With the Oscars round the corner, we’re delving into Film: A Very Short Introduction. Here’s an extract from Chapter 3 of Michael Wood’s book. In this extract he looks at the industry and the role of the moviegoer.
Film began as a very small business, a dramatic invention but a tiny piece of the world of entertainment. It was an act among others in a variety show. Very soon, though, there were shows composed only of films, and there were special places for their showing. A cinema called the Nickleodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905, and by 1907 there were 4,000 such places in the United States. Something resembling an industry developed in France, Italy, England, and Germany too, and audiences grew and grew across the world. Studios were born. Pathé and Gaumont in France; UFA in Germany; Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount in the USA. Hollywood itself, a small Californian town surrounded by orange groves, became a movie settlement because of its steady weather (and because California was thought to be far enough away from the lawsuits that rained down on experimenters and investors in New York). Something like the contours of later patterns of film-making began to form. Stars began to glitter. And above all, money began to gleam.
A whole support system blossomed: publicity machinery, fan magazines, prizes, record-kepping. Box-office results became the equivalent of sporting scores, or world championship boxing.
Avatar (2009) is the largest grossing picture ever made, unless we adjust for inflation, in which case the title goes to Gone with the Wind (1939), and Avatar moves to fourteenth place. The American Academy of Moton Pictures awarded its first Oscars in 1929, and has awarded them every year since. Programmes developed from sets of short films to single feature films plus supporting entries; and from there to the two film diet that was standard fare for so long. By 1929, 90 million cinema tickets were sold each week in America, with figures proportionally similar elsewhere. There were ups and downs during the Depression and the Second World War, but the figure had reached one hundred million by 1946. By 1955, however, the number was down to 46 million, not a whole lot more than the 40 million or so of 1922. Movie-houses, of which a little more later, rose and fell, naturally enough, to the same rhythm: there were 20,000 in America in 1947 and 11,000 in 1959.
Programmes often changed midweek, and shows were continuous, so you could come in at the middle of a film and stay till you got the middle again. Hence the now almost unintelligible phrase “This is where we came in”. There is a remarkable piece by the humorist Robert Benchley about a game he liked to play. Arriving, say, twenty minutes into a film, he would give himself five minutes to reconstruct the plot so far. Then he would interpret everything that followed in the light of his reconstruction. He would stay on to see how close he was – or pretend to see. He claimed many movies were improved by his method.
Theories of the Seventh Art arose, as well as plenty of attacks of the mindlessness of moviegoers. It was in reaction to one such attack that Walter Benjamin devloped an important piece of the argument of his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (various versions between 1935 and 1939). The French novelist George Duhamel had included an onslaught on cinema in his witty and gloomy book on America, Scénes de la vie future (1930). The relevant chapter is titled ‘cinematographic interlude or the entertainment of the free citizen’, and within the text, the cinema is called, in the same mode of a grand irony, a sanctury, a temple, an abyss of forgetfulness, and the cave of the monster. Duhamel says that film ‘requires no kind of effort’ and ‘presupposes no capacity for consecutive thought’, ‘aucune suite dans les idées.’ Benjamin agrees that film audiences are distracted but claims that there are forms of distraction that may function as localized, medium-specific attention. ‘Even the distracted person’ he says, thinking of the moviegoer, ‘can form habits. ‘The audience’ he adds, ‘is an examiner, but a distracted one’.
Michael Wood is Charles Barnwell Start Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and the author of Film: A Very Short Introduction. You can see Michael talking about film.
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