Third Order Thinking:
Something Really New
29 May 2019

At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, something really new was happening. It took a while to unfold, and in fact it is still unfolding. Let’s call it “the Business of Motion Pictures.” The more this business took definite shape, the clearer its unprecedented nature became. Everyone was distracted by the marvel on the screen, of course. But the moving of pictures to create an illusion of the real world was the easiest part of the magic to understand. More mysterious were the associated phenomena. Movies, as they came to be called in English — the unique resort to the vernacular, eschewing highbrow “cinema” and “film,” is noteworthy — were shown in large, dark rooms that effaced the contradictory nature of the audience. The audience was made up of couples and family groups, on the one hand, and, at the same time, it was made up of perfect strangers. Some people went to the movies by themselves, certainly, but most people in the theatre were both known to a few and unknown to the rest. When the lights came up, you might recognize someone in a distant aisle, but for the duration of the movie, you shared a tiny island with locals like yourself, beyond which stretched a sea of transients.

I am not going to bog down in comparisons of the movies to stage drama. It’s enough to suggest, as I think is quite true, that the latter brings foreign lands and people to us, where we live, while movies take us away. This may be no more than an effect of the light, which is dim to the point of darkness at the movies. One other point: it has always been a great deal cheaper to see a movie than to see a play. A great many more distinctions of nearly equal significance could be made, but these two will do. What we call “the theatre” calls for an education and a bankroll. If the movies are to be compared to anything that went before, it is the circus. Indeed, you might say that the movies succeeded because they repackaged drama in a form easily accessible to audiences familiar with nothing more imaginative than physical spectacles.

Movies were the first form of mass entertainment, preceding radio by a few years. By “mass,” I do not of course mean that movies were made “for the masses,” because, as I have pointed out, “the masses” were no more real than unicorns. I speak of mass entertainment because each individual movie could be shown to and enjoyed by thousands of people — millions. A massive audience. Local censorship aside — and this was uncommon, because movies that might invite local snipping were less profitable — individual movies were not adapted to suit particular audiences. What played in Seattle played it Atlanta. It might make more money in one town than in the other, but it was almost always the same movie.

The other “hidden” phenomenon associated with motion pictures was the business of making movies. Unlike the businesses of mounting plays or staging circuses, making movies was incredibly lucrative. Each movie was made once, in a relatively short space of time, and then exhibited everywhere, for as long as people would buy tickets. It is hard to think of another non-extractive line of business with such an exaggerated rate of return. Within a decade, a small clutch of anonymous retailers, furriers many of them, amassed pharaonic fortunes and founded the wonderland of Hollywood. At the same time, they acquired an expertise in producing profitable products. They did not do this by reading Shakespeare or Shaw. Their field of study was receipts. The proof was in the box office. It might be difficult to put the elements of profitable film-making into words, but if anything this made it easier for the largely uneducated producers to master what they had to learn and to keep the riches to themselves. You had to be a mogul, a chief executive, orbiting far above the peculiarities of individual screenplays and stars, in order to operate a money-making studio. An amazing number of these moguls spent their careers in New York offices and their time with bankers and other investors, paying as few condescending visits to California as possible.

Everybody wanted to produce a blockbuster, of course. But chasing blockbusters was a road to ruin. To succeed, you had to master the art of making lots of ordinary pictures that ordinary people wanted to see. What critics had to say was less than irrelevant. In short, you might not have to know much about making movies, but you had to know a lot about your audiences.

Who were the audiences? I’m not a scholar of the relevant demographics, but you don’t have to be one to know that industrialists and their families, even industrialists and their families and retainers, did not sustain the movie business with their ticket purchases. If anything, industrials &c stayed away. Movies were widely regarded by the professional and upper classes as vulgar and even boring. Once you had experienced the medium’s cheap thrills — gasping as the locomotive raced to the edge of the screen, delighting in the longed-for effectiveness of magic wands — you were done with the novelty element, because one of the first lessons mastered by Hollywood was the audience’s well-established love of genre.What movie audiences demanded, it emerged, was the retelling, over and over, of the same stories, romantic, heroic, or terrifying, but with different stars in the leading roles and different wrinkles in the screenplay. A story set in ancient Egypt might be repurposed for the ante-bellum South. The same sorts of characters, hardly more varied than the stock figures of itinerant puppet theatre, reappeared in every show, doing the same things and coming to the same end. Cads never — never never — rode off into the sunset with the innocent maids. Nor did they hold on to their ill-gotten gains (they couldn’t even hypothecate them). Something not entirely unrecognizable as justice inevitably prevailed.

Am I going to claim that the movie audience was primarily made up of Third-Order rumps? No, because I’m not sure that it was. But I do believe that the rumps were the movies’ most reliable audience, and that the success of ironclad genres reflected the ironclad conformism that so confused social superiors into believing that peasants and their post-Revolutionary descendants constituted a “mass.” The apparent paradox is easily explained. It existed only in the minds of the bourgeoisie, a class increasingly devoted to personal differentiation. At one time, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie alike (when they were both parts of the Third Order) shared an understanding that it was prudent to conform to general appearances, safe not to stand out. Standing out was left to the top two Orders. After 1789, however, the bourgeois increasingly fancied that it was taking the place of those Orders. There might still be princes and dukes, but the Rothschilds were richer, and a lot more powerful. The proletariat had no occasion to make such a change; nor, for a long time, did it have the resources to do so. Outward conformity was a simple and sure way of getting by — or at least of not standing in the way of getting by. Inwardly, peasants and proletarians were unique human beings, just like everybody else (another apparent paradox), and, if anything, more devoted to the rudimentary autonomy that made them fiercely reject political attempts to bundle them together in collectives. The movies reflected all of this. The story was always the same, the hero always somebody new. (Audiences were notoriously — inconveniently — avid for new faces.) The hero might, occasionally, be rich and powerful at the end — usually, he had to settle for getting the girl — but he was never rich and powerful at the beginning, not unless the story was going to strip him of worldly goods and oblige him to earn them all over again. Rich and powerful characters generally hugged the periphery of the tale. The bourgeoisie, as I have said, stayed away, preferring to patronise the “legitimate” theatre.

If the rumps did not constitute a genuine mass, movie audiences did. From the producers’ standpoint, there were only two kinds of people, the ones who bought tickets and the others. The ones who bought tickets demonstrated satisfaction with an increasingly standardized product that in turn would have a standardizing impact on audiences. This reciprocal action would become more efficient in the later Twentieth Century, when an even newer medium freed conventional film to explore alternatives that would have been financially unrewarding earlier — alternatives inspired by the relatively small group of quirky movies, made at the height of the old Studio System, that came to be appreciated by new audience, the cinephiles. In discovering something “artistic” about the movies, cinephiles created a new film aesthetic, one that took as a point of departure (when it did not overlook it altogether), the old objective, known to audiences and producers alike as “entertainment.”

What, analytically, is entertainment?