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LIFE THE MOVIE: How Entertainment Conquered Reality; \o7 By Neal Gabler; (Alfred A. Knopf: 304 pp., $25)\f7

January 03, 1999|TODD GITLIN | Todd Gitlin is the author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars" and the forthcoming novel "Sacrifice."

Two books are wrestling for attention inside Neal Gabler's new book about how stars, celebrities, political leaders, news promoters, sports figures, murderers, moguls, fashion designers and a cast of millions are wrestling for attention in the bloated, giddy carnival of American life.

Book I, the convincing one, concerns the flourishing of entertainment since the early years of the American republic. Gabler is not stuck on the conventional wisdom that floods journalism schools these days--the one that deplores the way news, from Joey Buttafuoco to O.J. to Monica, with a few stops for Marv Albert and Princess Di between, has been tabloidized. His most penetrating point is anti-nostalgic: The spectacle is nothing new.

News was always commercial, was always aware it was competing with lurid entertainments. As Gabler writes about the 1830s, when the penny press launched modern American journalism, the publishers "invented the concept of news because it was the best way to sell their papers in an entertainment environment." If today the editor of the National Enquirer clucks over the nasty language bursting forth in the mainstream press, he is being disingenuous. The ideal of purified news, news that registered high in the mind rather than low in the gonads, news that told what happened rather than what might be amusing, is a small bump in a road paved with sensational intentions. James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Henry Luce--these memorable American publishers were not apostles of fact. They did not regard themselves as neutral vessels for information. They believed in emphasis. They used colorful language, headlines, pictures. They had missions and dispatched their staffs accordingly.

In Book I, then, Gabler isn't content to deplore the sinking of standards; that's shooting fish heads in a trash barrel. He knows that popular culture in America has long been an instrument for the use of the lower orders. From comics to rap, from vaudeville to Weekly World News, from P.T. Barnum to Jerry Springer, it speaks the language of little people, which is why, in general, it demonizes and antagonizes big shots. Gabler suggests that the success of "Midcult" (Dwight MacDonald's label for the rampant sentimentality and middle-class pretense) profoundlyinfluenced the vox pop--whereupon cultural entrepreneurs moved the trash bar lower: "Because the middle class co-opted entertainment through Midcult, the entrepreneurs of mass culture kept having to stake out new ground where they could continue to provide disenfranchised Americans with something that was adversarial, something that pushed against the limits of good taste."

So far, so good (or so bad), but then Gabler goes so far as to claim that everything the media touch must turn into entertainment. The movies, television and attendant technologies not only seize attention, they usurp life. "If the primary effect of the media in the late twentieth century was to turn nearly everything that passed across their screens into entertainment, the secondary and ultimately more significant effect was to force nearly everything to turn itself into entertainment in order to attract media attention." Here Gabler draws on Daniel Boorstin, C. Wright Mills, Neil Postman, Leo Braudy and others who have written about pseudo-events, celebrity glamour, amusement fatigue and the audience's weird collaboration with the famous. He concludes that "media were not really reporting what people did; they were reporting what people did to get media attention." Some celebrities, according to Gabler, even turn their own lives into "lifies" starring themselves so that their audiences--and perhaps themselves--follow them the way they follow movie characters. See Michael Jackson rise, see Michael Jackson fall. See Madonna reinvent herself. See Donald Trump rise, fall and rise again. See Liz Taylor . . . Hugh Grant . . . Marion Barry. . . .

Such observations are acute but fail to support the assertion that life as a whole has been sucked into the maelstrom of entertainment. Take Ronald Reagan, whose career Gabler regards as proof of the power of the "lifie." In his view, Reagan was nothing but a practiced media strategist acting his act. But if Reagan were nothing more than a feel-good impresario or had he remained Ronald Reagan the liberal Democrat of the 1940s, he would never have attracted passionate support and remade American politics. His followers recognized him as more than the off-screen angel starring in "Morning in America." They knew him as a conservative--economically and socially conservative, militarily aggressive. It cheapens Reagan's political achievement to dismiss him so blithely.

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