The Last Picture Show

Neil Gabler's new book pledges an uneasy allegiance to our Republic of Entertainment

While that may seem a pathetic attempt to right (or rewrite?) one of life's many wrongs, Gabler's final chapter, "The Mediated Self," shows that we're all subject to such absurdities. Surely there's no question that entertainment has changed our human nature, soaked into the very core of our identities. Is this a good or a bad thing--or something in between? Ever diplomatic, Gabler plays both sides with convincing arguments, although a few words, such as a reference to Brave New World in his book's last sentence, may hint at his own beliefs.

Meanwhile, he's given readers a clarifying lens to train on a warped world, provoking questions rather than providing answers. Has the new, outer-directed "personality" killed off age-old inner "character"? If everyone's on the Internet, does the so-called real world exist?

And what of this tendency I've noticed to bid farewell by telling people to "have fun"? Perhaps Too Much Fun has simply become Too Much, as David Foster Wallace put it in his novel about the ultimate entertainment, Infinite Jest. With "stimulus overload" already a common concept, I'd be inclined to argue that life should not--or cannot--become more intensely entertaining. That infamous episode of the Japanese Pocket Monsters cartoon, whose onslaught of strobe effects triggered seizures in hundreds of children, was nothing if not a canary in a coal mine.

In keeping with his diagnostic policy, Gabler offers no suggestions for living a more "real" life (it would be too cinematic to pretend that he can identify a problem and solve it in one book). But I think he inadvertently points to one with a quote from Elizabeth Taylor. "Once you're up there on that last rung, your head splitting in two, you can only go down," she said of her retirement, which Gabler claims is really about "the tragedy of celebrity." It's also a perfect metaphor for where we now stand, in a world of endless amusements.

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