In his final movie, Being There, 1979, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a gardener with a low IQ, who becomes an advisor to the president and business tycoons. In one iconic scene, Chance is accosted by a knife wielding youth in Washington, DC. He pulls out his TV remote control and clicks it to change the channel. He is puzzled when the assailant doesn’t vanish.
This might be the perfect illustration for Neal Gabler’s, Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, (2000). Gabler quotes historian, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote in the early 60’s that, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Done deal, according to Gabler, who calls us, not just a “post-modern culture,” but a “post-reality culture.”
At times I had to keep my own assumptions in check: subjects like reality and imagination open onto psychological and spiritual vistas beyond the scope of this or any other single book. But when Gabler cited concrete examples, I found myself nodding my head on almost every page.
“You know how to brood because you have seen Rebel Without a Cause,” Gabler says, quoting cultural analyst, Louis Menand. “What better model does the world offer?”
Gabler charts the ascendency of entertainment in America from the early 19th century, where the split between high and low culture was fueled by our democratic suspicion of all elites. Calling someone “aristocratic” was a serious insult. During the 1840 presidential campaign, when a man called Daniel Webster an aristocrat, he thundered back that he’d grown up in a log cabin, and anyone calling him an aristocrat was “a coward and a liar.” ( Sound familiar? )
Nathaniel Hawthorn despaired of the fate of serious writers amid the flood of “trash” being published. One publisher sold four million dime novels in five years, at a time when the US population was only 25 million.
In 1850, 1% of the population owned 50% of the nation’s wealth and held almost all public offices. Upward mobility was a myth, since 98% of that wealth had been inherited. While the one-percent held the power, then as now, culture wars raged, sometimes with a violence that we (thankfully) haven’t seen yet. One night in New York, rival Shakespearean actors, one British and one American, were both scheduled to perform, the former in an uptown theater, the latter downtown. Police ejected the rabble who had bought tickets solely to heckle the British actor. A much larger crowd gathered across the street to throw rocks as the “aristocratic” crowd tried to leave. The militia was called, a riot ensued, and before the night was over, 22 lay dead and more than a hundred wounded.
In the end, it was movies that won the day for popular culture. The 1% stayed away from the early nickelodeons, which tended to be crowded and crass. Later, with middle-class patronage, refined behavior became the norm, but the elite have never fared well in the movies, from the Marx Brothers Night at the Opera, to the present, where a too-expensive suit is always the mark of a villain.
As he charts the history of high vs. popular culture, Gabler makes a telling point. It isn’t just about high brow and low brow – it’s about the ascendency of entertainment. Being entertained is easy, and the corollary is that when the goal is entertainment, grabbing and holding audience attention is the supreme value, and “things that do not conform – for example, serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything – are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than ever before.”
Life: the Movie is a complex and disturbing book. Gabler says in the introduction, it is diagnostic and not prescriptive. To offer easy answers, he says, would be like the movie illusion where we meet the monster in act one and see it vanquished in act three. Writing 12 years ago, Gabler said:
“One is almost compelled to admit that turning life into escapist entertainment is a perversely ingenious adaptation to the turbulence and tumult of modern existence. Why worry about the seemingly intractable problems of society when you can simply declare ‘It’s morning in America,” as President Reagan did in his 1984 reelection campaign, and have yourself a long-running Frank Capra movie right down to the aw-shucks hero?”
I read this book after watching Neal Gabler speak on the fictions that lace the current election campaign on Moyers & Company, as I described in the preceding post. Because of it’s scope, I would recommend Life: the Movie only to those who want to delve into this issue in some depth.
But I would recommend that everyone watch the ongoing conversation this year between Gabler and Moyers. The confusions and illusions surrounding the political process are more convoluted than when the book was written, but Neal Gabler remains a reliable guide to pulling back the curtains and helping us draw closer to the truth.