Review: Life: The Movie

Life: The Movie
by Neal Gabler



One of the political science classes I am taking this semester has a great deal of reading involved. I’m not a nonfiction person, and these books are meant to fuel discussion more than anything else, but they’re quite interesting.

Life: The Movie
is one of these books.

The subtitle for Neal Gabler’s Life: The Movie says it all–“How Entertainment Conquered Reality”. Gabler’s subject is the development of life itself as an entertainment form, starting with the introduction of films in the 1920s and working towards today, where celebrities’ lives have turned into the ultimate entertainment. Well, the today of 1998, when Life: The Movie was published.

This book is at its best when discussing the early twentieth century, when entertainment became a stronger force in American life. The lower classes flocked to the film houses, while the upper classes frowned at such democratic and accessible entertainment. It’s in this half of the book that Gabler introduces his iron law of pop culture–new forms of entertainment are invented among the lower classes, youth, and minorities, and a neutered version of that new entertainment filters up to the upper classes. This iron law manifests itself first among newspapers vying for readers’ attention. The trashier publications ran sensational stories of murder and sex, and traditional publications had to keep up in order to compete for readership. This cycle moves onto film, onto television, and onto life itself.

The second half of the book deals with life as an entertainment medium. People, Gabler argues, are increasingly treating their own lives as a performance, and taking their social cues from entertainment instead of their communities. He takes several celebrities and discusses their lives as living entertainment at length, including Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson. His strongest point in this second half of the book is his observation that the private individual is increasingly being overwhelmed by the public individual, as we live out our lives more and more in the public arena.

Gabler has a lot of data and fascinating anecdotes to illustrate his points. This is a very well researched book. His most chilling example is the news media, which has only gotten worse in the decade since the publication of Life: The Movie. After a speech, news programs will report on the speech, but also, how the speech will be perceived by the media. They are reporting about themselves, in a bizarre Möbius strip of news. This also goes along with the current and very democratic notion of celebrity that requires only publicity to become famous. If life is entertainment, anyone can contribute to its entertainment value.

The main problem with Life: The Movie is that Gabler offers absolutely no solutions. Your horror grows as you realize how much entertainment is a part of your everyday life, and Gabler leaves you hanging. He comes to the edge, even describing both sides of a debate about life as entertainment, but simply leaves them be. It’s very jarring and leaves you feeling guilty for living your life so unaware of the entertainment you live in. I find this lack of a solution really makes Life: The Movie suffer. Without a solution, it feels much more like a rant than a book.

I also find Gabler a bit cynical and alarmist in claiming the advent of life as performance started in the twentieth century. Wasn’t courtly life just as divided, the private individual receding as the public courtly figure gained more and more prestige? People have always been concerned with how they present to others, be it class, race, gender, or any other identity. This is nothing new. Our space in public has simply gotten exponentially bigger in the past century or so, to the point that private life now requires effort to maintain. Teenagers think nothing of posting photos of last night’s drunken debauchery on Facebook, where the world can see them.

Gabler has a few stylistic choices I don’t like. He tends to refer to current events and situations in the past tense, which disarms his urgency to a certain degree. He also doesn’t explain his own terms in passing, especially “lifie”, his term for real melodramas as entertainment. It’s not hard to figure them out quickly, but it feels a little unkind on Gabler’s part as the author. His dependence on current anecdotes tends to date the book, making it very much a product of the late nineties. I wonder what Gabler would make of social networking–most likely, he would consider it yet another space to perform our lives in.

Still, Gabler makes an important point about life as performance, and provides an interesting history of entertainment slowly conquering private life. I just wish he offered a solution, or at least some type of resolution.

Bottom line: While Neal Gabler makes a very interesting point about life as performance and provides an intriguing history of entertainment overtaking American public life in Life: The Movie, his lack of any solution or resolution and his own cynicism hurt an already very dated book.

I bought this book from my college bookstore.

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