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The end of the world as we thought we knew it

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

Daedalus Howell/Index-Tribune

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Prior to watching the American Experience presentation of “War of the Worlds,” I assumed that John Lennon’s apology for his comments on the popularity of Jesus relative to the Beatles was the first mass media act of contrition. Wrong.

Watching the 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles apologize for causing mass panic with his infamous radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells Martian invasion tale 28 years earlier, in 1938, is a case study of how to put the “me” in mea culpa. One claimed to be bigger than Jesus, the other simply scared the b’Jesus out of a large portion of the East Coast. And then became a film god.

Produced by American Experience, the documentary mines the fallout of Welles’ infamous “Mercury Theatre on Air” production broadcast on CBS, using interviews with  talking heads like Welles’ daughter and perennial “Orsonista” Peter Bogdonavich, among others. Likewise, the doc, which first airs at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, on KQED (75 years to the day-ish of Welles hysteria-inducing adaptation), makes splendid use of letters from the listening audience who feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and would’ve learned the disappointing truth had they waited for the next station ID.

Among Welles’ detractors was a gentlemen who wrote that Welles was a human “carbuncle.” Having no idea what that meant, I Googled it and now I can’t get the image out of my mind. Proceed with caution. NSFW would be an understatement. It’s more like NSFL: “Not Safe for Lunch.

Predictably, Welles was both pilloried and celebrated for his virtuosic performance – both that of the fateful broadcast and later his wide-eyed, “Who me?” apology, which some say was the performance of a lifetime. In the footage, Welles’ broad, usually babyfaced cheeks are shadowed by stubble, his hands are folded in his lap and his brows knit with befuddlement and concern. Looking back over the course of his career and the characteristic commitment to his roles, from “Harry Lime” to his latter days as a pitchman for Paul Masson wines, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an actor, whose genius bordered on sociopathology, was caught on that newsreel.

The actors in the American Experience film are similarly invested in their roles – it’s a wonder director Cathleen O’Connell didn’t ditch the documentary altogether and opt for a docudrama instead.

Of course, this territory was trod before, in an ersatz manner, by Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” in which a favorite aunt is ditched in mid-date when her beau’s fear of Martian invasion supersedes his chivalry.

In terms of lasting cultural significance, Welles’ “War of the Worlds” far outpaces that of the 1953 and 2005 film adaptations. Despite their special effects and multiplex idols, neither can compete with the “theater of the mind” when paired with pure naivete. It didn’t help that the flying saucers from the ’50s version sounded precisely like a loose fan belt.

What looms in every media maker’s mind, however, is “Could it happen again?” Sadly, some dark part of me realizes that, the way we consume media, despite it’s contagions of memes and viral videos, the days of inducing mass panic with a mockumentary are long gone.

First off, there’s no longer a single medium that unifies the masses – could you imagine “War of the Worlds” unfurling on the fractal-like world of, say, Twitter? Second off, whatever the medium, anyone with an inkling of incredulity would go online and dispel their concerns within a couple clicks, not to mention the time-shifting means by which many now consume media. No one reads, watches or listens to anything at the same time anymore.

Welles’s schtick could only work in simpler times, When America was gullible, innocent and still able to believe in the media.

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PBS’ American Experience presents “War of the Worlds” at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, on KQED (check local listings). For more information, visit pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/worlds.