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Is 'Life the Movie' Better Than the Real Thing?

The tension between these views-between the idea of a rich, complex life and perfect, painless one--is more than a simple difference of opinion. We may be seeing a new era in which reality is surrendering to "postreality"--the fabrication of life.

November 08, 1998|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His new book, "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality," from which this is adapted, will be out this month

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — The basic conceit of the new movie "Pleasantville" is that the chirpy world of 1950s TV sitcoms actually extended beyond its allotted half-hour time slot, existing as a full-fledged utopia. Here the inhabitants performed their daily routines and played their assigned roles unruffled by strife or ideas or art or emotion or passion--in short, by the stuff of real life. It seems too perfect, but as it turns out, citizens don't know what they're missing as they follow their bliss. When two contemporary teenagers are magically zapped into "Pleasantville," they bring with them both the mess and beauty of reality, discombobulating the community but also leavening it with the richness of life.

At least that's the movie's premise. In truth, though, many Americans would probably find the lack of books or paintings or emotions a relatively small price to pay for the serenity "Pleasantville" offers. In fact, a good many Americans seem to be searching for ways to make their lives more closely approximate the fantasies purveyed by movies and television shows. How else to explain the popularity of Martha Stewart, who seems to have popped right out of "Pleasantville"?

In a sense, the movie has it all wrong. The problem isn't that the Pleasantvillians have too little reality; as an increasing number of Americans see it, the problem is that we have too much.

Nearly 40 years ago, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, in his path-breaking book "The Image," was already lamenting that Americans lived in a "world where fantasy is more real than reality."

What was true then has become even truer now. Having satisfied most of our material needs, we have, in true Darwinian fashion, shifted our focus to our psychological needs. We want to live well in the fullest sense. We want our lives to match our vision of the good life, itself largely a product of the media. We want to have the right clothes, the right car, the right house, the right job, the right spouse, the right children, even the right toothpaste: "right" meaning the ones that complete our self-image. In effect, we want our lives not only to resemble a movie; we want our lives to be a movie.

This phenomenon was what sociologist David Riesman was describing in his classic study "The Lonely Crowd," when he coined the term "other-directed" to identify a new type of individual whose self-esteem derived from his ability to please others. It was also what Christopher Lasch was describing in his landmark book "The Culture of Narcissism," when he wrote, "To the performing self the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture . . . . Life becomes a work of art."

The reflex among social critics always has been to view this process of life performance and the attendant loss of authenticity as yet another example of the imminent decline of Western civilization. One can certainly see why. It is difficult not to agree with those who think that the transmutation of what we once called "character" into what we now call "personality," of the life unself-consciously lived into the life calculatedly constructed, is a horrible thing that trivializes us.

As these critics see it, life is not a lark, and its end is not pleasure alone. Life is a difficult and complicated enterprise. It entails joy but also suffering, gain but also loss, hope but also despair. Yet, whatever pain these might inflict, one shouldn't wish away the suffering, loss and despair even if one could. One needs them in order to be fully and feelingly alive. To deny them would be to deny the process of one's humanization as well as the full range of human experience. To deny them would be to deny life itself.

It is a position that resonates in the greatest works of art, one reason why "Pleasantville" 's books are all blank-paged. No suffering there! Nonetheless, there is weight on the other side of the argument, too--the side that argues life should be more like the movies--and it warrants examination because it is seldom discussed and when it is, is casually dismissed.

In this view, even if the "performed life" serves only as a way to bring excitement to the otherwise dull routines and patterns of our own lives, as movies temporarily do, they may perform an invaluable psychological service. Montaigne, believing in a kind of ontological unhappiness that afflicts us all, also believed that nature equipped man to relieve it "bysupplying our imagination with other and still other matters" we could use as distractions.

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