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Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality

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From one of America's Most Original Cultural Critics, the story of how our bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, glamour, and melodrama has turned everything of importance--from news and politics to religion and high culture--into one vast public entertainment. Neal Gabler calls them "lifies," those blockbusters written in the medium of life that preoccupy the traditional media and dominate the national conversation for weeks, months, even years: the death of Princess Diana, the trial of O. J. Simpson, Kenneth...
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Overview

From one of America's Most Original Cultural Critics, the story of how our bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, glamour, and melodrama has turned everything of importance--from news and politics to religion and high culture--into one vast public entertainment. Neal Gabler calls them "lifies," those blockbusters written in the medium of life that preoccupy the traditional media and dominate the national conversation for weeks, months, even years: the death of Princess Diana, the trial of O. J. Simpson, Kenneth Starr vs. William Jefferson Clinton, the Ayatollah's bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie. Real Life as Entertainment is hardly new--as Gabler shows, it is older even than the penny press--but the movies, and then new information technologies, have so accelerated the phenomenon that it is now the reigning popular art form. How this came to pass, and just what it means for our culture and our personal lives, is the subject of this witty, concerned, and sometimes frightening book.
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Editorial Reviews

Seattle Times
An astute observer of popular culture shows how everything from religion to politics has become a branch of show business.
Adrienne Miller
...[F]antastically smart, astute, scary...
Esquire
James Boylan
[Gabler] sets forth the notion that entertainment values have come to dominate not only the mass media but also personal conduct, turning American life into the cultural equivalent of a movie...he brilliantly demonstrates that we swim in a sea of media-marketed gratifications. --Columbia Journalism Review
James Gardner
...Neal Gabler, whose previous books dealt with Walter Winchell and the history of Hollywood, reminds one of the puritan minister who, in his hell-bent crusade against pornography, spends all his time reading the stuff.
National Review
Joshua Wolf Shenk
Gabler's conceit is that entertainment....is who we are....we live in what he calls a "life movie"....[H] is real point [is] that the confusion between fiction and reality has filtered down to the masses...We all see ourselves as canvasses for display. —The Washington Monthly
Michiko Kakutani
...An intermittently provocative but highly derivative book...that tends to read like a discursive magazine article padded out to hardcover length....Though many of Mr. Gabler's observations...are interesting, he has an annoying tendency to push his thesis so hard that he fails to make important distinctions among the examples he cites.
The New York Times
Nicholas Von Hoffman
This book is neither biography nor history, but a thoughtful essay....Seeing the society one lives in one's self with detachment and writing about it with the proportionality ordinarily conferred by the passage of time takes a lot of doing. For the most part, Mr. Gabler has done it. -- The Wall Street Journal
Booknews
Fantasy keeps morphing into reality through exploitation of the fixation on entertainment. The infiltration of the media into everything from politics to religion has generated obsession with celebrities, life as performance art, scandal, and real-life melodrama to epidemic proportions according to the author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. He chronicles the rise of the "republic of entertainment" over the last century and its role in a media-mediated self. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Adrienne Miller
...[F]antastically smart, astute, scary... -- Esquire
Jeff Pooley
...Life the Movie offers a compelling portrait of modern life as a 'show staged for the media.' -- Brill's Content
Joshua Wolf Shenk
Gabler's conceit is that entertainment....is who we are....we live in what he calls a "life movie"....[H] is real point [is] that the confusion between fiction and reality has filtered down to the masses...We all see ourselves as canvasses for display. -- The Washington Monthly
Ken Tucker
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 meaningless....[The book] pointedly refuses to sum up the implication of its own examples... -- Entertainment Weekly
Peter Biskind
....Life the Movie doesn't tell the whole story. Still, it tells a big part of it. It's a thoughtful, in places chilling, account of the way entertainment values have hollowed out American life and if not supplanted reality, at least threatened it. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Cultural historian Gabler (An Empire of Their Own; Winchell) 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) and Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), 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, likebankrupt 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."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679417521
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/10/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 303
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 8.71 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, for which he won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History, and Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. Mr. Gabler holds advanced degrees in film and American culture and has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Freedom Forum Fellowship. He was born in Chicago and lives with his wife and two daughters in Amagansett, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Or there was Michael Palmer, the doctor who, inspired by the example of medical suspense novelist Robin Cook, decided to try his hand at a medical thriller. When he was about to embark on his book tour, however, he realized he wasn't getting what he called high-profile bookings. So Palmer decided to reveal that he was a recovering alcoholic and Demerol addict and was now helping other, similarly afflicted physicians. His publicists beamed over the disclosure, knowing it would generate press. Palmer's addictions thus became what he himself called a marketing device.

Slightly more savvy writers decided that if they were going to make their lives their marketing tools, they might as well make the life the book too. In part this may explain the craze for literary confessions in which writers divulge their deepest and occasionally dirtiest secrets--the autobiographical equivalent to the entertainingly lurid biographies dedicated to detailing a subject's pathologies. No matter how high-minded their professed motives, one suspects these memoirists also know the entertainment value of their tales: a poet who is a sex addict and child molester, a mopey young woman who is committed to a mental institution and another who battles anorexia, a young novelist addicted to anxiety inhibitors, another attractive young novelist who had an incestuous relationship with her father. Needless to say, plots like these make every bit as good entertainment as similar stories in the supermarket tabloids--which is to say that while confession may be good for the soul, it is also good for book sales.

But the final surrender of literature to entertainment may have come withthe discovery that a book needn't even be a vehicle for its author's life; it could be a vehicle for the author's photo. Publishers had long preferred writers who were telegenic and glib, able to hawk their books where it counted: on television. By the mid-1990s, however, there was a group of young author pinups--Paul Watkins, Douglas Coupland, Tim Willocks, movie star/novelist Ethan Hawke--whose basic selling point was their appearance. "He had a rock-star type aura that these young women project onto the author," was how a promotions director at the Waterstone bookstore in Boston described Coupland's reading there before a large audience. Playing off his aura, Tim Willocks's publisher enclosed a photo of the writer with an invitation to a promotional lunch. "He's definitely a cute author," a features editor at Mademoiselle enthused. "We're definitely biased toward cute guys."

Perhaps it was inevitable that with literature drawn into the entertainment vortex, it would also generate ancillary merchandise just as movies generated toys, clothing, books and other products. Robert James Waller, whose The Bridges of Madison County became the very paradigm of a publishing phenomenon, wound up issuing a compact disc of himself singing his own compositions inspired by his own novel. Following his trail, novelist Joyce Maynard released a compact disc of music to accompany her book Where Love Goes, Elizabeth Wurtzel planned to provide a CD soundtrack for the paperback edition of her memoir Prozac Nation, James Redfield's inspirational book The Celestine Prophecy spawned The Celestine Prophecy: A Musical Voyage and Warner Bros. signed self-help writer Deepak Chopra to a recording contract. "Each of Deepak's seven spiritual laws of success could be distilled into a song," explained a record executive. "Then the theme of each law could be distilled into a mantra."

Viewing these developments with concern, the critic Jack Miles predicted that publishing would eventually find itself divided between a very small audience of readers seeking knowledge and a much larger audience seeking entertainment--in effect, another sacralization of the sort that had divided culture in the late nineteenth century. "What is offered for everybody will be entertainment and entertainment only, and then only at a level that excludes nobody," Miles wrote. "What is offered as knowledge, by contrast, will be offered, usually not for everybody but rather for professionals who will 'consume' it as (and mostly at) work." Extrapolating from Miles's vision, one could even imagine a day when there would be for everyone what had already long existed in Hollywood: designated readers to summarize plots, so that no one would ever have to tax himself by reading more than a few pages, as Hollywood executives were never taxed.

But even these divisions were not as clean as Miles suggested, because entertainment could not be kept so easily at bay. Books that purported to be informational were increasingly invaded by entertainment, so that one had to make a new distinction between real or traditional information and entertainment in the form of information--what has been called faction. The latter was the sort of thing in which best-selling celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley specialized. When she revealed in her 1997 biography of the Windsors that the queen mother was artificially inseminated, to cite just one example of many, her evidence seemed to be that everyone knew the king's brother Edward was impotent, that impotency ran in the Windsor family and so that therefore the logical conclusion was the one she drew. It was certainly a stretch, bur Kelley could get away with it because she knew accuracy was of little consequence to her readers; entertainment was. The most important thing in the Republic of Entertainment was that the facts be provocative enough to provide a sensational show.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1. The Republic of Entertainment 11
2. The Two-Dimensional Society 53
3. The Secondary Effect 96
4. The Human Entertainment 143
5. The Mediated Self 192
Notes 245
A Select Bibliography 279
Acknowledgments 289
Index 291
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