Life the Movie

Neal Gabler commences Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality throwing verbal thunderbolts. He’s like William Bennett on bennies, Robert Hughes at his huffiest. Decrying our ”entertainment-driven, celebrity-oriented society” as one in which ”the standard of value is whether or not something can grab and then hold the public’s attention,” Gabler wants us to snap out of it — to turn off the lulling TV test patterns in our minds and look at show business with energetic skepticism. Using ominous metaphors, he succeeds in making the situation seem perilous: ”Acting like a cultural Ebola virus, entertainment has even invaded organisms no one would ever have imagined could provide amusement.” His examples of viral entertainment include Timothy Leary’s Web video of his own death, O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction, and Princess Diana’s life and death.

Yet Gabler, author of the rich An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and a highly praised biography of Walter Winchell, soon calms down to insist that Life the Movie is intended to be ”an investigation rather than a screed.” In Gabler’s telling, we caught the bug a long time ago. Or, to switch metaphors, were bitten by the snake: ”The first portal through which entertainment slithered into life and then conquered it was journalism.” Noting newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst’s ”stage-managing” of the Spanish-American War as an early example, Gabler makes a connection between the press and early films as media through which consumers’ appetite for ”mindless fun” grew to immense popularity. The result is someone like Michael Jackson, who — through a combination of superstardom and plastic surgery — has, asserts Gabler, ”so thoroughly become an entertainment that he ha[s] almost ceased being a person altogether.”

Gabler has coined a squishy new term for such tendencies that works against taking his serious book very seriously: He calls them ”lifies,” as in ”movies written in the medium of life, projected on the screen of life and exhibited in the multiplexes of the traditional media which are increasingly dependent upon the life medium.” This Gabler gabble not only violates the rule taught to me by my old English teacher Mrs. Grainy — that you don’t define a word by using it in the definition — but is pointlessly complicated to boot.

Gabler says the tabloid newspaper was ”the place where lifies played”; that the evening news on TV turns the day’s events into ”new, improved lifies”; that a media-conscious celebrity like Madonna ”made her life movie about her life movie.” The author’s trot through 20th-century entertainment and news culture is brisk and well organized, but his thesis is vague to the point of meaninglessness.

People, he asserts, like to be excited by things they read or watch — yeah, so? The line between news and entertainment, Gabler says, has been blurred ever since news and entertainment were first reported. Is this, so to speak, news to anyone? Clucking one’s tongue over people who became famous merely for being famous, like Zsa Zsa Gabor and the latter-day Elizabeth Taylor, seems quaint, if not downright out of it. But then, anyone’s concern with being ”in” or ”out of it” is part of Gabler’s argument; he believes that entertainment, celebrity, and fame serve, as often as not, to push out lasting quality in favor of cheap thrills and momentary novelty. You can often tell a fellow’s philosophy from the sources he cites, and Life the Movie is crammed with quotes from thinkers who’ve either condemned or been fearful of the dumbing-down effects of pop culture, ranging from Dwight Macdonald to Jose Ortega y Gasset. Missing is the argument’s other side: eloquent defenders of pop culture such as Robert Warshow, Otis Ferguson, or Robert Christgau.

For a book that asserts a culturally conservative position, Life the Movie (shouldn’t there be a colon, or at least a comma, after that Life?) pointedly refuses to sum up the implication of its own examples, to take ”some firmly staked-out position that applauds or condemns [entertainment].” Near the end, Gabler contradicts everything that’s gone before, asserting that if ”lifies serve only as a way to bring excitement to the otherwise dull routines and patterns of our own lives…they may perform an invaluable psychological service.”

Hmmm. Showbiz as either a mollifier or a stimulant of drab, depressive existences. Sounds more like Life the Prozakie to me. C+

Life the Movie
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