Life: The Movie
book review by Darren Haber

IT WAS MURDER! (OR: How Entertainment Killed Reality Off for Good)

Reality – for those of you who haven’t seen The Truman Show – is dead. Kaput. Finished. Life – real life, the warp and woof of reality – has been fatally invaded by the virus of "entertainment." As a result, reality has given way to "postreality," a strange media-ized consciousness which avoids the various threats of reality (boredom, chaos) by dressing itself always in the costumes of fantasy (celebrity, sex, violence). Reality – direct, unaltered experience – seems to have been murdered, killed by a high-tech conspiracy.

This metaphysical homicide is the subject of Neal Gabler’s brisk and (dare I say) entertaining new book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. It is a lively, well-informed survey – but also strange, in that Gabler remains affable and cheery throughout (even when describing the celebrity aspirations of serial-killers and the home videos of thugs), though what he is effectively doing is conducting an autopsy. Doesn’t "postreality" suggest, by implication, post-literacy, post-history, post-meaning? When everything insists on being "fun," nothing therefore can ever be "serious" – which may help explain why contemporary entertainment feels so repetitive, flat, and cynically empty. In short, everything feels trashy.

But Gabler begins by saying that American culture has almost always been trash. We may prefer to think of the 19th century, for example, as the era of Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman – but that, he asserts, "is rather like saying that the late 20th Century was the land of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Updike, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Lowell. It is true, but only so far as it goes." No, America has always been a raucous, anti-elitist, proletarian enterprise – a reaction to pompous, powder-puffed England, its dusted aristocracy and bookishness – and our culture has always zealously reflected that. (Did somebody say…McDonald’s?) An elite minority blanched, but most 19th Century citizens of the New World were happy with pulpy novels of cowboy adventure and maudlin sentiment; there is a direct line of descent from The Adventures of Buffalo Bill to Lethal Weapon 4.

Gabler goes on to say that the business of America has always been show-business; from its very inception, every aspect of our country’s civic life was in some way touched by theatricality. The idea of politics as show-biz is an old saw (and an easy sell), but one may be surprised to hear of Whitman’s reaction to a series of ongoing evangelical revival meetings in 1830: the poet referred to them as "our amusements." (God knows what he would have made of The 700 Club.) America, from the get-go, was bitten by "the bug," a natural affinity for civic entertainment.

Gabler argues that the American idea of entertainment (which has become the world’s idea) springs from our reaction to aristocracy, in both a sociological and physiological sense. Far from the rarefied, elitist realms of the intellect, "entertainment" is raw, instinctual, visceral, immediately gratifying. It was far more fun to indulge in the titillations of dime novels than Hawthorne’s insights into the human condition. The hoidy-toidys could read that high-falutin’ stuff; early Americans wanted their era's equivalent of MTV. Gabler: "[Entertainment’s] appeal seemed to be that it deliberately shirked the obligations to art."

Enter movies. Movies, birthed at the dawn of this century, are what Gabler calls "the ultimate cultural weapon" against aristocratic values, "a force at once so appealing and influential that it would change the entire calculus of the country." Not even aristocrats or the burgeoning middle classes could resist the entrancing power of cinema. If, as Freud postulated, all dreams are to some degrees wishes, then movies fast became a new national cosmology of wish-fulfillment – a place where "one could do anything, be, dream anything," a canvas on which we could reflect and project our deepest fears and desires. It was a revelation: an unqualified, awing magic. This infectious magic is the MacGuffin of Gabler’s tale – so seductive, in fact, that it could not stay contained. As in "The Sorceror’s Apprentice," where the apprentice (Mickey Mouse) can't resist tinkering with the master's magic, young America could not resist tinkering with the magic of cinema. Our current numbing overload is the result.

Some critics saw it coming. Gabler recalls French critic Andre Bazin’s "myth of total cinema," a theory that suggests we don’t just want movies to be about life, we want them to be life. We prefer those darkened comforts of fantasy to the uncontrolled dazzle of reality. But the Americans, unlike the French, lack the old world’s restraint: in our country, nothing is sacred, least of all the human mind. Bazin believed that the myth of total cinema would still remain cinema. But here, in our country, it soon spilled into the realm of life itself, when the entertainment cosmology "leapt tracks." It wasn’t long before we elected a movie actor President.

But movies, Gabler asserts, were mere fertilizer for an already-cultivated soil. Reality had moved closer to strangulation when the weeds of entertainment "slithered" into everyday life via the daily newspaper. Penny-press tycoons such as James Gordon Bennett, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer realized there was money in them-there entertainment, and so shrewdly began to blend "real" events with the allure of fantasy (murder, heroism, sex) in order to push product.

Pulitzer and Hearst perfected the process. In a New York Journal editorial, Hearst said "the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information." He understood the mechanics of tabloid seduction and sensed that what the public wanted were heroes as well as stories; he developed the concept of reporter-as-protagonist, sending dashing playwright/novelist Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to cover the insurrection there, and frequently dispatching his reporters to participate in the very stories they reported (as hero-detectives, for example, searchers of the missing, stories he’d milk for weeks). The corpulent, love-starved Hearst played master to the marionette of reality on an even grander scale when he "wagged the dog" by whipping up public enthusiasm for the Spanish-American war. "You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war," he allegedly told one of his photographers. War did indeed break, Hearst got his widescreen spectacle, and his newspapers sold like hotcakes.

Soon after this, of course, television arrived, which is when reality made the hyper leap towards extinction. TV became the looking glass through which reality and fantasy were synthesized into a new and confusing electric mural – with a voracious appetite for turning reality into entertainment. (Hearst’s appetites seemed Gandi-esque in comparison.) In the end, television left nothing undevoured – rather like a snake eating its own tail. As brilliant critic Neil Postman wrote of the medium, "the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure…the command center of the new epistemology."

TV disseminated this epistemology brilliantly, and nothing – least of all reality– was off-limits. Any lingering journalistic qualms about this ruthless sort of strip-mining had vanished by 1992 and the arrival of the Gennifer Flowers story. Gabler sees Flowersgate as "the last time that the media…would ever waver in the face of an entertaining story." In this, the media revealed its true bias – not (as Bill Bennett fears) liberalism, but the need to distract. After Flowers, the snake swallowed itself, and reality disappeared for good. We had truly become the United States of Entertainment.

Gabler merrily explicates reality’s disappearance, laying out how all aspects of American life, private and public, are scripted, rehearsed and played out for the omnipresent screens. No pastime or profession – education, politics, architecture, sports – is immune. American life, at this point, is a kaleidoscopic fracture, reflected around a central hollowness, an open mouth, a lens. One of many well-chosen illustrations shows Michael Dukakis, presidential candidate, playing a "spontaneous" game of catch on the tarmac of the San Diego airport. (Before he climbed into the tank.) The moment was "a movie vignette to be interpreted by critics." Reporters found the game of catch to be a sign of a) jauntiness, b) toughness, and c) limbering up. In fact, the moment was d) staged.

Serial killers, too, are angling for screen time. Psychologists speculated that the Unabomber issued his manifesto shortly after Timothy McVeigh’s antics in Oklahoma because he hoped, in the words of psychologists, to "regain his image as the country’s most infamous bomber." Arthur Bremer, having blown his chance to knock off Nixon, decided instead to gun down George Wallace – and realized this was a comedown, since this wouldn’t even "rate a TV enteroption (sic)."

College campuses are now theme parks of education; Gabler quotes an English professor who claims campuses recently became "more comfortable, less challenging environments…places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice." Will there soon be much difference between a university and Niketown, a theme park of a store? Niketown features athlete-hero "superstars" peddling the swoosh and props that shoppers can take home to feature in their own home videos. Perhaps students will similarly "buy" a degree as education becomes just another air-conditioned form of entertainment. (For teachers, now answerable to student evaluations, must entertain and amuse like everyone else.)

And then there is Disneyland, theme park of a theme park, whose riff is reality itself, or rather an improved, fantasized reality with all rough edges gone. It is a simulation so effective that, now, we find we don’t want Disney to be like reality, we want reality to be more like Disney (which led Disney to build the "planned community" of Celebration, Florida).

But if life is a simulation, then those who best simulate life are the ones we want to watch. In other words, celebrities, the true stars of the life movie. In a deft bit of cross-pollination, Gabler paraphrases Joseph Campbell to describe the journey our modern celebrity-heroes must undergo as they navigate the perilous postmodern waters. In our era, a hero sets out to vanquish – not monsters or cruel tyrants – but rather his own anonymity. Then, according to the transposed Campbell, "the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man"…and a fat book contract is assured.

Gabler ends his book with a spooky meditation on the "mediated self," where he raises his most profound question. Have we said farewell to the idea of a private, authentic self…or has it disappeared along with un-mediated reality? Certainly our consciousness has been altered (no one is immune!) but is there any longer a self that exists for self and not for other, for the omnipresent eye?

For instance, take the case of Michael Jackson. An extreme case, to be sure, though sometimes the exception speaks to the rule, in this case a general problem of what lies at the center. Gabler: "the problems that celebrity encountered with identity…were the same problems ordinary citizens would encounter in the Republic of Entertainment, only writ large." True, very few of us (thank God) are Michael Jackson…and yet "ordinary people had been encouraged to let their performing selves emerge by the commercial, social and psychological demands of modern culture." Jackson, with his sculptured face and high-tech skin, has made himself over so many times (and inflated himself to IMAX public proportion) that one begins to wonder if there is any "there" there. (Especially since he lives in Encino.) Is there a presence, a being beneath the mask, or has that private self been vaporized in the burning kliegs?

And then there’s Madonna, most savvy of postmodern performers, who (as a ruffled Warren Beatty groused in Truth or Dare) didn’t seem to exist beyond the camera’s range. Did Madonna have a career because she wanted to perform, or did she "perform" as herself "having" a career? Feminists applauded her "strength" and "bravery" – the alluring model of the new woman – except what was at the heart of the Madonna phenomenon? Madonna herself admitted she wasn’t the greatest singer or songwriter, that her real skill was for being "provocative" (i.e. entertaining). The same could be true of a slew of outrageous, empty-hearted celebrities, from fulminating TV pundits to sports stars to "superstar" academics, all "performing" as "themselves" on the big screen of reality. I’m not sure who I am …but I play myself on television…

This "life as performance art" concept seems to have caught like wildfire on the internet, where a veritable populace of exhibitionists have placed cameras in areas that were until recently considered private. One wonders if they have a life to display, or display to have a life. At any rate, the hunger for such "real" imagery seems endless; for relatively little money one can now watch more and more of their fellow netizens showering, sleeping, even sitting on the john. The once private act of taking a piss, it seems, is now part of the big show.

Gabler asks: is it a bad thing? Realists may shudder at the thought that the boundary between reality and fantasy has been so aggressively blurred, but the process may provide "an invaluable psychological service." After all, movies fashion meaning out of chaos because (Gabler says) one can always use movies as a means of molding life into a story. He even pulls curmudgeonly Saul Bellow in to acknowledge (from his novel Herzog) that "the dream of man’s heart, however much we may distrust and resent it, is that life may complete itself in significant pattern."

Well, yes, but only so far as it goes. The author leaves out a couple of things. In the first place, the playing field is far from equal. As with the newspaper barons of old, the means of mass-media distribution are in the hands of a select few. The motive behind most current pop fantasy is not creativity but profit – which means that the fantasy-images that cocoon us must appeal to as many as possible, the profit for which lines corporate coffers. This was always the case, but thanks to today’s mass technologies, it happens on a grander scale than ever before. Thus the ideology of "entertainment," or "fun," is fashioned into a blunt instrument against the masses; it becomes gargantuan, grotesque, something akin to propaganda.

Additionally, the repetitiveness of this process, insanely accelerated by today’s machines, begins to strip the tragic from tragedy, begins to make "outrageousness" seem normal. Death and scandal seem mass-produced. We are bombarded so relentlessly that the horrible becomes casual, even junky, disposable. The extremes of human life become kitsch…so that Jay Leno chuckles about Bobbitt’s penis and the dancing Itos. The Howard Sterns and Susie Brights of the world make outrageous sex banal, and an entire citizenry yawns as our military drops bombs on Iraqi citizens. Meanwhile we wait, bored and irritated, for the next big distraction.

With only the "big" getting play – the bloody, shocking and scandalous – the smaller moments of life, the extraordinary of the ordinary (quieter, more human themes best treated by "smaller" and nearly extinct arts like painting, theater and literature) seem insignificant and dull. To be visible in this era, one must be extravagant, "big" – to be small or quiet is to disappear, only the loudest get attention, to the point where everything and everyone is screaming for attention. "Outrageousness" has become its own kind of aristocracy, which strikes me as "elitist" in its own way, and undemocratic. (And also quite exhausting.)

Moreover, as of the late '70s there was still some reality left to fantasize – up until, roughly, we elected a former movie actor to be president, bought cable TV, and learned how to program our first VCRs. At that point the virus exploded, our hunger for graphics made insatiable. Our TV-addicted culture – having exhausted all genres – turned to reality itself, until there was nothing left to devour. "Reality TV" is an oxymoron.

What happens when the snake swallows its own tail? A quick survey shows two trends, in the movies at least: in the mainstream, a kind of fantasy-less fantasy, a cheerless, ultra-thin caricature of humanity which bombards us with sensation in a desperate attempt to "entertain" (Armageddon, Godzilla)…in the "indie" scene we find dirge-like lamentations on the death of feeling, a celebration of the dehumanized (Happiness, Your Friends and Neighbors, Very Bad Things). No Fellinis, Bergmans or even Fassbinders need apply: these are joyless immersions in cruelty, just as skin-crawling as any bombastic Hollywood kitsch.

These are but a few of postreality’s side-effects; there are others. Yet Gabler coyly glides over these potholes, merely skimming the road. He refuses to probe this territory’s darker edges, fearful of puncturing the book’s airy geniality. Yet we expect our culture-critics to be critical; witness the harrumphing of Neil Postman and Daniel Boorstin – who Gabler quotes liberally, and whose sour grumpiness (in the pop era of giggles and grins) acts as fresh tonic. This book is well-researched, and the virus’s biography readably told. But Gabler’s forte is probably biography because in outlining a genesis he happens also to be conducting a post-mortem – though he all but refuses to acknowledge the corpse.


Life the Movie by Neal Gabler is now available from Alfred A. Knopf. Suggested retail price: $25.005. Hardcover.