Going Nowhere? (A fresh look at the movies)

As revised September 2013

[click for pdf]

The following essay was drafted before I read Stanley Cavell’s essay on Frank Capra’s comedy It Happened One Night. It was drafted before, as a result of Cavell’s piece, my European wife and I watched the movie. By way of introduction, however, perhaps two observations in these regards will prove useful.

First, as compared to a viewer of 1934, when Capra’s movie was released, or of 1979, when Cavell’s essay was, the early twenty-first century viewer of It Happened One Night finds it much easier to appreciate the extent to which the movie is about smoking. Even when the protagonists are broke and reduced to eating carrots plucked from a farmer’s field, they never run out of cigarettes. Presumably these were supplied by a tobacco company representative hovering not too far from the director’s chair.

Second, when I asked my wife what she thought of the movie—to which Cavell devotes close to 20,000 words, invoking along the way Thoreau, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Locke, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Milton, Bernini, Shakespeare, Keats and Stevens—my wife replied that the movie was pleasant enough, but rather obvious. Indeed we might take this a step further and say that the greatest pleasure offered by this and so many another American movie is this: the obviousness. As with a puppet show for children, there is the comfort of knowing who everybody is and what they’re going to do, the satisfaction of being able to guess correctly what is going to happen—both in the general sense (who is going to fall in love with who, how and why) and in the case of specifics.

For example, broke, hungry and stranded, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable wait on a deserted road for a car to come by, and they start to bicker. I remarked to my wife that as a result a car was going to go by without their noticing in time to flag it down. Sure enough. My wife was a little impressed by my prescience, but not nearly as much as she might have been if she had not already watched a dozen or so American movies with me in the course of our years together. The second derivative here is that my son and I now lie on the couch watching sporting programs and invariably my comments on the action are repeated, often verbatim and seconds later, by the paid TV commentators. I don’t take this to be a sign that I have a special gift (nor that the paid commentators are being electronically fed my prescient remarks). I am writing these lines in a New York café that offers as a backdrop old pop songs that we have all heard hundreds of times before. American entertainment is based on the repetition of the familiar and the comfort this offers.

In the introduction to Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, the book of essays that includes the piece on It Happened One Night, Cavell argues that these Hollywood comedies show that “the achievement of happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs . . . but the examination and transformation of those needs.”

The essay

Imagine an industry that produced inexpensive projected dramas that, above all, were remarkably effective at maintaining viewers in a trance for an hour or two. Imagine that this trance came to be widely appreciated as one of the most inexpensive ways to get relief from the stresses of relationships with other human beings and other psychological afflictions.

The dramas—which could be played for laughs, tears, tension or horror, and could be set anywhere from the Wild West to Tuscany or outer space—portrayed the triumph of good over evil in love affairs and various domestic, military, political and business conflicts. In addition to earning money from the many people who were interested in such low-cost relief, aspects of the dramas were also sold to advertisers, and these aspects would be modified in order to increase advertising revenue. Thus settings, props, characters’ habits and lines of dialogue were created both to entertain and to encourage the entertained to later indulge in particular brands of soft drinks and cigarettes; to purchase particular automobiles, children’s toys and clothing items; or, for example, to take their next vacation in Tuscany.

Imagine further that a few large companies controlled most of the “inexpensive projected drama industry”. Some controlled the places where these dramas could be enjoyed or purchased for home use. A few others controlled the distribution of the dramas to these outlets. And a few others controlled the contracts of the various people needed to produce the dramas.

In the interest of reaching the maximum number of consumers worldwide, industry leaders had reduced the dependence of their dramas on language or on culture-specific dialogue or behavior, seeking instead to use and create symbols—of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness—that would be fundamental to human beings of all cultures and age groups. And since consumers enjoyed the familiarity and relaxing quality of stock scenes and behaviors, the industry focused its efforts on recalling or duplicating its previous productions.

Insofar as some novelty was required in order to prevent consumers from merely re-viewing their favorites, the industry executives had the drama-makers rework the old plots using, for example, new technical gadgetry, or increased sexual explicitness, or new “stars.” Stars were employees who were featured as playing major creative roles in the projected dramas, though their input was regulated by the industry leaders and their representatives. Above all stars were paid to reprise the work and public behaviors of earlier stars. Thus a female in her early twenties would be hired to appear in a projected drama falling in love with a male star and putting on and taking off different clothes in different settings. After such a woman had been featured doing this for ten or fifteen years, she would be replaced by a new female star, in her early twenties, who would do the same thing with superficial alterations—to her taste in men, the specific words of love she spoke, her body type, postures, haircuts and so forth. Every twenty years or so, for example, such alterations could be presented to a new generation of consumers as being emblematic of their new values and dynamism and of their rejection of the previous generation’s tired, old values.

Similarly, mass-market releases could be spiced with a second set of dramas made by aspiring and less-well-paid drama-makers whose drama-making style could on the surface appear to reject the style of the established mass-market drama-makers. The newcomers could be featured as rebels, independents or representatives of oppressed groups, and they could be encouraged to openly mock the industry and its most-typical products in ways that recalled or duplicated the antics of previous youths or outsiders.


On the basis of this brief introduction, what might we conclude about this inexpensive projected drama industry and its products?

I can say that were I ever to pay to view one of these dramas and then find myself little entertained, I would emerge from the experience annoyed at the product and cursing the people and company who made it. In the most egregious instances, I would curse the whole industry that had lured me to spend my money and time on such worthless products. I might curse a whole range of consumer goods, the consumer lifestyle these dramas were pushing. But if, on the contrary, the drama achieved its promised result, and I passed an hour or two lost in a pleasurable trance, I would emerge appreciative and complimentary. In the future I would seek out further dramas made by the people involved in the making of this pleasurable one, and I would not be disturbed to learn that such people and such companies were earning hefty incomes from their work.

Given that the nature of each product was so directly and inevitably the result of the structure and goals of the inexpensive projected drama business, I would not expect each individual drama to attract much critical attention. As with other popular, intermittently released diversions, such as games, vintage wine or children’s toys, I would expect that at certain times during the year journalists would evaluate the latest crop of projected dramas, highlighting the most and least successful among them, dramas to keep away from one’s children. Occasionally a commentator might observe a new trend in the current releases and relate it to larger changes in the society. The business press would report on the industry’s activities and revenues, and insofar as the industry’s return on investment was particularly high or low we might also expect it to become a subject of business-school study.

Given the importance to consumers of the hypnotic effect, and given our society’s interest in statistics, I would expect people in or around the industry to come up with ways of measuring the depth and extent of consumers’ trances and of specifying what caused these effects. Much like the pharmaceutical industry, the projected drama industry would, with increasing precision, be able to adjust dosages, maximizing the usefulness and appeal of its products.

All this would seem perfectly normal, perfectly businesslike. But now imagine that in fact these dramas were not treated like games, wines or children’s toys; rather there existed an entire secondary industry of critics—employed by the mass media and also writing elsewhere—who commented on most every widely released projected drama. These critics made only passing reference to how similar the latest products were to previous ones or to one another. Much more rarely did they probe how the structure or goals of the business governed the nature of the dramas, or how new gadgets, stars, rebels and so forth were used to provide an illusion of newness and change. Instead, the vast majority of the critics’ words discussed the industry’s products as if they above all represented the unique and inspired creative vision of one or a few individual drama-makers. For example, paragraphs might be devoted to evaluating the creative skill with which one of the young female stars appeared to fall in love or carried herself when she wasn’t wearing very many clothes.

Imagine that this commentary was taken most seriously by projected-drama consumers, who not only used it to help decide which specific dramas to pay for, but also spent hours discussing the comments themselves. Imagine that journalists and consumers alike threw themselves into lengthy speculations about which projected drama was the best of the year, the best female star, and so forth. Imagine that some people devoted part of their post-secondary training to studying specific, long-popular projected dramas and observations that had been made about them. Imagine that this pursuit was encouraged by a growing number of scholars who theorized at yet greater length and with much seeming sophistication not only about recently released dramas but also about past ones that, they argued, had been produced by earlier “geniuses” working in the industry. Imagine that among these scholars were even a few who argued that these dramas were insipid and that it was for this very reason that they had chosen to spend a substantial portion of their lives doing what we are here trying to do—trying to find the larger meaning buried in the products of an industry designed to profit from people’s needs for inexpensive relief.


Now, having thus learned of all the earnest efforts of these critics and scholars, and of the earnestness with which their efforts were received, would we not begin to feel that here was a social phenomenon worthy of intellectual consideration?

We might want to begin our evaluation by reflecting on the society in question’s food production and distribution methods and its home-building and heating techniques, which would seem to have so efficiently provided the necessities of life as to allow not only for the flourishing of this inexpensive projected drama industry, but also for such a raft of paid commentators on the dramas themselves.

Obviously, the secondary industry—the critics and academics and all their talk—would encourage the consumption of the primary industry’s products, and so we would not be surprised to find the commentators directly or indirectly supported by media advertising for the industry’s products, and chairs and grants endowed by the drama producers. We might also be led to decide that one of the principal challenges for human society in general, and for wealthy societies in particular, is to find ways both to provide relief from the stresses of human relationships and mortality, and to ease the burden imposed by the human brain, which is too large and vigorous for the limited range of activities involved in human survival and reproduction.


We might ask ourselves, too—what about Dickens, Shakespeare, Mozart and all the many masterpieces of fiction, theater and opera that have been inspired at least in part by the demands of the marketplace, inspired by the very fact that artists lacking independent means or anxious for fame are driven to direct their efforts toward pleasing the leaders of their particular entertainment industries and this or that public?

We might note that this line of analysis seems in some way related to the modern compulsion to earn money, returns on investments. This compulsion has brought with it an assumption that many other seemingly good things—such as technical inventiveness, intellectual knowledge, creativity and even beauty—are promoted directly or indirectly as a result of the pursuit of money. Given such a perspective, why not also assume that the demands of and on inexpensive projected drama industry to generate appreciable financial returns are themselves producing an equal, or even greater, number of artistic masterpieces than have been produced by other, more long-standing entertainment industries?

We might also note that the vast majority of the many thousands of once-popular novels, plays and operas that entertainment markets have inspired have been forgotten. Even the fact of these works’ existence is ignored by most human beings, who are content to assume, for example, that the few dozen classic operas in the contemporary opera-house repertory are the only ones that were ever written or that in centuries past few Englishmen besides Shakespeare and Shaw wrote plays. And it is easy, too, to ignore the extent to which familiarity, nostalgia and the seal of scholarly approval contribute to our appreciation and enjoyment of the classics.

It is scarcely to be imagined that—while the marketplace has its occasional triumphs and an astounding ability to lure our brains to sleep—it is at best an inefficient means of promoting understanding of the human condition, or of generating even the most halting insights.


Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard University Press, 1984). The relevant essay, “Knowledge as Transgression: Mostly a Reading of It Happened One Night” originally appeared in Dædalus 109, No. 2 (Spring 1980), 147-75.


  1. The marketplace has never been good for promoting real creativity and artistic work. Great essay, I love the sarcastic style. And by the way the predictability of particular Hollywood movies is what to me at least, makes them hardly worth watching. Ironically I still do although I haven’t seen It Happened One Night.

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