Book reviews – All the world’s a stage

Neal Gabler
The Next City
June 21, 1999


Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality
by Neal Gabler (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. 303 pages) $35

STRANGE TIMES, THESE LAST DAYS OF THE MILLENNIUM. AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT IS exposed as a serial philanderer and a perjurer, and his popularity increases. A woman whose fame depends on producing heirs to a throne and wearing expensive clothes dies in a drunk-driving accident and is canonized as a goddess of goodness. A TV talk show host whose ratings are slipping announces plans to retire because she’s disgusted with television vulgarity.

Such are the phenomena that attract the attention of American social theorist Neal Gabler. In two previous books — An Empire of Their Own, a 1988 study of the Jewish moguls who made Hollywood such a dominant cultural force, and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, a 1994 biography of American social critic Walter Winchell — Gabler proved himself an insightful analyst of North American society. His new book continues his probing of the forces that shape our collective psyche. What he finds is provocative and worrisome.

The essence of his argument is well captured in the book’s title and subtitle: Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. Drawing on a variety of scholars and critics — everyone from Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin to Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard — Gabler argues that through the unintended alchemy of technology, pop culture, and collective psychology, “entertainment” has become our most essential “value” and, thus, our effective reality.

As he writes in a central passage: “It is not any ‘ism’ but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time — a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life.”

Gabler defines entertainment in its widest sense: movies and talk shows, newspapers and television news, fashion and advertising, as well as that most bathetic phenomenon — the fetishizing of brand name consumer goods.

A commentary on the movie The Truman Show contains his basic thesis. The film tells the story of Truman Burbank, who lives under the scrutiny of thousands of hidden cameras, unaware that his life, in all its mundane detail, is really a television show. Even his “parents” are actors playing parts. The show is so popular, according to the movie, that millions of viewers schedule their own lives around its broadcast. (Seinfeld fans will be familiar with this, of course.) The Truman Show, according to Gabler, depicts a society no longer able to distinguish between reality and entertainment. Or, more precisely, a society where reality is entertainment.

Gabler argues that we are heading into a future where we can all be Trumans, albeit with the singular difference that we will be conscious of preferring a fictional existence — our own life movies, our “lifies,” to use Gabler’s word — to reality. In a nutshell, thanks to the cocoon of technology and the abundance of the consumer society, reality will barely touch us if we so choose.

“Life itself,” Gabler writes, is “gradually becoming a medium all its own.” We are “becoming at once performance artists in and audiences for a grand, ongoing show. . . . Life has become art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other.”

To some, his analysis might seem an exaggeration. Man has always been prone to illusion; unrelieved reality is too hard to bear. As T. S. Eliot once wrote: “Mankind cannot take very much reality.” Out of this existential condition, we created art and culture as ways to help us comprehend our condition and make it intelligible. In other words, we assumed a linkage between art and reality and truth.

But in our post-modern society, with its surfeit of data, illusion takes the form of hype and misinformation. Think of the newscasts where what is considered newsworthy is that which can be sensationalized to be as dramatic as possible, where so-called reality TV and “shockumentaries” such as the World’s Scariest Police Chases attract the biggest audiences, and where celebrities and movie stars are sought out for their negligible wisdom on world affairs; you cannot help but conclude that Gabler is on to something.

Indeed, given the evidence he offers, it is difficult to dispute his claim that North Americans increasingly occupy a world that privileges sensual satisfaction over mental reflection, emotionalism over reason, and Dionysian indulgence over Apollonian intelligibility.

Is this not what Bill Clinton and Lady Diana really represent? Despite his obvious perjury and abuse of power, the president remains a flawed but popular character for many Americans, the great “entertainer-in-chief,” providing endless “politainment,” to use Gabler’s word.

Ditto for Lady Di, the “saint of Sentimentality.” After years as a spoiled aristocrat refusing to grow up, her death transmogrified her into an icon for middle-class pilgrims desperate to maintain her entertainment value in their bathetic lives.

As for Oprah Winfrey, well, after years of gripes-and-hugs with the latest person-who-overcame-adversity and of promoting an endless series of New Age gurus du jour, it’s difficult to believe she’s suddenly discovered the moral and intellectual shallowness of her stock-in-trade. In fact, cynical as it sounds, her promise to pack it in seems nothing more than entertainment razzle-dazzle, another bid to boost the ratings.

But this is in line with Gabler’s observation: “While an entertainment-driven, celebrity-oriented society is not necessarily one that destroys all moral value, as some would have it, it is one in which the standard of value is whether or not something can grab and then hold the public’s attention. . . . It is a society in which celebrities become paragons because they are the ones who have learned how to steal the spotlight, no matter what they have done to steal it.”

Gabler traces this convergence of entertainment and reality to the tabloids of the last century, when the news was shaped according to the hoariest conventions of melodrama. But the arrival of television really blurred the border between reality and fantasy, between politics and entertainment.

Television is now the primary means by which people learn about the world around them. Television also promulgates a certain way of understanding the world. It has to be popular to gain people’s attention. But to be popular requires being entertaining. Thus, television must reduce the reality it portrays — war, famine, crime, politics — to entertainment.

“If television made news out of anything that had the rudiments of entertainment,” Gabler argues, “it also made entertainment out of anything that had the rudiments of news.” Because the news is entertaining, entertainment tends to become “the standard for reality itself.”

Gabler does a good job of applying his thesis to contemporary politics, arguing that every American president from John F. Kennedy through to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton has become a vehicle for keeping the masses entertained, or, if you will, reducing politics to pacification. Reagan’s fondness for splicing movie plots into political decision making was not the sign of a forgetful buffoon, but the consequence of a society that had surrendered the rigors of politics to the culture of entertainment.

“The real political revolution of the 1980s,” Gabler writes, was not “the much-bruited demise of postwar liberalism and the rise of conservatism but the triumph of entertainment over political ideology of any sort.” As a result, politicians are now celebrities, elections are auditions for certain roles, and the electorate is an audience to be enthralled and, hence, pacified. Gabler observes that in a society where politics is judged on its dramatic value, it is hard to resist the idea that only what is entertaining is worthy of public attention.

From the video gamelike bombing of Serbia and Iraq and the bizarre attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan to the O. J. Simpson murder trial and Jack Kevorkian’s advertisements for euthanasia, we pay attention because even when we are appalled, we are also, in a certain sense, entertained. By comparison, how many reach for the remote when some talking head reading from a TelePrompTer offers a sophomoric explanation of why the Serbs and ethnic Albanians are at each others’ throats?

Gabler is certainly not the first to wonder at this situation. Everyone from philosophers and historians to novelists (Don DeLillo’s magnificent novel, White Noise, for example) have considered the subject, worrying about the potential consequences to society. Some suggest that North America’s ascription to entertainment-as-reality is rooted in the New World psyche and its essential premise that individuals can remake themselves as they will, regardless of social tradition and heritage.

For example, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that much of American society — everything from politics and the media to advertising and even academic disciplines — consists of what he calls “simulacra” of the real. That is, we construct simulations of reality that are in effect more “real” that reality. Thus, we live in “hyperreality,” to use Baudrillard’s word, increasingly detached from the other, more traditional reality.

You’re skeptical? Well, look around: Disneyland, theme parks, historical re-enactments, and theatrical shopping malls; they’re all examples of hyperreality. Aren’t Disneyland’s “historic” tableaux, its medieval castles and pioneer settlements more real than any real village or castle? And have you been to West Edmonton Mall lately?

Gabler doesn’t make specific pronouncements or predictions about the ultimate consequences of entertainment-as-reality. But in uniting phenomena as diverse as President Clinton’s morality, the deep meaning of modern art, the nostalgia behind the Unabomber murders, the political insight of Tom Hanks, and the wisdom of Elizabeth Taylor, he convincingly demonstrates the dumbing down of North American society.

From this perspective, then, Gabler is distinctly dystopian. For example, referring to Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and its depiction of “a harrowing future in which people lolled about most of the day watching giant television screens that featured lengthy broadcasts of police chases and criminal apprehensions,” Gabler asks how different that fictional future is from contemporary Court TV with its motto: “Great Drama. No Scripts.”

Gabler concludes that the “great cultural debate” of the 21st century will be between the “realists,” who believe that a clear-eyed appreciation of humanity’s limits and possibilities is necessary for us to even “be” human, and the “post-realists,” who believe that glossing over reality and even transforming it into a movie is perfectly acceptable if it gives us pleasure.

But what, you ask, is wrong with this? Gabler’s answer is provocative and worrisome. He quotes the poet W. B. Yeats: “We had fed the heart on fantasies / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”

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