Life: The Movie

By Neal Gabler

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” is the song of T. S. Eliot’s thrush, leading us into gardens of make-believe. The same tune is played on movie screens and television sets around the world, and the digital revolution promises even more varieties of virtual reality: a life even better than the real thing. Escapism has never been so in vogue, and perhaps never so necessary.

We are all familiar with the complaints: Responsible journalism has been replaced by tabloid news, celebrity is more important in our culture than integrity and character, politics is theatre, art is either a drug or trash. The one value that seems to be driving all of this is entertainment: “arguably the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time – a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life.”

So runs the argument in Life: The Movie, a book subtitled “How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” For Neal Gabler, a film reviewer turned culture critic, the standard of entertainment has co-opted all of the most important spheres of private life. We can even see it in the language. News stories have become “faction,” politics “politainment,” and scholars “academostars” (or, as I recently saw in a University of Toronto publication, “hot profs”). Even the family farm has gone the way of “agritainment.” Is nothing sacred?

Gabler’s concern with over all of this comes from what he calls the iron law of popular culture: that forms of popular entertainment originate in the lower classes and are then adopted in a slightly censored form by the bourgeoisie.

But while this is the way culture has always tended to evolve, it also leads to a kind of “dumbing-down” that is only increasing in pace. Thus, as our culture submits to the “tyranny of entertainment,” Gabler sees an America “where everything is coarsened, vulgarized, and trivialized, where the meretricious is more likely to be rewarded than the deserving and where bonds of community that were once forged by shared moral values and traditions are now forged by tabloid headlines, gossip and media.”

On a deeper level, this emphasis on the values of entertainment transforms our very sense of self. Instead of character we have personality, a function of what we project to others. And if we regard our own lives as entertainment, it is not what we are that counts, but how well we play a role.

As an antidote to all of this it seems necessary to raise an important point that Gabler leaves out. As much as we may want to transform reality into something else, it does have a way of biting back. It is, for example, one thing to say that Ronald Reagan was a talking head, a man only playing at being president, but it is wrong to suppose that his presidency was without policies that had real effects on real people. Reality may have gone underground, but I don’t think it has been conquered yet.

As with any good rant, Gabler has no solutions to offer. His aim is to be “diagnostic rather than prescriptive.” His analysis is also very entertaining, though it’s hard to say how he would react to my use of the word. For Gabler, “entertainment” is a pleasurable form of sensory experience without intellectual content. Life: The Movie challenges us to think.

Review first published January 23, 1999.


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