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LIFE THE MOVIE by Neal Gabler

LIFE THE MOVIE

How Entertainment Conquered Reality

By Neal Gabler

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-41752-4
Publisher: Knopf

Cultural historian Gabler (An Empire of Their Own, 1988; Winchell, 1994) addresses a favorite subject of the punditocracy—the leaching of entertainment values into every aspect of modern culture—refreshingly, without moralizing. While he admires such forerunners as Richard Schickel (Intimate Strangers, 1985) and Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985), Gabler shares neither their nostalgia for a mythic past, in which everyone accepted a secure hierarchy of cultural values, nor their slightly hysterical vision of a rapidly approaching future, in which no one will be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. On the contrary, as Gabler’s sharp, class-conscious analysis of American history persuasively argues, conflict has always occurred between high art and low entertainment: —Sensationalist trash was not a default culture for the intellectually impaired but rather . . . a willful attempt to raze the elitists— high culture and destroy their authority.— This attempt gained strength at the end of the 19th century, when yellow journalism blurred the boundaries between news and sensationalism, and the —Republic of Entertainment— reached its apotheosis with the arrival of movies and then television. Few would argue with Gabler’s broad contention that —everything in the public sphere was now to be measured by entertainment,— as demonstrated in his amusingly acid survey of everything from television news to book publishing to celebrities (and politicians) whose lives are as much a subject for public consumption as their work. His claim that entertainment has become the primary force in ordinary people’s lives rests on shakier ground, though selected examples, like bankrupt small farmers creating agrarian theme parks—and the theatricality of contemporary shopping malls—have considerable bite. One can only applaud Gabler’s understanding that entertainment may empower as well as anesthetize the masses, though the book’s final pages suffer from his adamant refusal to decide which trend is dominant. At times infuriatingly inconclusive, but Gabler is probably right that —there [are] no simple answers, only vitally important issues.—