Life: The Movie … Starring Everyone
VTR Date: January 12, 1999
Neal Gabler discusses a unified theory of American culture.
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GUEST: Neal Gabler
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And it may well be that one of those man entertainments that now appear quite so frequently in the new New York Times — a particularly “cutesy” At Lunch with Neal Gabler, my guest today — actually best reflects what he calls his “unified field theory of American culture”. In a new book that “portrays the united States in an age of post-reality, a republic of entertainment increasingly devoted to indulging the fantasy lives of its citizens”.
Let me read just a little more from this bit of all the news that’s fit to print.
Writes Ralph Blumenthal: “Costumed in Ralph Lauren colonialist garb, slenderized in health clubs, body-sculpted by plastic surgeons and coached on life-style by Martha Stewart, ordinary Americans, he said in “Life The Movie”: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (published by Knopf), are appropriating the trappings of celebrity to carve out prime roles in their own life movie …
“… But Mr. Gabler, looking every bit the cultural critic (Armani black, stubbly salt and pepper whiskers), doesn’t seem overly worried. ‘Anyone who writes seriously about American culture is not in danger of becoming a celebrity” he said.
“Still, Mr. Gabler, the author of books on Walter Winchell and Hollywood, does not protest when lunch is arranged at Jean Georges on Central Park West, it is, after all, a locale in Woody Allen’s new movie, “Celebrity”, featuring many starry types of course.
“If by my theory the movie never ends”, said Mr. Gabler, “right now we’re doing the interview scene.
“Contemporary American culture may be the first in history to permit its citizens to live entirely within their own manufactured realities, said Mr. Gabler … increasingly, Americans are altering their lives to conform to their movie fantasies.
“Where once movies were judged by how closely they approximated life, now life is rated by now closely it conforms to the movies. Even celebrity criminals … seem consumed by how their acts would play for a movie-addicted society Mr. Gabler said.
“News, too, he said, is increasingly packaged as entertainment, with wars and presidential crises getting pithy rubrics (“Crisis in the Gulf”, “White House Under Siege”) like movie titles.
“We always thought that politics and economics are the crucial forces of our time, but entertainment is the most inexorable force of the twentieth century”, Mr. Gabler said, lofting a morsel of chevre-and-salmon mousse in a pastry shell.
“We export it and the world eats it up. It’s the best hunger-satisfier that man has ever devised’.”
So I think I’ll begin today’s program by asking Neal Gabler just how come we Americans are so good at satisfying this seeming universal hunger for entertainment, entertainment and still more entertainment — and to hell with the more serious and laborious matter of thought and logic and reason. How come?
GABLER: Well, I think it’s a very good question. And I begin by saying that, I mean, entertainment is pleasurable. By definition. And of course there is something … there’s something very powerful about the pleasure of entertainment. But what makes this a republic of entertainment as opposed to France, or Germany or England or India, for that matter is that I think that in those countries and certainly in the European countries, there was state religious authority that actively quarantined entertainment because it saw entertainment as a competing system of values. And they were entrenched elites in a very rigid social hierarchy that quarantined an entertainment culture because it realized that entertainment culture challenged its social and cultural power. In this country the most popular form of religion in the 19th century was evangelicalism. Which was itself a form of entertainment. I mean when you think of the evangelical minister ranting and raving and whipping that … his congregates into a frenzy. I mean that was a form of entertainment, and even though evangelical ministers fulminated against entertainment every bit as much as their European counterparts did, it didn’t have quite the same force because the form of religious worship betrayed their fulminations. As far as elites were concerned this was a country that, at least theoretically, was democratic and that disdained elites. So that we create, in my estimation, a … an entertainment culture that challenged the high culture of the elites. And though most people would say, and to this day they would say that popular culture is the ???? culture for the mentally impaired, I make the case in my book that entertainment culture was a deliberate choice because it was the antithesis of the elitist high culture. Now, I’ll add something else if you, if you permit …
GABLER: … me to go on here for a moment. I know this is a long-winded response. But if you look at the sub-text of entertainment, one of words that is often used to modify entertainment is “mindless”. And if you look at that word, not pejoratively, but descriptively, entertainment is, looking empirically, pretty mindless. Which, which … by which I mean that it makes its appeal not to the intellect primarily, but it makes it’s appeal primarily to the emotions and to the viscera. And in some ways one could say that the sub-text of all entertainment, regardless of what it is, regardless of the overt message of that particular entertainment is to depose reason. To enthrone the emotions and, and the viscera. Which is why entertainment if also called “sensationalist”. In both senses of the word, it’s sensationalist in the sense that it’s lurid. And it’s sensationalist in the sense that it makes an appeal to our sensations. Now, let’s look at the sub-text of America. The sub-text of America, particularly in the 19th century, was that this was a country devised to overthrow oppression … English oppression. And the oppression of elites. So when you examine the sub-text of entertainment, which is to depose reason and the sub-text of America, which is to depose repression … you can join these two things, they re-enforce one another in a very powerful way to, to create an entertainment culture in this country. Hence, we are the republic of entertainment.
HEFFNER: Mr. Gabler, as you talk about this, you talk about how we were formed and why we were formed, I think of … what are their names … Jefferson, Madison, Adams and so on, the Founders. And I wonder if their anti-establishment posture and actions would have enabled them to say, as you say, that they were essentially pro-sensationalist. They were pro feelings and emotions, rather than ideas. Pro-viscera rather than intellect.
GABLER: Well, certainly Jefferson, I think would qualify. I don’t know whether he would have gone whole hog and said, you know, look at we are, you know, an emotional country as opposed to a country of reason, although in the Republic movement, as opposed to the Federalist movement in this country, one could make the claim that there was a good deal of emotion and sensationalism and viscera involved in, in the whole Republic impulse. But if they laid the political groundwork, and if that groundwork was ultimately realized in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and the era of the Common Man, I think that they also laid the cultural groundwork, as well.
HEFFNER: The Founders?
GABLER: The Founders did. Though they might not have taken claim for it. I mean we think of entertainment culture, popular culture as being a twentieth century phenomenon. And, in fact, when I embarked on this project, on “Life The Movie”, I though well most of my work would be concentrated on the twentieth century and the rise of mass media. As I investigated, I found, in fact, it was not a twentieth century phenomenon. It was in point of fact a nineteenth century phenomenon. And I traced it back to the period of Jackson where the rise of political populism … again at least theoretically … one can make the claim that Jackson was not really a political populist. But the rise of political populism in the Jackson era … what gave rise to a cultural populism. And in that period, in the late 1820s and the 1830s, that is when we have this ground defusion of penny press and almanac and stage melodramas, and all of these things that were the pre-cursors of the movies and television and radio … a popular entertainment culture. So in some ways one can trace it back to Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, though it’s a tortuous course, I’ll have to admit.
HEFFNER: Well, “tortuous” I think is the correct word to Jackson, yes. But if we talk about the backwoodsman dancing on the tables at the inaugural party in Jackson’s time, if we talk about all of the entertainment thrust that you relate yourself to in this book … what is the judgment to be made? You are very careful to say …
GABLER: Yes, I am.
HEFFNER: That you don’t want to make a judgment. How in the world can you not?
GABLER: Well, I, I’ll tell you why. Because I think that almost all cultural critics begin from a certain position. They’re on the mountain top. And they are preaching to the debased and, and benighted, you know, masses below. And almost every book of cultural criticism not only takes that posture, but scolds, you know, Americans and says essentially, “look at, you know, I’m superior to this whole process. And I think when you finish books like those, and there are scads of them, you feel a certain kind of complacency. I say that it addresses entertainment mentality. There’s an entertainment mentality that says, “look at there’s closure at the end of the movie. It’s told you what to think and how to feel”. And I think most cultural criticism does the same thing. There’s that same kind of complacency and closure at the end of most books about American, contemporary American society. And you feel superior to the process. That’s about them. When Rash(???) writes about a culture of narcissism, even though he’s indicting all of America, you read the book and you say, “well, that’s not me. That’s somebody else”. I didn’t want that to happen in this book. Nor did I want to be a Cassandra in this book, and say, you know, “we are going to hell in a hand basket. This is the end of American civilization”. As so many cultural critics say. I think one has to be very careful in delineating what are the pernicious effects of an entertainment driven culture . And what are the salutary effects of an entertainment driving culture. Now there are pernicious effects. I, I certainly don’t deny that. And, in fact, as I say in the introduction to the book. I mean the book has an attitude. It may not have closure, but it has an attitude about the absurdities to which entertainment has driven us. And they are everywhere. I mean from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to Martha Stewart, to Fox Television which, you know, heavily concentrates on so-called reality programming … you know, shocking moments, famous pet attacks. You know high speed car chases. All of these are part and parcel of an entertainment driven society. And they can have negative effects and if, if you like … I mean I can delineate some of those.
HEFFNER: I’m not asking you to, but I’m fascinated by what you say there because on page nine of this wonderful book, “Life The Movie” you do say … you write, “while this book is not without an attitude, particularly toward some of the absurdities …
HEFFNER: … to which entertainment has driven us, readers are here forewarned that it is diagnostic, rather than prescriptive …
HEFFNER: An investigation rather than a screed. At the bottom of that page you say, talking about entertainment … it is … or the American approach … it is not any “ism” but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful and interloctuable force of our time. A force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life”. And I thought, aha, Gabler does have an attitude, he wouldn’t have easily …
GABLER: … Well I use Ebola virus earlier in that chapter … metastasized. And I talk about corrosive effects as well. And I use those words advisedly. Because there are corrosive effects. And there is a metastases and there is an Ebola virus in the way that entertainment works …
HEFFNER: But …
GABLER: But let’s examine, you know, where those things are harmful and where they aren’t. For example, if you look at conventional entertainment, which increasingly drives this society. I mean I have not great quarrel with conventional entertainment. You know I think that, you know, pleasure is one of the things that entertainment gives us. We have more time for pleasure than any previous generation. And so, I mean I can’t really look down my nose at, at you know, conventional entertainment like movies and television programs and, and …
HEFFNER: Why do you say …
GABLER: … at least generically I can’t.
HEFFNER: Why do you say that as a disclaimer? I can’t do that. In fact the book is saying “I won’t look down my nose …”
GABLER: I won’t do that, exactly. And I don’t feel that way as well. I mean some people see this as equivocation. It’s not equivocation. You know, there’s a difference.
HEFFNER: Except for the metastases.
GABLER: Well, I’ll tell you about the metastases in a moment, because I think there is a metastasis going on. But it’s, it’s and we have to identify exactly where it is. I mean surgically we’ve got to do the biopsy on our culture, find it and identify it. So in terms of conventional entertainment I have not quarrel. Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Which is something that you alluded to earlier in the New York Times piece and that is in ordinary people’s lives. It can have negative effects, but on the other hand it can have very salutary effects as people use the movies that they write of their own lives, their own scripts to help them cope with modern reality and I’m sure we’ll get into that in more depth. But now let’s look a the center. The center is, is where entertainment pervades institutions that heretofore were not necessarily entertainment institutions. And converts them into branches of show business. I mean journalism, I mean religion, I mean education …
HEFFNER: The courts.
GABLER: The courts …
HEFFNER: Sports …
GABLER: Sports, yes. Almost every aspect of American life, I claim is in one way or another to a greater or lesser degree, converted by entertainment into an entertainment force. That I think can be pernicious. And again, I say can be because I think we’ve got to be careful on how we frame that. Let’s take journalism for example. I don’t think that I’m broadcasting any news on this program though I’d like to, when I say that, you know, journalism is branch of entertainment. And one watches the evening news and sees story after story after story that is selected and positioned and prioritized on those network news broadcasts …we won’t even talk about the cable news broadcasts. But even on the network news broadcasts …for entertainment value. Jon Benet Ramsey gets more time on any network news broadcast then the tens of thousands who were killed in Bosnia or who are being slaughtered now is Kosovo. I mean that one little girl because her story has all of the great melodrama elements that appeal to viewers … that story gets far more attention out of all proportion to its real importance in our lives than stories that are arguably far more important. Is that, is that dangerous for an informed citizenry? Yes, I think it can be dangerous for an informed citizenry. On the other hand, you know, number one, one can say that if viewers demanded information from their network news broadcasts they get it. If thirty million people watched the news hour with Jim Lehrer every night then NBC, CBS and ABC would be forced to convert their broadcasts or change their broadcasts into something that more closely resembled the news hour. Still, on the other hand, you know, there is a news hour for those of us who want serious news. Entertainment in an inexorable force and it will marginalize anything serious. And I say that in the book. It will marginalize serious journalism as we’re talking about here. Serious issues, serious ideas, serious art. It will marginalize all of those things. Will it drive them off the planet? I think not, but …
HEFFNER: You think they … it won’t drive them off the planet. Will marginalization do us damage? What do you think?
GABLER: I think it can do us damage.
HEFFNER: Now you’ve twice now used the word “can”.
GABLER: Because it …
HEFFNER: Do you think it does?
GABLER: Not necessarily, because these things won’t be driven off the planet we can find them. I mean if you want serious things you can find them.
HEFFNER: What difference does it make whether you can find them if you are talking and you are writing and you do write that way about the impact of the entertainment shtick upon the rest of American life.
HEFFNER: It marginalizes and then you go through …
HEFFNER: And we can go through the courts, sports, education, any darn thing in our, in our society …
GABLER: Including ideas.
HEFFNER: Starting with ideas.
HEFFNER: Starting with the hardest labor of all which is thinking.
HEFFNER: Rather than …
HEFFNER: … feeling, sensation …
HEFFNER: … pleasure. Than are you really unwilling to have that attitude toward …
GABLER: Well, you know, I’m not unwilling. Let me, let me concede this. [Laughter] Let me concede this. I think that entertainment creates a mentality for us. And that mentality is dangerous if it’s across the board. That I will concede.
HEFFNER: And you’ve already told us how it’s across the board.
GABLER: Yes. Although there are pockets that any of us can seek, if any of us want those things. They’re not commercial because they’re not entertaining. They’re not popular because they’re not entertaining. Serious things are marginalized, as I’ve said. But we can find them if we want them. And if we wanted to change the course of our society, which I don’t think is going to happen, you know all we have to do is change our mentality. To desire these things, to seek them out. Now clearly that’s not a simple thing that’s not going happen. What I describe in …
HEFFNER: Not in the middle of this movie.
GABLER: No, not in the middle of this movie, it’s not. Because what I describe is an evolutionary process that began, you know long before the 19th century in America … it began possibly with the cavemen. But it’s continued and it’s been intensified through the mass media because we have desired this and it changes us. It changes our lives, it changes our society. It changes every institution with which we deal.
HEFFNER: Neal, why have we desired it. And you’re going to list as the natural basis of pleasure over pain, or at least over nothing, over no feelings. But what about the role that the purveyors of entertainment play in leading us further to desire entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.
GABLER: Well I certainly don’t deny that there is money to be made from entertainment. In fact on of the things I do in the book … though critics have not picked up on this … is, you know, I kind of reverse the traditional idea that market capitalism drives everything, including desire. Now this is a very … this is an idea with deep traditions in our culture. And what I say in the book is, you know, that really kind of begs the question … I’m talking about market capitalism. What is market capitalism doing to drive desire? Let’s examine that because I mean to say simply that it drives desire is meaningless. What it does to drive desire is it feeds our insatiable appetite for entertainment. So that market capitalism, one could say, is stage two. Stage one is entertainment. And entertainment drives market capitalism, not the other way around. But having said that I think that, you know, there is not media elite in my estimation that is manipulating us, that’s making us desire these things. I mean there’s a media elite that’s exploiting our desires and doing it quite craftily. But ultimately they’re responding to us and we’re the one who make the demands. You know politics in this country may not be as democratic as we may think and I think the American people have an instinct about that. But entertainment culture is a reasonably democratic process. The nomination process is rigged. I mean that’s clear. We don’t nominate the movies that we want Hollywood to make. We don’t sit in a room with those executives and say, “Look I want to see this, this, this and this”. We don’t do that directly. But the voting itself, we don’t need voting monitors to tell us, you know, that the voting … we vote to see “Armageddon” or we vote to see “The Water Boy”, or we vote to see “Deep Impact” or whatever. And, and we vote to buy Alanis Morrisett. And we vote to watch “ER” on television. I mean every time we, we watch something or listen to something, or read something, we are casting a vote.
HEFFNER: And you use the word “democracy” in relation to this casting of vote. But I thought that democracy was a political matter, not a cultural matter. And hasn’t that been where, in the age of Jackson, as you suggest, where the shift and the change was made. And we have taken a political doctrine “democracy”, “all in favor say ‘aye’, all against say ‘nay’,” and applied it to the mind where I don’t think our Founders at least, meant it to be applied.
GABLER: Well, again, I don’t want to quarrel with you on the Founding Fathers, but I do believe that the shift did take place during the Jackson period. And I do believe that the sift you describe, which is from a political matter to a cultural matter did happen and continues to, to occur in this culture. And there may be, as I say some cause and effect relationship. That feeling powerless or not feeling fully enfranchised in the political arena we, we move our power, we shift our power to an arena in which we do feel fully enfranchised. And I think most Americans know they … you know kind of rant and rave against Hollywood and against, you know, television executives and against the whole process of entertainment making, nevertheless vote on the product and endorse the product and feel, I think, some sense of enfranchisement when they enter the movie theater or watch television or read a John Grisham novel.
HEFFNER: But, you see I expect, forgive me for being so personal, but I expect this scholar I know, this articulate, brilliant writer, Neal Gabler, not necessarily to look and see the shift from exclusively using democracy as a political tool to making it overwhelmingly a cultural tool, I expect him to say, “this is bad, I reject it, I don’t want it. I can describe it and I don’t want”. And you won’t do that, will you?
GABLER: No, I won’t do that. I mean I … because, you know, first of all I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing to have a sense of cultural democracy. In fact, you know, one can say it’s healthy for democracy.
HEFFNER: A sense.
GABLER: And, and … when one looks at totalitarian societies, what one finds again, and again, and again, whether the totalitarian society is of the Right or the Left is that they do everything in their power to tamp down any kind of true entertainment culture. And that when the repression begins to lift one of the first things that enters the new atmosphere is entertainment. I talk about this in the book and we’ve seen more evidence of it in the last few weeks. But in China, as China begins to lift some of its political controls, one of things that filled the breach is soap opera and melodrama and trashy novels and all manner of television programs and, you know, detritus of, you know, the popular culture. And it has a democratizing force which is, I think, one of the reasons why totalitarians say “no, we don’t … we’ve got to keep this at bay. We can’t really permit a true entertainment culture to flourish because it will threaten us. And so there is a cause and effect relationship here again.
HEFFNER: Neal Gabler, we’ve got so much more to say. But I’ve just gotten the sign for me to say now “good-bye”. Stay where you are, and we’ll do another program. Okay?
GABLER: I would appreciate it. We just cleared our throats. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me on The Open Mind today, Neal Gabler. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.