The Last Picture Show

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

Although common sense has it that Ronald Reagan's presidency replaced his Hollywood career, ample evidence suggests that even in office he was always performing for some unseen camera. His aides played along with the act, coaching him on "scenes" and feeding him typed sheets of "dialogue." It's an extreme example, but Neal Gabler's new book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (Knopf), asserts that Reagan's general outlook on life has become quite literally all-American. The author of two award-winning books (on gossip godfather Walter Winchell, and the Jewish creation of Hollywood), Gabler now credits the movies with altering our very consciousness: Americans, he posits, no longer have lives, or even that obnoxious substitute, a lifestyle. We're acting out life movies, or worse, "lifies."

It's not so surprising an idea in an age when entertainment is seamlessly folded into the nightly news, along with real-life news stories illustrated with movie clips ("It's just like the scene in Wag the Dog..."), followed by the perennially popular Entertainment Tonight. What's fascinating is Gabler's chronicle of how entertainment, with its steady yet disjointed barrage of images, impressions, and sensations, ultimately infiltrated and subsumed the rest of the culture.

If you think my use of the past tense seems jarring, it's downright creepy to read Gabler's entire book that way, as when he writes that "personal life was advancing toward theater [with] the advent of a new profession: self-described 'life coaches,' reportedly 1,500 of them in 1997..." Gabler isn't speculating on a trend, or putting forth a hypothesis. Life The Movie is a post mortem, a history, a done deal. And through his acute hindsight, we can see that entertainment's triumph was as inevitable as Manifest Destiny.

In his first chapter, Gabler asserts that there never really was a whole-wheat, authentic America that was corrupted into a fluffy, white-bread version. In fact, the U.S. was uniquely wired from the start to be "The Republic of Entertainment." One watershed event, he says, was the 1828 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson--the experienced, effete blueblood vs. the feisty military roughneck, in a race with obvious parallels to Minnesota's gubernatorial election last month. Jackson's victory was not just a political milestone; it also ushered in the country's first golden age of trash culture: scandal sheets published by the penny press ("respectable" papers cost 6 cents); an early form of pulp fiction; and silly, sensationalist entertainments in theaters and beer halls. These early Americans weren't reveling in mindlessness because they were rubes, any more than Jesse Ventura became governor because Minnesota is populated by illiterate wrestling fans. Rather, they were the first to take a so-bad-it's-good approach to culture, effectively acting out against a European-influenced elite and everything old, exclusive, and repressive.

As Gabler sums it up, the American "desire for entertainment--as an instinct, as a rebellion, as a form of empowerment, as a way of filling increased leisure time--was already so insatiable in the 19th century" that the advent of the movies ignited the culture like nothing before or since. He quotes Jane Addams, the social reformer of the time, who recognized that movies were "infinitely more real than the noisy streets and crowded factories," and worried about them "forming the ground pattern" of young people's lives.

The movies didn't stop there. Ultimately, they led many of the other institutions in American life to become more sensational, a process Gabler covers in a chapter titled "The Secondary Effect." Faced with the frightening prospect of competing against movies for the public's attention, many American institutions took up imitation. Churches grew into megachurches, incorporating rock shows and fancy lighting effects. Restaurants like Planet Hollywood and the Rainforest Café offered "eating experiences"; stores like Niketown coined the concept of "entertainment retail." Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren sold visions of perfect lives (and wives) that hearkened back to vintage movies, while the personalities and stories of sports superstars--their life movies--began to rival "the game" itself. And political campaigns took on all the vagaries of movie productions.

Much of this is nothing new. In fact, Gabler's seeming touchstones are Daniel Boorstin's 1961 The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America and Neil Postman's 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death; he also draws on a sizable bibliography of works on history, politics, celebrity, psychology, and sociology. His accomplishment is in synthesizing all this information into an overarching theme--entertainment is not just ascendant; it has Conquered Reality--and backing this up with a mountain of evidence from popular culture (as well as prophecies from that oracle of entertainment, Andy Warhol).

Moreover, since Gabler writes about publishing's surrender to the entertainment imperative in Life the Movie, and knows well that every page over 200 consigns his book to a smaller circle of readers, his tone is both colorful and succinct. Most remarkable is his conscious refusal to write an anti-entertainment screed, which makes Life the Movie that much more readable (and yes, entertaining). Besides, Gabler bolsters his argument with slices of life from The Republic of Entertainment that speak for themselves, such as a son asking his divorced parents to act out their happier days on video for their grandchildren.

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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