collins as a vehicle in one of our early sound pieces as well, which brings our discussion full circle and prompts us to ask the question: What is it about Collins that so captivated reading and listening audiences in the 1920s and that continues to impel artists, writers, and musicians to compost his story and re-imagine it even today?

Furthermore, why is it that Collins’s biography seems so readymade for creative adaptation, suited especially for musical and theatrical performance? And how should this legacy be handled by creative artists in terms of historical authenticity or fidelity to facts as they’re known?

As I and the rest of the Speleogen Team work through such conundrums I can’t help but think at least momentarily of the only media event in recent memory that I know of that seems congruent to the one Collins inspired. And that is the case of Jessica McClure, the infant who in 1987 toppled down a well shaft in the town of Midland, Texas, and whose situation, thanks to CNN and the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle, was broadcast to millions who sat spellbound watching the drama unfold in real time.

Baby Jessica

In the weeks to come I hope to return to these questions and themes in order to keep dredging deeper to understand the roles that various media have played in publicizing, distorting, and exploiting cases like Floyd Collins’s and Jessica McClure’s.

I feel strongly that Speleogen has something powerful to learn from the ways in which the news media and artists have massaged documentary material for their own purposes and I want to understand better how we can evaluate our own documentary-aesthetic practices to avoid sensationalizing or exoticizing our activities.

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